Over the last 10 years or so, the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), have demonstrated, through various significant events, how they can prevail in the international climate change negotiations if they work together. This has been possible also because of distinguished leadership from individuals and countries.

In 2013, Marshall Islands hosted the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum meeting and adopted the visionary RMI Declaration for Climate Leadership. The Declaration captures the Pacific’s political commitment to be a region of climate leaders and to spark a “new wave of climate leadership” that could deliver a safe climate future for all. This really provided the impetus to the UNFCCC discussions leading to a successor to the UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol, as well as to draw up the blueprint for a fresh universal, legal agreement to deal with climate change beyond 2020. These decisions were embodied in the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, following the UNFCCC COP17.

Members, however, realised the limitation of the ability of the PSIDS to strongly articulate its own position, through the annual PIFS Summit and the accompanying Climate Declarations, as it required respecting views of Australia and NZ, two important members and aid donors to the region. This was evident from the way the members rallied behind the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), set up by Bainimarama as an ‘alternative’ to the PIFS, after Fiji was expelled, following the 2006 coup, from this premier regional body. It was the PIDF that adopted the historical Suva Climate Change Declaration. This was a watershed moment in terms of most PICs rallying around the common theme of stronger climate action, limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, limiting fossil fuel industries, especially coal, the inclusion of ‘loss and damage’ and a stronger focus on adaptation. This proved to be the rallying point of the PSIDS during COP21 in Paris. It is significant that the key Pacific Leaders during the Paris meeting, President Anote Tong of Kiribati, Prime Minister Enele Sopoga of Tuvalu and RMI Foreign Minister late Tony DeBrum, were also some of the strongest architects of the Suva Declaration. In many ways, this eclipsed the climate declaration from the 46th PIFS hosted by PNG later in the year.

The COP21 strategies and tactics were very well supported by all the PSIDS who were able to prevail on the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the  Group of 77 (G77) & China, and are reflected in the final outcome – the Paris Agreement. Many of the leaders such as PM Sopoaga and Minister DeBrum, were intimately engaged in the fine details of the negotiations which led to the adoption of the historic Paris Agreement

Two years later Fiji was provided the unique opportunity, as the President of COP23, to make a significant impact on the work towards the Paris Rulebook, and to bring to the fore some of the priority issues for the small island states. There have been varied commentaries on the degree of success of these objectives, but the support from the rest of the PSIDS to the Fijian Presidency remained steadfast. Some delegations felt there could have been more consultations and better articulation of the priority issues while some even felt that this could have been a truly Pacific Presidency, rather than just a Fijian one, requiring better coordination and deft diplomacy. Notwithstanding the varied opinions the laudable Pacific concept of ‘Talanoa Dialogue’ as a way of addressing often difficult issues in an inclusive and participatory way, gained prominence. The proposed Facilitative Dialogue under the Paris Agreement was also renamed ‘Talanoa Dialogue’ in the spirit of this concept.

In climate change discussions, China clearly yields a more positive and progressive image compared to Australia, which is largely regarded as a climate ’laggard’. While China continues to demonstrate its achievements in terms of investment in renewable energy and efforts towards a low carbon economy, most PSIDS regard Australia’s policies to be inconsistent with the expectations to limit temperatures rise to 1.5C. Because of the quantum of Australia’s development aid to the region, most PSIDS seem not to have adopted a more aggressive stance as a response to the perceived lack of action and support for one of the most important issues facing the islands. It seems there is a unique space to ‘trade off’ issues. For example, the perceived threat posed by China’s expansionist aspirations in the region could be utilised by the Pacific region to demand greater action on climate change by Australia, given the importance the PSIDS place on climate change. It is a potential measure that has been talked about but has not really manifested as a collective regional bargaining tool, as the bilateral arrangements often take precedence.

The existing regional architecture, through Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) for example, does not seem to provide any greater opportunity to demand greater action on climate change from fellow members and large emitters like Australia. The PIDF, in recent times, seems to have become inconsequential and many PICs are rethinking their membership. In any case, the main financial backer and advocate, Fiji, is now the new Chair of the Forum, and it could potentially use the more recognised PIF platform, if it was able to do so. The informal PSIDS grouping, without the presence of Australia and NZ, may provide greater scope to progress some of the key issues on the climate agenda if these are done strategically. Using its leverage and solidarity, PSIDS could prevail on Australia and indeed other large GHG emitting nations to take stronger action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at source. These would entail setting more ambitious emission reduction targets, in line with those adopted by EU, Japan, UK and US, rejoining the Green Climate Fund and contributing more proportionally to the financial pledge under the Paris Agreement.


Dr Mahendra Kumar is an independent climate change expert working mainly in the Pacific region. He has assisted the RMI on a number of initiatives such as its Electricity Roadmap, National Strategic Plan and served as Climate Diplomacy Adviser. He has represented many PICs as part of the climate negotiations processes and is on the UNFCCC Roster of Experts for National Communications, Biennial Reports and Biennial Update Reports. He has worked of regional organisations such as PIDF, SPREP and USP, and currently has adjunct positions at the University of the South Pacific and Australian National University.

This article has been written for the Road to COP26 series for the Griffith Climate Action Beacon.