Justice and Climate: The Case of the Republic of the Fiji Islands


Thomas White (Fiji National University)



This report responds to the ten research questions of The Deepening National Responses to Climate Change on the Basis of Ethics and Justice research project – a collaborative endeavour organised by the Widener University School of Law, Environmental Law Center, and the University of Auckland, School of Architecture and Planning. The responses are specific to the Pacific Island nation-state, the Republic of the Fiji Islands.


1.     To what extent has the national debate about how the nation should respond to climate change by setting a greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reduction target expressly considered that the nation not only has economic interests in setting the target but also ethical obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change and that any national ghg emission reduction target must represent the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions? In answering this question, identify the national ghg emissions reduction target, if any, that the nation has made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 


As a Pacific Island nation with many coastal villages, both on the mainland and on the outer low-lying islands, Fiji is already struggling with the impacts of climate change sea-level rise. The Government has identified up to 676 different villages as being at risk (Rawalai, 2014). Several villages have already been forced to relocate (Fiji Gov, 2014a), leaving behind ancestral lands that are valued far beyond the purely economic. Climate change is also anticipated to place tremendous stress on Fiji’s ecosystems and its bio-diversity. Ocean acidification, coral bleaching and coastal erosion will destroy marine ecosystems. Salt-water intrusion, soil erosion and reduced soil fertility, as well as an increase in pests and disease, place on-land communities at further risk. Fiji’s economy is heavily reliant on the sustainable use of its natural resources for development, with farming, fishing and forestry central to both wealth creation and basic subsistence (Fiji Gov, 2012a: vii). Combining the above with the growing intensity and frequency of flooding, and the predicted increases in drought, climate change will not only severely damage Fiji’s economy but also pose a serious threat to Fiji’s basic land, food and water security. We may say, therefore, that Fijians are amongst the ‘most vulnerable to climate change.’ Fiji is in the unfortunate situation whereby any question regarding ‘obligations to those who are most vulnerable’ is also, fundamentally, a question regarding national self-interest.


Fiji ratified the UNFCCC in February 1993 and is listed as a non-Annex 1 country under the Kyoto Protocol, whereby its emissions are not subject to legally binding reduction targets. Fiji, therefore, has not declared a specific national ghg emissions reduction target. Despite this, Fiji’s attitude towards climate change mitigation is far from complacent. Yet the reasons for why Fiji pursues climate change mitigation cannot be derived from the same rationale, ethical or economic, as those applicable to large nation-state polluters.


In Fiji’s 2nd  National Communication to the UNFCCC,  submitted on 31st July 2014, it estimated that the national CO2 emissions for the year 2004 were at 1657Gg, with the estimated removal of CO2 from land-use change and forestry at -7988Gg (Fiji Gov, 2014b: 15). As world CO2 emissions for 2004 – excluding bunker fuels – were estimated at 7,571Tg (US DOE, 2013a), Fiji’s greenhouse gas contributions roughly amounts to only 0.02% of world emissions. When factoring in forested land-use Fiji becomes a net absorber of CO2. When factoring in Fiji’s territorial waters as well, Fiji becomes a significant global carbon sink. Even when looking at the issue relative to Fiji’s small population (881,065 in 2013 according to the World Bank), Fiji remains an unlikely culprit for global climate change. CO2 emissions per capita in Fiji were 1.5 metric tons in 2010. We may compare this with the CO2 emissions per capita elsewhere for the same year: 7.5 metric tons in New Zealand, 16.9 metric tons in Australia and 17.3 metric tons in the United States (World Bank, 2013). In both absolute and relative terms, Fiji’s ethical obligation to help mitigate climate change is not one that derives from a ‘fairer sharing’ of a global responsibility. Neither, speaking from a consequentialist perspective, may we speak of Fiji being duty-bound to downsize its carbon footprint in terms of stopping any impactful contribution to global temperature rises. Fiji’s present and historical share of global emissions, as well as its individual emissions impact on global warming, are negligible.


The urgent conversation for why Fiji should reduce its CO2 output has not, therefore, focused on global responsibilities, but on national and local interests. Where Fiji’s arguments for who pays for their adaptation costs have taken an international purview, Fiji has avoided abstract moral obligations calculated in relation to global emissions as motivation for their own mitigating efforts. They would lack punch. Instead, Fiji has justified policy and resources towards mitigation largely on the basis of providing for sustainable development. For example, the drive towards renewable energy use is justified in terms of its provision of safe, secure, clean, efficient and affordable energy supplies to all Fijians (PIGGAREP, 2011). A major drain on the national economy is the importing of liquid fuels for transportation and electricity generation, so efforts to move towards renewable sources of energy are critical to building long-term, sustainable futures (Fiji Gov, 2012a: 8). By way of another example, firewood, frequently used for fuel by coastal villagers, is cut from the mangroves that dissipate the hydraulic force of storm surges and protect the shore from coastal erosion (OECD, 2003). Conserving the mangroves by replacing this source of fuel with renewable energy, often coming from new small to medium sized hydro-electric dams, is aimed at sustainability and adaptation, but also contributes to Fiji’s reduction of CO2 emissions. Mitigation is pursued with a ‘no regrets’ policy line. That is, a harmony is identified between global aims to mitigate, and national interests, including sustainable development and the participation in technology-transfer opportunities with other countries (see Fiji Gov, 2012a: 8 & 61).


