Pacific Island Countries Blindsided in Climate Conference

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Pacific Island Countries Blindsided in Climate Conference

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), including the Pacific countries, was not present when the final text of the Global Stocktake was passed.

Pacific Island Countries Blindsided in Climate Conference

H.E. Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 president, speaks during the Closing Plenary at the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 13, 2023.

Credit: COP28 / Christopher Pike

The gridlock and the meager offerings from COP28, this year’s U.N. climate change conference, have left many leaders from the Pacific Island states – some of the countries most at risk from climate change and rising sea levels – frustrated. 

Adding insult to injury, the final text of the first Global Stocktake – billed as the central outcome of COP28 – was rushed through before midday on December 13, before anyone knew what was happening, leaving many in the plenary hall looking about in confusion. 

According to Joseph Sikulu, Pacific director of 350.org, it was a “strategic” move to silence objections from the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), who were not present at the time. 

After the final plenary, Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Republic of Marshall Islands, told the waiting press, “It was shocking because we were not there when it happened. AOSIS wasn’t in the room…you need everyone in the room, everyone at the table.” 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Conference of Parties (COP) procedures require consensus on every letter of the text. Every nation must agree on the final document, which makes the move to exclude AOSIS all the more alarming. The need for consensus is often a flashpoint of anger directed toward the annual climate meetings, with many onlookers deriding a process that bends to the lowest common denominator, but as Stege explains, it goes both ways: “The reason the UNFCCC process matters to us is that we have been able to be at the table, we have a voice.” 

While the agreement calls for a “transition away” from fossil fuels “in a just orderly and equitable manner,” it leaves space for continuing use of such fuels through technology to reduce emissions (such as carbon capture and utilization and storage). Critics say such technologies don’t fully mitigate the damage of burning fossil fuels and that a full phase-out is needed instead. 

Although begrudgingly accepting the adoption, the AOSIS called the document “a litany of loopholes” and maintained “it is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us.”

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said in his closing speech, summarizing the results of COP28. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

As COP28 finally draws to a close, party delegates, observers, and media may well want to put the whole process behind them, and few are looking ahead after a bruising 48 hours of negotiations. Australia, however, has eyes on hosting COP31 in three years.

Australia’s bid would be co-hosted by a yet-to-be-determined Pacific Island country. This “Pacific COP” is far from a sure thing, despite Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen telling journalists he was not “too stressed.” But support from the Pacific neighborhood will be crucial. 

Despite claims to “be back in the tent” under a Labor government, many have pushed back on Australia’s climate leadership U-turn. 

Stege did not mince words: “We aren’t blind to the fact that Australia is one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters.” 

Tina Stege, Marshall Islands’ climate envoy, with Colombia’s Environment Minister Susana Muhamad and Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Photo by Sacha Shaw.

“The Australian government needs to step up their climate actions in line with what is required to keep 1.5C alive and secure a sustainable future for atoll nations like the Marshall Islands. That means, first and foremost, a fossil fuel phase-out,” she said on the sidelines of COP28.

Other Pacific leaders are similarly adamant that Australia needs to move beyond podium rhetoric. 

“We cannot afford another climate summit brought to you by the fossil fuel industry. The time has come to demonstrate that commitment to climate action is more than just rhetoric,” stated Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s minister for climate change. 

Still, many see a “Pacific COP” as an opportunity to highlight the specific challenges confronting a region disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. Furthermore, the COP28 president, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, likely added fuel to the frustration when he rushed the final text of the Global Stocktake through the conference floor.