Australian climate action must go beyond 'lifeline' for Tuvalu

Australian climate action must go beyond 'lifeline' for Tuvalu

Originally published in NikkeiAsia


Standing knee-deep in seawater, Simon Kofe, foreign minister of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, demanded by video that delegates at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference take action to save his country from "drowning."

It was a dramatic move, but ultimately not enough to secure more ambitious commitments on climate action from global players at the meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.

Tuvalu, whose lands sit only two meters above sea level on average, is facing inundation as early as 2050. Its existence as a nation is at stake, so desperate times call for desperate measures.

On the sidelines of last week's Pacific Islands Forum leaders' summit in the Cook Islands, Tuvaluan Prime Minister Kausea Natano and Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese unveiled a deal for "migration with dignity" which will potentially cover the entire Tuvaluan populace of 11,200. Albanese called it the "most significant agreement between Australia and a Pacific island nation ever."

The arrangement, called the Falepili Union after a Tuvaluan word for good neighborliness, was requested by Tuvalu and is a world first.

It certainly could make a world of difference for Tuvaluans worried about their communities sinking underwater. On Australia's part, the agreement demonstrates a new willingness to respond to the climate pressures affecting Pacific islands states, many of which have been disappointed with Canberra's failure to take more aggressive action to address the crisis threatening their existence. Many of them have been building closer ties with China in recent years, winning Beijing's help for infrastructure development.

But while the deal will give Australia greater geopolitical sway and demonstrate its responsiveness to climate threats, it will not get Canberra off the hook regarding climate demands by its "Pacific family." Most of the region feels Australia needs to raise its climate ambitions, especially its emission reduction commitments, and that it must phase out fossil fuels. Their voices remain loud and clear.

Under the deal, up to 280 Tuvaluans, selected by lottery, will be able to move to Australia each year to work and study, regardless of whether they have specialist skills or a job offer. They will be able to stay as long as they like and gain residency while keeping their Tuvaluan citizenship.

As part of the pact, Australia has offered a security guarantee, pledging to help Tuvalu respond to major natural disasters, health pandemics and military aggression. The snag is that in return, Tuvalu has promised to seek Australian agreement before entering into security arrangements with other countries.

This will compromise Tuvalu's sovereignty by giving Australia effective veto power and some critics are calling it a "neocolonial" power grab.

Strong words, but not accurate.

Firstly, Tuvalu sought the Falepili Union. When the deal was drafted, a small group of Tuvaluan leaders examined the proposal and considered how it would affect the country's interests. The pact was not imposed.

Although the deal was a surprise to some, before the agreement enters into force, Tuvalu will hold elections in January, setting the stage for public dialogue.

The debate could be robust. In recent months, political machinations and civil protests have stalled the finalization of Australian security agreements with Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, but those agreements have little direct bearing on people's economic opportunities. It is unlikely that the new Tuvaluan parliament will walk away from the migration deal after the election, but it may call for refinements.

Some may worry about the potential pace of the pending outflow. It is currently expected that 10% of the population will leave within four years. The risk of depopulation is real.

There are provisions in the pact that aim to build resilience for those who choose to stay in Tuvalu. Australia will increase its investment about sevenfold in coastal reclamation in an effort to protect homes and critical infrastructure. This may not be enough, but it seems worth a try.

Secondly, while the pact will make it impossible for China to make a security agreement with Tuvalu without Australia's assent, there is no indication that this is a priority for Tuvalu. Both Natano and opposition leader Enele Sopoaga have said they are committed to maintaining the country's relationship with Taiwan.

Thirdly, while the security clause gives the pact legal heft, it is hardly a power grab by Canberra. Australia has long been the first responder and primary development and security partner of Tuvalu. The deal formalizes an informal security arrangement, and other regional leaders have expressed support for the deal as reflective of Pacific family commitments to each other.

Yet the deal is not a game-changer for the wider Pacific. It is tailored to Tuvalu though possibly applicable to a few other nations. Nauru, which has a similar population and also ties to Taiwan, might consider such a deal.

Kiribati, which is also vulnerable to rising seas, has shown little interest. The country has been enjoying a surge in Chinese aid and investment since switching recognition to Beijing in 2019. Development aid and diplomatic interest from Australia and the U.S. are also on the rise as Kiribati enjoys the benefits of geopolitical rivalry.

Most other Pacific island nations either have ties to a former colonial power or have too large a population to readily enter into a pact like Tuvalu's.

For Tuvalu, Natano argues that the deal gives hope to his citizens and provides a means for his people to "seek greener pastures or safety out of the impact of climate change."

Staying safely at home would likely be the first choice, but at least there is a Plan B in the likely event the global community fails to act fast enough to stem the rising tides. This agreement recognizes that Tuvalu is on the front lines of what U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is already calling a "climate catastrophe."


Areas of expertise: Pacific Islands development and security, resource management, human security and resilience.