COP25 and Pacific island states: ‘we are keen to lead, not to be led’

Sarina Theys

The 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25, was held in Madrid at the end of last year. Image credit: UNclimatechange via Flickr.

The powerful words that constitute the title of this blog article were expressed by Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, Samoa’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN), at the High Level Segment on 11 December 2019 at the twenty-fifth United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) in Madrid, also referred to as COP25. Spain agreed to host COP25 at the last minute after Chile withdrew due to social unrest over wealth inequality and increasing violence. Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia’s words are particularly crucial, given that small island states are most vulnerable to climate change as a third of their population lives on land that is up to five meters below sea level. This blog article discusses the importance and outcome of COP25 for the Pacific island states.

COP25 and Pacific island states

COP25 promised to be ambitious, as communicated through its logo which reads ‘Time for Action’. This was embraced by some of the strongest advocates for climate action, the representatives of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS):

As people living on the frontiers and in the epicentres of climate risk and vulnerability, we know precisely what ambitious action looks like and how it must be supported. We live with climate impacts daily. So, small islanders fully embraced COP 25’s promise to be the COP of ambition; the COP of action. It is indeed well beyond “Time for Action”.

Although of course most states and nations are or will be affected by climate change, the threat of sea level rise, storm surges and coastal destruction poses an existential threat to small island states and their citizens. Scientists have predicted that some of the land territories of small island states will become uninhabitable by 2050 (such as Tuvalu) or will be fully submerged by 2100 (such as Kiribati) — leading to the displacement of people.

The existential threat faced by small island states is caused by greenhouse gas emissions which results in global warming. What makes the situation even worse is that small island states contribute the least to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions yet are the first to be endangered by global warming. This context underlines the importance of Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia words, as Pacific island states’ leadership in the fight against climate change has a direct effect on the security on their states and citizens. Due to this, representatives from small island states have demanded countries take immediate action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures and called on developed countries to mobilize at least US$ 100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.

The Paris Agreement: Article 6

In addressing the threat that climate change poses, one of the key aims of COP25 was to finalize the rules that will dictate how to implement the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement, which was adopted on 12 December 2015, after 21 years of negotiations, sets out how countries should reduce their emissions, adapt to climate impacts and finance the low-carbon economy over the coming decades. To build on this, one of the main issues to be discussed and resolved at COP25 was the implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Article 6 outlines ways that countries can voluntarily cooperate to fight climate change, generate investment and achieve sustainable development. The rules of Article 6 were the last section of the Paris Agreement to be completed. It has the power to make or break the Paris Agreement.

A bone of contention is the development of a new global carbon market system which can help countries to decarbonize their economies at lower costs. A majority of national climate plans include the use of carbon markets to achieve cheaper emissions reductions. This means that governments and the private sector can trade emissions reductions, including governments being able to buy carbon credits to develop green projects designed to cut emissions in another country or selling their overachievement of emission cuts to countries struggling to meet their goals.

At COP25, parties sought to establish a common set of rules to govern these transactions and ensure they lead to global emissions cuts. However, this proved to be too difficult. Climate negotiations went into extra time — making it the longest COP so far — and eventually countries failed to reach a conclusion on the effective and transparent implementation of Article 6. As a result, the issue will again be discussed at COP26 which will take place in Glasgow this year.

Pacific island states and the importance of oceans

Despite the disappointing outcome of COP25, the Pacific island states have again showed their commitment and leadership with regards to climate change. As expressed by Hilda C. Heine, the former President of the Marshall Islands:

If it was not for the Marshall Islands and our High Ambition Coalition, there would have been an even weaker outcome at COP25. While we should be disappointed with the behaviour of some big emitters, we should be proud we helped protect against an even weaker outcome.

Sarina Theys, the author, with the President of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau

This includes the recognition of the importance of the ocean which will most likely strengthen the linkages between climate and ocean policies. This recognition was particularly important as the ocean absorbs 90 per cent of anthropogenic heat and a third of the produced carbon dioxide. The ocean is very important to Pacific island states, which are also known as big ocean states due to their ocean territories as Exclusive Economic Zones. The President of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, further explained that ‘the ocean is part of our identity as coastal people, as navigators, and as people of the land and sea’.

Moana Blue Pacific Pavilion

Another diplomatic triumph for the Pacific island states at COP25 was the successful organization of the Moana Blue Pacific Pavilion which attracted representatives from states, non-state actors, NGOs, academics, journalists and the public from all over the world. This Pavilion was a Pacific partnership supported by New Zealand and Fiji and was managed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).

The Pavilion showcased more than 65 events on Pacific climate and ocean action. At one such event, the Attorney General and Minister of Economy of Fiji, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, officially launched Fiji’s displacement guidelines which helps vulnerable communities in Fiji relocate from the dire impacts of climate change in their villages. SPREP also launched a mobile app which allowed people from all over the world to be part of the global conversation affecting the Pacific island states. I witnessed a very strong interest in the Pavilion, reflected in high attendance rates and online discussions, which indicates that the Pacific island states have a lot to offer to the world at large in terms of climate and ocean action.


Although the outcome of COP25 was disappointing, there were substantial wins, including ensuring a global focus on oceans in the context of climate change, the High Ambition Coalition led by the Marshall Islands, and the interest in the Moana Blue Pacific Pavilion. This showed that the future of the Pacific islands are important to the global community. That said, finalizing the implementation of the Paris Agreement’s Article 6 was a key priority that was not successfully met. This means that COP25 did not satisfy its ambitious and action-oriented focus.

Reflecting on the various statements made during COP25, I once again draw attention to the words of Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, Samoa’s Permanent Representative to the UN. His words communicate an important lesson when it comes to climate change and should be foregrounded at COP26 later this year:

There is a misguided notion to portray climate change as a small island developing states concern only. Nothing can be further from the truth. Climate change crosses borders by force and uninvited and does not discriminate by size or might.

Sarina Theys is a political scientist and a cultural anthropologist. Her current research investigates the ontological security of Pacific island countries and the Islanders in the context of climate change and sea-level rise. Sarina was an observer at the twenty-fifth United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) in Madrid in December 2019.

In the latest issue of International Affairs, she reviewed the Routledge international handbook of island studies: a world of islands, edited by Godfrey Baldacchino.

Read her book review online here.




The official blog of International Affairs, the no.1 ranked journal of international relations. Leading the field for 100 years. Produced at Chatham House since 1922, published by Oxford University Press.

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