By Debbie Singh, Influencing and Campaigns Lead, Oxfam in the Pacific

Tuvalu’s Minister for Justice, Communications and Foreign Affairs, Hon. Simon Kofe speaks with Oxfam in the Pacific’s Influencing and Campaigns Lead, Debbie Singh about Tuvalu’s call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty made at COP27.

Last week, six Pacific Island countries signed on to the Port Vila Call for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific, an ambitious and historical call for a fossil fuel free Pacific.

The Port Vila Call for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific emanated from the Ministerial Dialogue held in Port Vila, Vanuatu last week which demands a phase-out of fossil fuel production and blames fossil-fuel producing countries for causing the climate crisis. The signatories – Tonga, Fiji, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu – acknowledged the cyclones as the latest example of “fossil fuel-induced loss and damage” in the region.

“The Pacific has been at the forefront of the fight against climate change for quite some time now, due to the fact that we are living with the reality of its effects on a daily basis. Unfortunately, world leaders have not been responding effectively to our calls for action. As a leader in the Pacific myself, I take it as my responsibility to warn the world about what is happening to us, because the effects of climate change will impact not only us, but also future generations,” Minister Kofe told Oxfam in the Pacific.

Question: Minister Kofe, Pacific leadership has long been central to international approaches to climate change as our region lives with the real impacts of the climate crisis every day. Pacific leaders have championed international agreements on climate change and endorsed key mechanisms such as the UN Framework Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

You have said that the world has seen treaties deliver when the world has needed to manage, restrict and phase-out dangerous products, including weapons of mass destruction, ozone depleting substances and tobacco. Today, we see oil and gas are fuelling the war in Ukraine and elsewhere, and are a paramount danger, which demands that world governments rally behind a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Tuvalu has become the first country in the world to use the United Nations climate conferences to demand an international fossil fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would gradually eliminate the use of coal, oil, and gas.

Please tell us about Tuvalu’s spearheading of this important influencing and advocacy work and how an international fossil fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty might contribute to advancing the goals of the Paris Agreement?

Response: The Pacific has been at the forefront of the fight against climate change for quite some time now, due to the fact that we are living with the reality of its effects on a daily basis. Unfortunately, world leaders have not been responding effectively to our calls for action. As a leader in the Pacific myself, I take it as my responsibility to warn the world about what is happening to us, because the effects of climate change will impact not only us, but also future generations. One of our key messages in Tuvalu is “Save Tuvalu, Save the World.” We believe that if action is not taken now to save Tuvalu, it may be too late to reverse the damage. It’s important to raise awareness about climate change among the wider population, not just leaders, because the power to make change lies with the people. Our approach to climate advocacy is to package our messaging in a way that can have a greater impact. For example, we have used viral videos and the metaverse to reach tech-savvy young people.

There has been work on the Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty for a number of years, with the involvement of individual leaders, NGOs, and civil society. We were the first country to raise the issue at COP, and I may be the first Minister to call for it. The Treaty is still in its early stages, but we believe it is important to have such a Treaty in place because the Paris Agreement focuses on emissions, but we see countries expanding and supporting fossil fuel projects such as oil and gas. This is a contradictory stance, as these countries are making pledges to cut down on emissions while expanding fossil fuels. A Non-Proliferation Treaty would address the problem at the source, which we feel is missing from the Paris Agreement and outcomes of previous COP meetings. We believe that a more direct approach to addressing the problem is necessary. Countries need to commit to phasing out fossil fuels, and then transition plans can be put in place to help them move towards this goal. Unfortunately, we are not even close to achieving this right now, which is why we are pushing for this initiative.

Question: How has Tuvalu’s push for an international Non-Proliferation Treaty been received by the international community and global governments? Has this received the support which your government had hoped for at COP27?

Response: After the announcement, many countries approached the COP27 team, expressing interest in supporting the initiative, indicating momentum for the cause. Vanuatu and Tuvalu were the first to call for the initiative at the UNGA and COP, respectively. It’s essential to maintain the momentum and push the message out, encouraging more people to sign up for the initiative. There is already a petition on the initiative’s website, which people can sign up for.

Question: Minister, you have emphasised the need for both domestic action and international co-operation to stop the expansion of fossil fuel emissions and production and to fulfil the aims of the Paris Agreement.

