15 August 2019, Tuvalu, Funafuti: Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to media after the Leaders Retreat during the Pacific Islands Forum. Photo: Mick Tsikas/AAP/dpa
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison addresses reporters after the climate change meeting in Tuvalu © Mick Tsikas/AAP/dpa

Australia has blocked Pacific Islands leaders from agreeing on a joint declaration to tackle climate change and phasing out coal in a move that critics warn could undermine its policy to engage with the region. 

After more than 12 hours of robust negotiations at the Pacific Island Forum on the tiny island nation of Tuvalu on Friday, leaders from 18 countries watered down the official communiqué to accommodate Canberra’s concerns.

Several Pacific Island leaders expressed disappointment at the forum’s failure to unanimously endorse the so called “Tuvalu declaration”, which they intend to present at the UN in a bid to pressure world powers to do more to tackle climate change. 

“You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia,” said Enele Sopoaga, prime minister of Tuvalu, during a joint press conference with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister. “I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.” 

Australia’s opposition Labor party criticised Mr Morrison’s stance on the joint declaration, warning it undermined Australia’s “Pacific step up” — a policy of engaging more closely with the region that is seen of strategic importance — and made it look like a “bad actor” on climate change. 

Canberra is boosting its diplomatic, defence and infrastructure spending in the Pacific in a bid to counteract growing Chinese influence in the region, which it traditionally considers its own sphere of influence.

But its conservative government is a staunch supporter of the coal industry, which delivered A$67bn ($45bn) in export earnings in 2018 and continues to generate almost two-thirds of the nation’s electricity. 

Mr Morrison led Canberra’s negotiations on the Tuvalu declaration, which among other things called for more effort to tackle the world’s “climate crisis” and a ban on new coal mines and coal power stations.

A final compromise communiqué includes a qualification noting that leaders do not support all of the declarations from smaller island nations, a reference that was included at Canberra’s request. 

When asked about whether Australia would have to answer to the Pacific over his government’s climate policies after the forum outcome, Mr Morrison replied: “I am accountable to the Australian people.” 

Pacific Island countries are lobbying developed nations to take more dramatic action to tackle climate change, which scientists warn threatens the future existence of smaller archipelagoes, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. 

Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s prime minister, expressed disappointment at the outcome of the meeting. 

“We came together in a nation that risks disappearing to the seas, but unfortunately, we settled for the status quo in our communiqué,” he said. “Watered-down climate language has real consequences — like waterlogged homes, schools, communities and ancestral burial grounds.” 

Jonathan Pryke, an analyst at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think-tank, said Australia’s lone stance against the climate declaration would not derail its “step up” to the Pacific, as island leaders were too pragmatic, although it clearly didn’t help. 

“Of the 18 leaders that are members of the forum, [Australia is] the only one standing in the way of a consensus communiqué that calls for robust climate action,” he said.

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