CANBERRA — Ahead of the November 4 New Caledonian referendum for independence from French rule, France has made a strong commitment to the Indo-Pacific region with financial, political, and on-the-ground support and said a planned development bank would focus on climate change in the region.
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Speaking at the Pacific Community headquarters in Nouméa, New Caledonia, on May 4 as part of a high-level dialogue on climate change and biodiversity, French President Emmanuel Macron told participants the Indo-Pacific was a region where France planned to build its future. With more than 1.5 million French people living in the region, Macron considered the region to be an area of the world in which France had a “destiny.” And with 8,000 French soldiers in the region, the country has the maritime power to support small island developing nations.
That commitment to the region was echoed by France’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, who said that the French Development Agency, or AFD, was aiming to become a full-fledged development bank, which would be entirely aligned with the Paris Agreement on climate change and active in the Pacific region.
The meeting was attended by Pacific heads of state, including prime ministers for Tuvalu, Samoa, and Vanuatu and the president of Nauru, as well as high-level representatives from other Pacific nations, Australia, and New Zealand.
The Pacific response — and challenges — in the face of climate change
For Pacific Island nations in attendance, the meeting was an opportunity to highlight the work being done to respond to climate change.
Michael Jackson for example, a member of parliament in Niue, said that though his country is a small emitter of greenhouse gases, they have ambitious targets for climate and biodiversity objectives. By 2025, its energy mix will be 80 percent renewable. Forty percent of its exclusive economic zone is already classified as a marine protected area.
The challenges facing the Pacific were also highlighted.
Samoa President Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi explained that his country is a sanctuary for several species threatened by climate change — whales, sharks, turtles as well as mangroves. For the Solomon Islands Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade Milner Tozaka, his country is doing what it could within severe financial constraints. According to representatives, the Pacific is significantly underresourced and underfinanced for the climate fight.
Though their countries are on the frontline of climate change, Nauru President Baron Waqa said financial instruments such as the Green Climate Fund have been difficult to access for Pacific nations. Bredina Drollet, chief of staff to the prime minister of the Cook Islands said she was disappointed that funding for small island developing states is decreasing.
Calling for a better global response
Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells spoke at the forum of Australia’s willingness to share its knowledge with the region — particularly in protecting coral reefs. And New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters said his country plans to intensify its commitment to climate change initiatives in the region.
But the presence of the French president was the focal point for Pacific nations who used the opportunity to encourage greater investment and support from France and other European nations.
Enele Sopoaga, the prime minister of Tuvalu, commended France’s leadership and “persistence” on climate change. Waqa thanked France for being a good friend with a strong influence. Kiribati’s Interim High Commissioner to Fiji David Teaabo called for the support of France on issues including maritime security and environment thresholds. Papua New Guinea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Rimbink Pato called for new mechanisms to access European Union funds for small countries — and enable them to keep building upon European partnerships. And Drollet called for European partners to advocate for greater financial support to island countries.
The forum, too, offered an opportunity to highlight how global actions impact the Pacific.
Waqa said “the talking is over” on climate change, explaining that Nauru’s population of 10,000 people were living under threat. Tozaka explained that for low-carbon economies such as the Solomon Islands, the Paris Agreement was a matter of survival.
Governor of Pitcairn Laura Clarke said that “to save Tuvalu is to save the world.”
The forum in Nouméa was an important avenue for Pacific leaders to speak directly to an influential European player. But it is just the beginning with many more “talanoas,” or dialogues, expected as nations implement the Paris Agreement.