  • How is your government engaging your communities, indigenous groups and citizens in dialogue and understanding of the importance of phasing out fossil fuels?

Response:  The government engages the public in consultations on policies, including foreign policy. The consultations are conducted nationwide, and the feedback is highly valued. Due to COVID19, the government has accelerated the adoption of digital technology and improved communication throughout the islands, allowing people to have greater knowledge and understanding of the issues. The government launched a local television channel within a month of coming into office, which has been successful in informing the public about international issues, such as climate change.

  • How do you plan to engage and garner support from Pacific island governments? Have you begun to engage with Pacific governments to garner support for Tuvalu’s push for this Non-Proliferation Treaty?

I have not raised the topic yet, but it was initially engaged on the margins of the Forum leaders meeting. I hope to raise it earlier but will aim to raise it at the Forum Leaders meeting next year. The topic is at an early stage, and I plan to engage other countries to gather their support.

  • What innovative roles can CSOs play in advancing this advocacy work and influencing policy?

As a politician, I believe that civil society organizations (CSOs) are essential in influencing leaders’ decisions and thinking, especially when it comes to policies and issues in Tuvalu. The more issues are raised publicly, the more they influence politicians. In fact, the NPT initiative was driven by CSOs and NGOs before governments really recognised it.

Question: In the past decade, 86% of CO2 emissions have been caused by oil, gas and coal, according to the IPCC. Despite this, governments are planning to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels consistent by 2030, and 10% more than their own climate pledges.

Fossil fuel supply is now driving demand, so without tackling the supply-side of the equation it will be impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Minister, you’ve stated that we’re seeing a need to first break our dependence on fossil-fuel production through phase-out and economic diversification measures.

  • Could you expand on this for us in terms of what that might look like for the Pacific as regards access to income and livelihoods?

Response: The initiative aims to achieve a just transition and to address the expansion of fossil fuel projects in a fair and equitable way. It’s important to have a framework in place to achieve the Paris goals, catch countries who are serious about their pledges, and ensure a smooth transition. Despite pledges made at COP26, scientists predict a 2.4 to 2.6-degree increase in temperature. The framework would help track countries’ progress on reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.

  • How does Tuvalu see the impact of a fossil fuel phase-out on industries in the Pacific (such as fisheries) in terms of the switch to renewable energy sources?

Response: The transition to renewable energy will impact various industries, including fisheries which provide a significant portion of Tuvalu’s government revenue: 40 or 60%. The Pacific region should lead in advocating and acting towards renewable energy. Tuvalu has committed to becoming 100% renewable energy by 2030.

Question 4: Minister, is there anything else you wish to add?

Response: Regarding the government’s primary strategy for addressing climate change and sea-level rise, I would say that it’s a multifaceted approach. On one hand, we are advocating on the international level for countries to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, which is the root cause of the problem. At the same time, we are investing in physical infrastructure, such as building seawalls and reclaiming land, to protect our islands from the rising sea levels. We are also exploring innovative solutions, like the digital nation concept, to ensure that even if worst-case scenarios were to occur, our people can still thrive and preserve our statehood. Ultimately, our goal is to save our islands and continue to call Tuvalu home, but we are also being proactive and putting contingency plans in place in case those efforts fall short.

One of the specific initiatives under the “Future Now” project that I’m leading is the legal avenue to secure Tuvalu’s statehood in the event of physical territory loss due to climate change. We have been working on this for the past two years on a bilateral level with several countries, and have had success in getting nine countries to sign up. Our foreign policy emphasizes that any country that wants to establish ties with us must recognize the legal proposition that Tuvalu’s statehood is permanent, regardless of climate change. We believe that this approach will contribute to the formation of new international norms and standards, and we are actively encouraging more countries to join us in this effort.

Another key initiative under the “Future Now” project is the digital nation concept, which we launched at COP27. This is a cutting-edge approach to preserving Tuvalu’s culture, identity, and way of life in the face of climate change. By creating a digital version of our islands, we are ensuring that even if our physical territory is lost, our people can continue to thrive and connect with one another in a virtual space. This innovative solution is just one example of the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that we need to address the challenges of climate change, and we are excited to continue exploring new ideas and approaches.