Critical talks at the Pacific Islands Forum almost collapsed twice amid “fierce” clashes between the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, and Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, over Australia’s “red lines” on climate change.
Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, who was part of the drafting committee of the forum communique and observed the leaders’ retreat, said there was heated discussion over the Australian delegation’s insistence on the removal of references to coal, setting a target of limiting global warming to below 1.5C and announcing a strategy for zero emissions by 2050.
He described the discussions as “frank, fierce at times, [with] very strong positions being held”.
“Negotiations almost broke down twice, [with leaders] saying ‘this is not going to happen, we’re not going to have a collective decision’,” he said. Leaders had to take a break from proceedings, which started about 9.30am local time and lasted for almost 12 hours.
“That’s why it took so long,” Regenvanu said. “When things break down, you know there’s a huge amount of frustration, luckily it didn’t break all the way down and the leaders were able to bring it back.”
Leaders had to cancel meetings and press conferences scheduled for the afternoon, as the retreat stretched through the afternoon and well into the night. An evening feast that was meant to mark the close of the forum, prepared by the community from one of Tuvalu’s eight atolls, complete with a traditional dance performance, began without the leaders.
Regenvanu said one compromise proposed to resolve the impasse was to declare a climate crisis for the Pacific island states, which do not include Australia, rather than for the whole region. Regenvanu said Australia had agreed to that “in total blindness to what’s happening in their own country”.
“On emissions reduction and dealing with your own climate, Australia is out there, they’re not with us,” he said. “Pretty much on everything else we’re on the same team, in terms of mitigation, adaptation, making sure there’s resourcing for all this, it’s only in terms of domestic emissions strategy that Australia is way out.”
Asked whether the breakdowns came because of Australia’s refusal to budge on its positions on climate change, Regenvanu said “that would not be an incorrect assumption”. He said it was mostly Sopoaga who took the fight to Australia.
Speaking on Friday morning at a joint press conference with Morrison, Sopoaga said he had told the Australian prime minister during the retreat: “‘You are concerned about saving your economies, your situation in Australia, I’m concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu and likewise other leaders of small island countries.’”
“That was the tone of the discussion,” Sopoaga said. “Please don’t expect that [Australia] comes and we bow down or that … we were exchanging flarey language, not swearing, but of course you know, expressing the concerns of leaders and I was very happy with the exchange of ideas, it was frank. Prime minister Morrison, of course, stated his position and I stated my position and [that of] other leaders: we need to save these people.”
Sopoaga said the discussions were so passionate that the prime minister of Tonga cried at the retreat while talking about two young women who had presented to leaders on Monday about the impacts of the climate crisis.
“The leader of Tonga actually shed tears in front of the leaders for the passion about referring to the presentation of the two young warriors of climate change the other day,” said Sopoaga. “That was the atmosphere.”
Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, expressed unhappiness with the declarations on Thursday night. “We came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but, unfortunately we settled for the communique,” he said on Twitter. “Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.”
Despite the concessions to Australia throughout the communique and climate change statement, Sopoaga said he thought leaders had achieved “probably the best outcome given the context and circumstances”.
Regenvanu said that apart from the five red lines that “compromised” the documents, the resulting statement was a “stronger statement on climate change than the forum has ever made”.
“There was reference to 1.5 [degrees warming] throughout, reference to supporting the science of the IPCC report, supporting all the stuff the UN secretary general talked about, just transition away from fossil fuels, stopping inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
“So most of the language that we wanted is in there and I think it’s a much stronger statement on climate change than the forum has ever made. That’s the positive,” he said.
“I think it’s a credit to [the leaders] what we ended up with something and that we all can live with it. We all can implement it, we all can own it, including Australia.”