The Pacific islands have declared climate change their “single greatest threat” and the latest data on carbon emissions show Australia to be a major contributor.
Climate change will dominate discussions at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum on the tiny island nation of Nauru, where Foreign Minister Marise Payne is representing Australia. Her prime minister, Scott Morrison, is staying away as he tries to build popularity back home.
Before the talks, the forum’s general secretary Meg Taylor declared climate change to be “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of our people”.
“Some of the countries may not be happy about” that statement, she added, perhaps a veiled reference to Australia, where action on climate change helped bring down Malcolm Turnbull.
“But all of us who come from island states know that it is a threat.”
A senior Liberal minister, Christopher Pyne, admitted the issue was a fraught one for Australia.
“There’s no doubt the Pacific islands would have a dim view of Australia reducing its commitment to climate change measures – reducing our emissions footprint – but we have no plans to do so,” Mr Pyne said on Tuesday.
This “dim view” is explained by Australia’s high amount of carbon dioxide emissions per person.
For every Australian, 15.4 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted each year, according to The World Bank, a UN body that loans money to developing countries to reduce poverty.
This makes Australia the world’s 15th worst emitter, per person. This is largely because it has a relatively small population for its size, and produces over two-thirds of its power and heat by burning coal.
A piece of coal can be anywhere between 50 and 90 per cent carbon.
In 2017, Australia emitted a total of 533.7 million tons of carbon, according to official estimates.
The Australian government insists it is on track to meet its emissions reduction target, set by former prime minister Tony Abbott at between minus 26 and 28 per cent on 2005 levels by the year 2030.
“We don’t have to be concerned about that and neither do the countries in the Pacific islands,” Mr Pyne said on Tuesday. “We take it very seriously.”
A major aim of the Pacific Islands Forum is the signing of the ‘Biketawa Plus’ declaration. Its contents will be agreed over the four days of talks, and the current draft says climate change is the “central greatest threat”.
In addition to Australia and New Zealand, the forum is attended by 16 smaller nations: Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
Perhaps the best explanation for how big emitting, coal-burning nations impact on smaller neighbours remains this New Zealand article from 1912:
Other major issues on the forum’s agenda include the rising influence of China in the region – and Australia’s detention of children on host nation Nauru.
A New Zealand journalist, Barbara Dreaver, was interviewed for several hours by Nauruan authorities and stripped of her media accreditation on Tuesday for interviewing a refugee outside a restaurant.
The island’s government had earlier warned journalists not to speak to detainees.
Amnesty International denounced the incident as a “wall of secrecy”.