Australia–Tuvalu treaty can do more on climate change
28 Nov 2023|

The Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty is a promising starting point for Australia’s regional response to climate change. The creation of a pathway for Tuvaluans to relocate to Australia makes it the world’s first agreement specifically related to climate migration. In addition, the treaty’s provision of $16.9 million to fund land reclamation in Tuvalu has been applauded as a concrete commitment by Australia to address climate impacts in the Pacific.

However, Australia can do much more to help Tuvalu and the Pacific more broadly deal with the climate crisis. Australia must increase its efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change by cutting its own greenhouse gas emissions and helping Tuvalu build climate adaptability. That will reduce the number of Tuvaluans and other Pacific islanders deciding to relocate, partly or exclusively because of climate change.

The Pacific region has contributed minimally to the global production of greenhouse gases, but countries such as Tuvalu are bearing the brunt of climate impacts largely driven by the emissions of industrialised countries including Australia and the US. It’s expected that much of Tuvalu’s land area and critical infrastructure will be below the average high-tide level by 2050.

The treaty elevates Australia’s bilateral relationship with Tuvalu in the context of the Pacific’s struggle with climate impacts. Guided by the principle of Falepili, a Tuvaluan word referring to traditional values of good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect, Article 3 prepares a special mobility pathway for Tuvaluans to live, study and work in Australia. The treaty is a much-needed step in the right direction and contrasts with the then deputy prime minister’s 2019 public expression of annoyance at Pacific calls to shut down Australia’s coal industry.

Aside from climate-related assistance, the treaty’s focus on security cooperation has also attracted widespread attention. Article 4(1) obliges Australia to help Tuvalu in the event of natural disasters, public health emergencies and military aggression. This places Australia in a similar position to other Western countries with a regional stake, including the US through its compacts and New Zealand through its arrangements with Niue and Cook Islands.

The treaty also reciprocally places a security obligation on Tuvalu to ‘mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters’ such as ‘defence, policing, border protection, cyber security and critical infrastructure’. Tuvalu’s consultation with Australia on security matters is intended to prevent yet another Pacific country from being drawn into Beijing’s sphere of influence as was Solomon Islands. Tuvalu is one of the few Pacific island countries to recognise Taipei over Beijing, and Australia would like that to remain the case.

Despite its importance in addressing both traditional and non-traditional security concerns, the treaty is only a first step. Australia needs to do much more to combat the climate crisis in the Pacific. Relocation is a legitimate response to climate change, but many in Pacific island countries consider migration a last-resort solution. They would prefer to remain in their communities and seek ways to adapt to the changing conditions.

One key reason adaptation is preferred to relocation is the significance of ties to land. The inhabitability of atoll communities such as within Tuvalu is not simply about the presence of resources and locals’ ability to maintain a livelihood. It is also about the cultural and historical relevance of a place for its people.

Although the Tuvaluan government announced its plan to become the world’s first digital nation as a response to rising sea levels, it’s difficult to envisage how that will be achieved. Already, UNESCO has classified the Tuvaluan language as endangered. The migration of 280 Tuvaluans annually, out of a population of 11,200, even if it’s temporary for reasons such as work and study, could lead to the demise of Tuvaluan culture and language in the coming decades.

As an alternative to climate-change-induced migration, temporary or permanent, adaptation approaches such as land reclamation have been posited as a more viable response to the climate crisis. Commenting on the Australia–Tuvalu treaty, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape highlighted his support for its reclamation provision and criticised its emphasis on resettlement because of the high emotional and resettlement costs.

Land-purchase agreements have also been suggested as an alternative response to climate impacts such as rising sea levels. Even the concept of floating cities isn’t too far-fetched, with the world’s first prototype unveiled last year at the UN headquarters in New York. Such adaptation measures should be a strong focus in the Australian government’s approach to Tuvalu’s call for climate-related assistance.

Australia’s mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions is another appropriate mechanism for responding to the Pacific’s climate crisis. Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is important, but Australia must do more sooner rather than later to proactively combat climate change. Mitigation of emissions will help to not only slow the rate of sea-level rise around Tuvalu, but also reduce the frequency and severity of climate-driven phenomena such as tropical cyclones and coastal erosion being confronted by other Pacific island countries such as Solomon Islands and Fiji.

The phenomenon of climate-induced migration has likewise emerged in these countries, with cascading and compounding climate risks contributing to the decision to relocate. Communities with high population densities and those that are dependent on agriculture and fishing are highly vulnerable to climate change.

The COP28 climate summit that starts this week in Dubai will be an opportunity for Australia and like-minded counterparts to discuss ways to address the Pacific’s climate crisis. The creation of a loss and damage fund, for example, would help Australia respond to climate impacts through multilateral cooperation. The provision of compensation via the concept of loss and damage is welcomed by the Pacific Islands Forum, which notes that ‘movement away from home can result from, be a form of, and cause loss and damage of an economic and non-economic nature’, including loss of cultural heritage.

While more details about the Australia–Tuvalu treaty will come to light in the coming weeks and months, it is clearly only one strategy for enhanced Australia–Pacific cooperation on climate change. Climate mitigation and adaptation must be prioritised in Australia’s response to ensure that the human-security needs of Tuvalu and other Pacific island countries are met. Equally important in the fight for climate justice in Pacific island countries such as Tuvalu is Australia’s multilateral engagement through events such as COP28.