COP26 expedition – a success or failure

John Kerry receives a Fiji's Climate Change Act from Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum during the COP26 at Glasgow Scotland. Picture: TWITTER/@fiji ag

COP26, the great international talking shop in Glasgow, Scotland, is over.

So did our two super environmentalists – Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, and his off-sider Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – pull off a masterstroke to save Fiji, the Pacific and the world from climate change?

At the centre of this crisis is the phenomenon of global warming, unleashed by greenhouse gas emissions, and the resulting destructive impact on the environment. COP26 continued on with efforts started at earlier COP meetings to reach a firm international agreement to limit warming to a more sustainable level of 1.5 deg C.

COP23, chaired by Mr Bainimarama in Bonn in 2017, did not succeed in arriving at a concrete solution leading to direct, measurable action. He made speech after speech, but to no avail. He did the same in Glasgow. Did these contributions make any difference? Or were they simply just more blah blah?

That famous Fiji letter writer Allen Lockington recently wondered whether the COP gatherings were having a real effect on slowing climate change.

Then he asked: Or is it too late and the meetings are just for show? Are we doomed?

That was a fair question.

The outspoken Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg very quickly concluded that COP26 was a failure. Ms Thunberg, who has millions of young followers, told a big rally in Glasgow that “immediate and drastic” cuts in emissions were needed. To her, COP26 was a celebration of “business as usual”.

After lengthy delays and intense discussions, COP26 finally agreed on the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Ms Thunberg rejected it as “blah blah blah”.

“Unless we achieve immediate, drastic, unprecedented, annual emission cuts at the source then that means we’re failing…” the activist tweeted.

“’Small steps in the right direction’, ‘making some progress’ or ‘winning slowly’ equals losing.”

The Glasgow Pact asserts that the 1.5 deg target remains in sight. But according to Alok Sharma, COP26 president, “its pulse is weak…”. There was a strong warning signal from independent studies that showed the new arrangements could produce temperature rises to 1.8 deg. This would compound suffering for the people and the planet.

Countries like Fiji will, meanwhile, continue to feel the impact of climate change.

According to the COP26 website the 1.5 deg C goal would only survive if commitments were translated into rapid action that should be accelerated urgently in this decade. For the first time there was agreement on fossil fuels (coal).

According to the BBC the original text called for “phasing out”.

India brought in a last minute change for “phasing down” representing a weakening of intent.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum expressed his anger and immense disappointment to delegates about the “hypocrisy” of language involved literally minutes before the close of COP26.

He complained that Small Island Developing States had been told their submission for a financing mechanism for loss and damage was too late.

On the basis on what we know so far, the efforts of the Minister of the Economy, with other negotiators, to free up climate finance for developing countries, might produce some results. There were commitments for increased support. It remains to be seen what this means in practice.

It may be in order, however, to commend Mr Sayed-Khaiyum for some of his work at COP26. However, he must now ensure that whatever funds are made available will be on terms that do not bring our weak national balance sheet to breaking point. We look forward to Mr Sayed-Khaiyum giving the nation a detailed account of the finance outcome.

In my view the PM sometimes overstates the magnitude of the climate crisis as it affects the world and the Pacific region at the moment. He nonetheless has it right when he speaks of its potential to wreak vast destruction on civilisation and the natural world. The damage has already started.
Seas are rising, some villages in Fiji, and many other places, will have to be relocated; low-lying islands in the Pacific are drowning.

The changing environment is creating monster storms; drought, floods, raging wild fires, and lost habitats and species.

You can add to that the poisoning, pollution and degradation of oceans, rivers, coasts and plains; threats to health and food supplies and other social and economic calamities.

The Glasgow expedition had a very bad start for Fiji and its people. We were largely kept in the dark about this mission of salvation to be pursued in our name. The delegates flew off to Scotland in virtual secrecy. There was no farewell national interview with the PM touching on some of the details of their agenda and expectations or expressing a message of hope.

We had no idea about the size of Fiji’s COP26 group or its cost. But we knew numbers should be kept low to help limit expenses.

The government’s silence was very disrespectful, even arrogant, and indicated once again a lack of accountability to those who employ them; Mr Bainimarama and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum feel they are mainly answerable to themselves. They forget they work for the citizens of Fiji.

