Australia's coal use sharpens Pacific tension as Scott Morrison arrives for forum


The scene has been set for tense discussions in Tuvalu as Scott Morrison arrives on Wednesday, after his announcement of $500m in climate funding for the Pacific fell flat, with regional leaders saying that no matter how much money Australia put forward there was no excuse for not reducing emissions and closing coalmines.

Though the Australian prime minister was not present for the start of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting on Tuesday, his country’s presence at the forum has already been strongly felt, with Pacific leaders pointedly calling for Australia to transition rapidly away from coal use.

Morrison’s announcement of $500m over five years in climate resilience and adaptation funding for the region on Monday does not seem to have quietened concerns, with leaders saying the aid, while welcome, does not let Australia off the hook.

Enele Sopoaga, the prime minster of Tuvalu and chair of the forum, said on Tuesday money was not enough.

“No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not to do the right thing, which is to cut down on your emissions, including not opening your coalmines,” he said. “That is the thing that we want to see.”

On Wednesday Morrison is expected to have bilateral meetings with Sopoaga, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and the prime ministers of the Cook Islands and Vanuatu.

The leaders’ retreat, the main event of the forum, will take place on Thursday. It is looking increasingly unlikely that Pacific island leaders, who are calling for commitments to urgent and significant action to tackle the climate crisis, and Australia will reach agreement on a communique that satisfies both groups.

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Pacific leaders have singled out Australia’s coal policy and its use of carryover credits to meet its obligations under the Paris agreement as issues they want action on.

But on Tuesday Alex Hawke, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, who has been in Tuvalu this week, said Australia would not be shifting from its policies.

“We would be lying to say we’re not disappointed, extremely disappointed,” said Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands, who has become a global leader on the issue of climate change.

“Because Australia is part of the Pacific Islands Forum, they’re the closest big country to the small Pacific island nations, they’ve been here, they’re here, they understand the situation. So it’s very disheartening that their actions are not parallel with what we know they understand in terms of our situation.”

The Funafuti convention centre



The Funafuti convention centre where the Pacific Islands Forum leaders are meeting is built on reclaimed land. Photograph: Kate Lyons/The Guardian

The urgency of the climate emergency is the focus of this year’s forum..

A meeting of the Pacific small island states on Tuesday resulted in a declaration directly challenging some of Australia’s policies, including calling for “an immediate global ban on the construction of new coal-fired power plants and coalmines” and for all countries “to rapidly phase out their use of coal in the power sector”.

Sopoaga said: “We must push forward and seek urgent actions, concrete actions from the global community. I certainly wish our colleagues from Australia and others, will take heed of this imperative, so we can move forward.”

Hawke said Australia was committed to meeting its Paris targets, and would use carryover credits to help it do so.

“Australia’s position has been clear and, look, there’s been great respect for Australia’s position in general. People tell us that they want us to do more to help with climate in the region, and we are doing more.”

Hawke also referred to a speech by the Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, on Monday, at the start of a climate change conference before the forum, in which Bainimarama appealed to Australia “to do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change”.

Hawke said: “[Pacific leaders] also tell us they understand our economy is structured certain ways and that to help with the assistance in the Pacific, Prime Minister Bainimarama was clear about this, we have to work through our own economic transition in Australia and the government’s got our own plan to transition our economy into the future.”

The minister said the $500m for Pacific countries from 2020 was “the most amount of money that Australia has ever spent on climate in the Pacific”.

The money will go toward resilience and adaptation measures in Pacific countries and comes from the existing aid budget, though Hawke would not be drawn about which aid programs would be cut to pay for the new climate and oceans initiative.

“The aid budget works in a number of ways, we’ll be reprioritising some of those needs over time,” he said.

“Australia is a good partner on climate because we understand from our neighbours the impact that it has. When you stand here in Tuvalu you understand the imperative about the climate and our prime minister will be here, I’m here all week, we’re listening and we’re responding this week to the needs of the Pacific.”



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