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Australia appears to have defeated an effort by small Pacific states to argue for significantly tougher emissions reductions targets at the Pacific Island Forum — and then gagged efforts to discuss the issue publicly.

The Pacific Island Forum concluded yesterday calling for a global warming peak of two degrees and a reduction in global emissions by at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050 — targets agreed by the G8 in July. Kevin Rudd promptly issued a press release about how the Forum had “issued a Call to Action to other world leaders, calling for urgent action to address the threat of climate change”. The resulting press coverage suggested Rudd leading a united Pacific community in getting serious about climate change.

It was a different story behind the scenes.

On Tuesday, leaders of the Smaller Island States group met for their normal pre-PIF discussion. The group includes the Cook Islands, Nauru, Niue, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Palau and Kiribati. A recent OxFam report showed that many Pacific states were already having to address climate change impacts.

The SIS meeting called for a 45% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020 to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees in a statement read by Niue’s Premier and SIS chair Toke Talagi. Talagi’s remarks were reported in regional media: “the small island states have agreed this morning that we must make a very strong stance with respect to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s taking a stance that’s already been taken by the AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) countries, which I understand is 45 percent of greenhouse gas reduction by 2020.”

However, unusually, no communiqué from the SIS meeting was issued by the PIF secretariat, which is under the direction of the Forum host, Australia. Instead, a bland press statement was released, which said nothing about greenhouse gas reduction targets.

On climate change, the SIS Leaders expressed their deep concern by the serious and growing threat posed by climate change to the economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being and security of the SIS countries. They reaffirmed their commitment to the ongoing development and implementation of Pacific tailored approaches to support national adaptation, mitigation and if necessary, relocation measures to combating climate change.

A joint statement by SIS Leaders called on the international community to cooperate and agree to targeted reductions to greenhouse gas emissions and called for the active assistance of both national and regional stakeholders with the support of development partners towards facilitating stronger regional coordination on climate change assistance.

On Wednesday, PIF delegates told representatives of an NGO attending the event that there was an issue over ‘conflicting communiqués” from the SIS meeting.

The Chair of AOSIS, who was attending Forum side-events, confirmed the AOSIS position, telling one event of the “need to ensure that global temperatures stabilise at less than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Even at the current 0.7 or 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels, climate change is already delivering substantial damage to the most vulnerable.” He labelled a 2 degree rise “unacceptable”.

But yesterday the communiqué of the full PIF emerged, endorsing the far softer emissions targets agreed by the G8 in July, which are broadly consistent with the Rudd Government’s own target of a 60% reduction by 2050.

Samisoni Pareti of Islandsbusiness Online reported that the leaders of Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu were quickly led through a side door at the end of the Forum’s press conference yesterday to avoid journalists.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong used the forum to announce a further allocation of previously-announced funding for climate change adaptation in the Pacific, handing out a further $50m for programs across the region. Based on events this week, it looks a lot like hush money.

The Department of Foreign Affairs referred Crikey’s questions to a Prime Minister and Cabinet official who refused to speak to us. The SIS media representative referred queries to the Forum Secretariat in Fiji, which could not be contacted.

Peter Fray

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