There was naturally speculation about the contingent numbers – 10 or 20? Or 30 perhaps; 32, or 36 maybe. These numbers were surely too high. Then finally it emerged courtesy of The Fiji Times from a United Nations website that Fiji had reportedly registered a very large contingent of 46 delegates.

There were staff members from the PM’s Office, Ministry of Economy, Department of Information, Climate Change advisors, Fiji’s UN Ambassador and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, representatives from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and one from the American public affairs consultancy, Qorvis Communications.

There was no explanation of why our small, debt-ridden country required such a massive contingent – nearly three times bigger than that of our wealthy neighbor, New Zealand. What exactly would all those people be doing every day for nearly two weeks?

It seemed to me the bloated count was yet another example of this government’s self-importance, sense of superiority and need to be recognised as a major player internationally.

Oddly, further mission details made their appearance at a talanoa session with local Fijians, apparently in Glasgow. According to Fiji Village, a former British Army veteran, asked who paid for the delegation to be at COP26. The news station quoted Mr Sayed-Khaiyum as replying that travel, accommodation and allowances were fully funded by donors.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum reportedly mentioned different agencies including Pacific Islands Forum, Oceans Pathway Partnership, European Union, United Nations Capital Development Fund and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

There was, however, a conspicuous omission – Australia. Just before the large COP26 contingent left for Scotland, Australia’s High Commissioner in Fiji, Mr John Feakes, appeared to indicate publicly that his country was helping out with costs. But Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, in the Glasgow talanoa, made no mention of Australia, one of the Government’s largest benefactors. Why? Surely the Aussies deserved recognition.

I mention these details because there is legitimate public interest in them. The government does not understand this, even after so many years in power and its hollow professions to be democratic. It constantly displays a reluctance to make relevant information available to the general public.

There is another cost that has attracted much public interest, especially in view of the government’s desperate financial circumstances and the poverty that afflicts maybe 50 per cent of the population.

From the moment the PM jetted off to Glasgow he immediately qualified for a special overseas travel allowance of about $3000 a day. His office should clarify whether he also received other payments for food, hotel costs and transport. If the PM was away for 20 days on the COP26 trip he may have picked up $60,000 from a $3000 a day allowance. What of his proposed journey to watch Fiji v Wales? Did this happen? Would the PM have collected further $3000 a day payments for that?

His allowances are added to his exorbitant salary of $328,750 – about $27,395.83 a month – temporarily reduced by 20 per cent to reflect the economic contraction caused by Covid19.

This story of bountiful COP payments does not end here. According to available information the AG could have pocketed from his allowances some $2,814.66 a day or $56,293.20 for 20 days. But it may be more, as he was reportedly staying on in Britain after COP26.

Then of course there were allowances for all the members of the delegation. What was the total cost of that?

Based on what the Attorney-General said, the donors would have paid for the lot, including the PM’s huge amounts of pocket money.

Our People’s Alliance Party will write to the PM asking for clarity on these payments and requesting a full report to the next meeting of Parliament of the entire cost of the COP26 journey and conference attendance, broken down into details.

I am aware that many Fijians are unhappy about the COP26 allowances and other costs. Their sense of injustice goes deep in light of the poverty hurting such a large part of the population. While some of the poor get a relief payment from government of $360 to last for three months – or $30 a week – their Prime Minister can pick up payments of $3000 a day.

In my proposed letter to the PM I will recommend that he and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum donate their substantial COP earnings to help those in need.

I pledge also that a People’s Alliance government headed by me would establish an independent review of all parliamentary salaries and allowances, and approve amounts relevant for our country. This would be done after a full debate.

It’s difficult to get a clear picture of the prime minister’s program of engagements at COP26 because of the lack of a consistent, daily flow of updates.

But it would have reflected the Prime Minister’s love of meeting world leaders of power and influence.

It was evident from some of the coverage in his favourite newspaper that highlights of his first week were meeting Prince Charles and the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Mr Bainimarama asked Mr Modi to give the world a Diwali gift by moving more quickly to reduce India’s emissions. Mr Modi and the PM at that point were evidently not on the same page. India is part of a group known as the Like-Minded Developing Countries that at a late stage of negotiations decided to reject entirely an official text on emissions, including the 1.5 target Fiji is pushing. Then of course Mr Modi’s government watered down the reference to coal which irritated Mr Sayed-Khaiyum so much.

