Illustration; Source: International Energy Agency (IEA)

Pacific leaders vow to transition away from fossil fuels but ‘loopholes and weasel words’ weaken commitment

With COP28 fast approaching, many are pushing for an international mechanism, which would phase out fossil fuels and pave the way for the transition to renewable and low-carbon energy. Some had hoped that Pacific leaders would endorse an agreement along these lines at a recent meeting. While calling for a transition away from coal, oil, and gas, the final text did not explicitly mention fossil fuel extraction and production.

Illustration; Source: International Energy Agency (IEA)

The communique of the Pacific Island Forum Leader’s meeting, which was released after leaders of Pacific nations convened on the remote atoll of Aitutaki, was the 52 of its kind and the first to explicitly call for a transition away from coal, oil, and gas. However, last-minute discussions between governments led to a number of qualifiers and loopholes being added.

Despite a bloc of Pacific nations pushing for the forum to “spearhead the global phase-out of coal, oil and gas production” since March 2023, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative underlined that two fossil fuel producers – Australia and New Zealand – were able to weaken the final text with “loopholes and weasel words” to ensure it did not explicitly mention fossil fuel extraction and production.

During the Pacific Island Forum Leader’s meeting, participants committed to “a transition away from coal, oil & gas in our energy systems in line with the IPCC pathways for limiting global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees” and to aspire to “a just and equitable transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific acknowledging that the pathway is not immediate nor is it one size fits all.”

According to the initiative, the final text ignores the warnings of a UN report released a few days prior to the meeting, which found governments plan to produce around 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, with Australia’s presence being notable due to “watered-down text on Pacific energy systems.”

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Auimatagi Joe Moeono-Kolio, Chief Advisor, Pacific, of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, commented: “Let us be clear: while this statement is historic, it is tinged with a bitter-sweetness. For decades our leaders have called on our neighbor Australia, the world’s third-largest fossil fuel exporter, to stand with us. Yet it has taken some 30-odd years to drag Australia to the table and finally acknowledge that it is long past time to transition away from fossil fuels, even though they still insist on adding qualifiers to water down any text on the topic. 

“Today’s decision from our leaders will increase the pressure on Australia and New Zealand to cancel their plans for new coal and gas projects and offshore exploration. If they’re not committing to a science-aligned plan to phase out their fossil fuel exports, they are failing us. These demands will only grow louder. Australia aims to host COP31 and currently has the Pacific ‘seal of approval’ – if they want to keep it, it’s time for them to listen to us more than coal and gas lobbyists.”

Furthermore, the process toward this communique mentioning fossil fuels began earlier this year in March when ministers and officials from a block of six Pacific countries – Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Tonga, Fiji, Niue, and the Solomon Islands – negotiated the ‘Port Vila Call for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific,’ which went much further than the communique, committing to “spearhead the global phase-out of coal, oil and gas production,” “end to fossil fuel expansion” and manage an “equitable phase-out of fossil fuels.”

Despite rejecting many of the core recommendations of the Port Vila Call, the Pacific leaders did agree to establish a regional Energy Commissioner for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific. While the New Zealand government is currently considering canceling its ban on offshore drilling for oil and gas, Australia is facing a backlog of energy supply and carbon capture projects, which are awaiting approval.

Many, including Santos, still believe that natural gas, with LNG as the centerpiece, is the linchpin of the energy future not just in Australia but also across the globe. While explaining that there was “no single silver bullet” for the energy transition woes, Kevin Gallagher, Santos’ CEO, underscored: “The climate enemy is emissions, not fossil fuels.” According to Gallagher, shutting down oil and gas industries is bound to drive energy prices up and drag energy security down while slowing the pace of the energy transition engine.

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Climate campaigners disagree with these views, as shown by comments from Lavatenalagi Seru, Regional Coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), who highlighted: “Australia must understand that the only real solution to stop the destruction of Pacific homes is to stop the expansion of its fossil fuel industry, end all fossil fuel subsidies, and support the climate frontline countries and communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

Attention now turns to COP28 in Dubai later this month, where governments will face significant pressure to commit to a global plan to phase out coal, oil, and gas production. Pacific states will not be alone in the negotiations, with a similar statement made by the Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), making it clear that a COP28 decision should not imply acceptance of fossil fuel expansion. Recently the High Ambition Coalition also released a statement that included a reinforced call for governments to “phase out fossil fuel production.”

Tzeporah Berman, Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, stated: “Fossil fuel producers must not only acknowledge the importance of a just and equitable transition from oil, gas and coal with words in declarations but they must actually stop expanding fossil fuels now. Pacific Island nations are spearheading this effort with their support for the negotiation of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

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Pacific Island nations have been at the forefront of climate policy for decades and played a critical role in securing the goal of limiting 1.5ºC in the Paris Agreement. Ahead of COP28, many Pacific states are planning to take their proposal for a ‘Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty’ to other nations meeting at the UN Climate Talks at the end of the month.

In addition, Antigua and Barbuda and Timor-Leste have recently joined the growing bloc of nation-states seeking a negotiating mandate for a new international framework to manage a global just transition away from coal, oil, and gas. Last year, Tuvalu became the second nation-state to call for the development of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, after it backed Vanuatu, which issued the same call a few months before.

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