Leading at the Margins: Palau’s Role in the 2014 Pacific Island Forum

This year states are being asked to take action on sustainable energy projects “irrespective of political status.” As host of this year’s 45th Pacific Islands Forum from July 29 to August 1, leaders of the Republic of Palau are doing their part to call global attention to the plight of Pacific islands. Palau’s efforts coincide with the United Nations designation of 2014 as the ‘Year of the Small Island Developing States’. Palau’s culture of conservation and preservation has helped the state to become a leader in climate adaptation and a formidable partner in pursuing multilateral solutions to migration challenges.

Now is the time to connect conservation with development. Nonprofits, government and the private sector are working together through the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) in an attempt to build resilient and sustainable island communities. Leaders of small island states like President Tommy Remengesau of Palau seek to reverse the trend of increasing spending on defense budgets and instead spend more on conservation, and peaceful relationship-building efforts. Through GLISPA, actors are trying to find “island solutions to island challenges” because “nature forms part of [their] economy.” At a GLISPA meeting earlier this year, Palau’s Ambassador to the United States Hersey Kyota quipped that the country has an informal motto to “take enough for yourself, leave some for others.” Over time, traditional concepts of conservation have changed with technology, enabling people to store more and for companies to produce more than they need to live sustainably.

President Remengesau is expecting at least 500 people to attend the Pacific Island Forum this year, including heads of state. During his recent visit to Japan, Remengesau extended an invitation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the forum in the wake of Japan’s increasing development projects in the region. Japan continues to add to its Aid-for-Trade programs including a new agreement in June with the Kingdom of Tonga which will help the state to purchase goods from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami-damaged region. To counter China’s diplomatic and economic efforts and as part of the ‘rebalance,’ the United States has notably increased its presence at PIF meetings since Secretary Clinton’s visit to the Cook Islands in 2012; last year the US sent Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell along with a delegation also representing Departments of State, Homeland Security, Energy, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and US Pacific Command. In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key may not attend due to upcoming elections in September; but, NZ recently created a new position and appointed former Labour Member of Parliament Shane Jones as Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, to help coordinate and boost the country’s relationships, development programs and fisheries projects.

More important than the number of attendees is the commitments that can be made and followed through by larger states, and the impact a cohesive Pacific group of nations can have on swaying the international community to not only change their behaviors but help . At last year’s PIF meeting in the Solomon Islands, members signed the Majuro Declaration and made specific commitments, hoping to launch a “new wave of climate leadership.” So far it seems Australia has been the only state to move away from its commitments, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott holding the country’s plans hostage; Australia previously agreed to have 20% of its electricity generated from renewables by 2020 as well as its pursuit of emissions reductions targets. Small island states meanwhile created ambitious targets to transform their economies: Niue and the Cook Islands aim to generate 100% of their energy from renewables by 2020, Vanuatu seeks 65% by 2020, and Nauru and Solomon Islands have targets of 50% renewable energy generation by 2020 and 2015, respectively.

Emissions reductions are a more delicate political issue than changing sources of energy for both large and small states because of the economic implications for heavy polluting industries in particular and businesses in general; in the Pacific though, according to Kyota, the tension surrounding who is to blame for high emissions levels inducing climate change becomes old news when states must deal with the consequences including ocean acidification, overfishing and rising sea levels. Kiribati for example is facing certain sea level rise that will make its islands uninhabitable, and the government is investigating options for mass migration.

Palau has to evolve with “climate mitigation,” according to Ambassador Kyota, due to “things that were not caused by us.” Palau has a population of about 20,000 people, and is currently facing prospects of severe drought this year due to El Nino weather patterns. Multilateral cooperation will be critical to changing the rhetoric and discourse of climate adaptation and mitigation, and should aim to prevent free-riding. In opposition to Tony Abbott’s complaints about economic impacts of carbon pricing and other climate-related regulations, Kiribati’s President Anote Tong said “We’re not talking about the growth GDP, we’re not talking about what it means in terms of profit and losses of the large corporations, we’re talking about our survival.”  For Kiribati, “our future is already here … we will be underwater.” President Tong recently announced that Kiribati would prohibit commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which is about the size of the state of California. President Remengesau has also recently called for a total ban on commercial fishing, in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which would create a sanctuary an area the size of Ukraine. Banning export-oriented commercial fishing is likely to have a larger impact on government budgets than on local fishermen and food supplies, as fishing revenues come primarily from selling permits to overseas vessels. For Kiribati, Palau and others, the short term losses will outweigh the benefits of restoring stocks of tuna for global food security and regional conservation efforts.

Thanks to Japanese investment through the Pacific Environment Community Fund, in March this year Palau installed a new solar power generation system and salt water desalination plant which exemplifies the water-energy nexus. It will reduce reliance on fossil fuels while also providing clean, safe drinking water to residents. According to the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, administrator of the fund, the governments of Samoa, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, Nauru, theSolomon Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Niue, Republic of Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands and Vanuatu have to date utilized the PEC Fund “for national renewable energy and seawater desalination projects.”

Many events are happening this year specifically to coincide with the Year of the Small Island Developing States, and there are positive signs that the international community is recognizing the opportunity to act to support the efforts of island states. On June 17, US President Barack Obama proposed to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in addition to other actions at the State Department-led “Our Ocean” conference; President Obama seeks to use his presidential authority if necessary but will work to create guidelines based on stakeholder input. The US, Japan and China as the world’s largest economies must continue to follow and model the efforts of the smallest states as they transform what we think of as sustainable development. As water increases in scarcity and ocean acidification intensifies in the Pacific, Australia should reverse its mistakes on climate initiatives. The PIF meeting in July hopes to continue the groundswell of action, leading to a well-prepared UN Conference on Small Island Developing States to be held in Samoa in September. At each multilateral setting, Japan, the European Union the US have continued to display their support for sustainable development initiatives, recognizing not only the pristine environment to be saved and peoples to support, but also the potential to showcase to their own publics the power of creating more areas for conservation and the need for a shift in discourse. It will be up to all actors – including Palau as leader of the PIF – to keep one another engaged in this critical year.

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