So it can be argued that the prime minister’s lobbying of Mr Modi was not successful.

PM Bainimarama complained in a round-table discussion that the “Pacific’s canoe” was sinking due to climate change.

But he was upstaged totally by tiny Tuvalu which brilliantly captured a compelling image of rising seas. The country’s foreign minister Simon Kofe

Tuvalu, up to his knees in water, made a moving speech from a podium about climate change in an area that had previously been dry land. It was transmitted throughout the world.

Tuvalu made a big impression again when its climate minister, Seve Paeniu, made a powerful address in Glasgow about the plight of his low-lying atoll nation. His remarks were followed by 25 seconds of applause.

It wasn’t long before the PM was passing out printed copies of the recently enacted Climate Change Act. In his mind the Act was probably another example of Fiji “punching above its weight”. There was a picture of him handing the Act to the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson. Scott Morrison, the Australian PM got one “to use as a guide”. In other words Australia, that big sophisticated country, could learn about environment legislation from little Fiji.

The PM has reportedly described the Act as the “boldest piece of climate legislation in the world”. This is the prime minister in his boastful mode.

Not everyone agrees with his high opinion of this legislation. One of Fiji’s eminent lawyers, Graham Leung, who’s also a former director of the environmental organisation Greenpeace Pacific, recently published a critique of it. Mr Leung describes the Act as wordy and complex, and containing a lot of high-sounding principles and goals. He says it has 85 pages spread over 112 sections and asks whether the law is really necessary. Mr Leung says the Act gives the Minister for Climate Change (currently Mr Sayed-Khaiyum) enormous and centralised powers to intervene in extensive areas of national activity. There is, he says, an absence of checks and balances on these powers.

Mr Leung points out that Fiji makes a very small contribution to greenhouse gas levels and wonders, therefore, whether such an elaborate law is necessary. Its ambitious objectives position the legislation for likely failure, given Fiji’s limited resources, national priorities and record of implementing existing laws. Its 18 objectives alone were enough to overwhelm the mildly curious reader.

The Act, according to Mr Leung, needs to be aligned with current laws and frameworks so it does not undermine the responsibilities of existing government agencies.

He states that Mr Sayed-Khaiyum’s appointment as a high level Champion of the Oceans was met with disquiet by some Pacific Islanders. This was in view of his leading role in inflicting damage on the University of the South Pacific, the most successful example of regional cooperation. Mr Sayed-Khaiyum withheld payments from Fiji to USP of approximately $60 million over a dispute about the vice chancellor.

According to Mr Leung, Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, a Solomon Island academic at the University of Hawaii, was highly critical of Mr Sayed-Khaiyum’s nomination as an ocean’s champion. Mr Kabutaulaka was quoted by Mr Leung in The Fiji Times as saying: “Through the USP saga he demonstrates to future Pacific Island leaders that he is not interested in their future. It is therefore insulting that such a person be put on a pedestal as a regional climate champion. He is not a champion.”

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum complained about the hypocrisy in the change in wording on fossil fuel in the Glasgow Climate Pact. There is another example of hypocrisy – of the extreme kind – which got wide publicity during the first week of COP26.
The prime minister is fond of saying the people of Fiji are stronger together. While thousands of young environmentalists marched in Glasgow to express their views on climate change, a group of activists in Suva decided they too would march. They would be expressing solidarity with the prime minister and his large Glasgow team.

But the inflexible rules of the Fiji dictatorship determined that they would be robbed of their constitutional right to assemble and demonstrate. Police told them to remove their banners; they were prevented from marching, even on the footpath.

What a shameful farce. These commendable young people merely wished to march peacefully to raise awareness of how vital COP26 was to Fiji. They would be doing this while the two leaders of the Fiji government were raising the voice of our islands in Glasgow.

There has been no expression of regret about this act of repression. What precisely does the prime minister mean when he says he wants to work with the people of Fiji?

The police in Glasgow, by the way, gave full support to the large number of marchers there.

I add my thanks to the young climate warriors from the Pacific who worked hard in Glasgow to spread the message of climate crisis in the South Pacific.

So did the PM and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum do a good job at COP26? The more I study the outcome, the more I think that on balance they failed. They’ve passed their use-by date.

  • SITIVENI RABUKA is the founder of the People’s Alliance Party and former prime minister of Fiji. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of this newspaper.

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