Projects that promote sustainability that also aid mitigation, however, are not without targets. These targets are often more ambitious than those that are pursued elsewhere worldwide, and in many ways position Fiji and other island states in the Pacific as global leaders on climate change mitigation. Led by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and funded by the UNDP Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the Pacific Islands Greenhouse Gas Abatement through Renewable Energy Project (PIGGAREP) was launched in 2006 and has promoted renewable energy sourcing across Pacific Island nations – including Fiji. PIGGAREP has the stated target of reducing CO2 emissions by 30% by 2015 as measured off a ‘Business-as-usual’ base-line scenario (PIGGAREP, 2011). The use of a ‘business-as-usual’ baseline, as opposed to benchmarking from a particularly year in the past, acknowledges that the Pacific does have role in global mitigation efforts, but also that these efforts must be made in light of the high levels of poverty and under-development in the Pacific. Tackling climate change must be pursued alongside other socially progressive ambitions – such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (Fiji Gov, 2012a:1). Nonetheless, under PIGGAREP, in 2006 Fiji committed to the target of 60% of electricity generation to come from renewables by 2016 (PIGGAREP, 2011). This has already been reached. As Fiji is a developing economy still aiming to provide electricity access to all its citizens, this is a significant achievement. Indeed, it is an accomplishment that puts many Annex 1 countries’ efforts on renewables in the shade.


In summary, while the question’s overall thrust first appears ill-suited to the particular context of Fiji – Fiji does not have a specific overall emissions target and places less emphasis on Fiji’s ‘fair share’ of global mitigation efforts – we see that much of Fiji’s climate change mitigation policy, that is, the emphasis on renewables as a form of empowerment for local Fijian villagers, is very much focused on the needs of ‘those most vulnerable to climate change.’


2.     In making a national commitment to reduce ghg emissions under the UNFCCC, to what extent, if at all, has the nation explained how it took equity and justice into consideration in setting its ghg emissions reduction target?

As mentioned above, the lack of a specific overall ghg emissions reduction target is not an ignorance of equity and justice issues, but the result of being on the front-line of climate change, yet not being responsible for causing it. The 2nd National Communication to the UNFCCC begins its introduction on mitigation, “Despite having a very small ghg emissions profile, Fiji faces some of the worst affects from climate change” (Fiji Gov, 2014b: xiv). Fiji’s climate change policy is not formulated around acting justly, but asking for justice. It is not just a matter of being fair to other peoples globally, but also an issue of Fiji itself being treated fairly. The concerns of justice and equity are, therefore, most commonly broached when talking of the duties owed to Fiji and its South Pacific neighbours, as opposed to obligations owed to countries far-off elsewhere or to the world as a whole. Saying this, in policy documents Fiji does make mention, in general terms, to ‘global responsibilities on mitigation’. Nonetheless, focus is concentrated on helping Fijians.


3.     Given that any national ghg emissions target is implicitly a position on achieving an atmospheric ghg concentration that will avoid dangerous climate change, to what extent has the nation identified the ghg atmospheric concentration stabilization level that the national emissions reduction target seeks to achieve in cooperation with other nations?


Again, because of Fiji’s comparatively tiny contribution to ghg and its present levels of under-development, Fiji has not committed to an overall, specific target on the reduction of its ghg emissions. Fiji is, however, an active participant in a number of regional bodies that seek to provoke a greater global response in ghg emissions reductions. Most notably within the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) at COP summits, and through its chairmanship of the G77 and China group in 2013, it has repeatedly emphasised the need to reduce ghg emissions worldwide on the global stage. Fiji has repeatedly made this argument on ethical grounds.

Where Fiji has recently missed out in this regard, however, is in relation to the 2013 Majuro Declaration, an initiative started by Pacific Island states belonging to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), which aimed to provide ‘a new wave of climate leadership’ in the run-up to the Paris Conference in 2015 (Majuro Declaration, 2013). Delivered as a ‘Pacific Gift’ to the UN Secretary-General it re-affirmed the determination of Pacific islanders to tackle climate change, with a broad range of pledges from member states including commitments to renewable sources of energy, reductions in the import and use of petroleum, reforestation, and the setting up of a carbon market (Majuro Declaration, 2013). As Fiji left the Pacific Islands Forum, under pressure from New Zealand and Australia following its failure to hold democratic elections in 2009, Fiji, as yet, has not officially signed on to the Majuro Declaration. This being said, Fiji does engage productively with its neighbouring island states, such as through the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) on this issue, and cooperation on climate change is a regular point of common purpose and mutual support. Fiji also belongs to the Pacific Islands Framework for Action on Climate Change (PIFACC), which runs from 2006-2015, and has collaborated more broadly with other SIDS in the Mauritius strategy (2005-2015) and the Barbados Plan of Action. Policy harmonisation with the other members of these groups is provided for in Fiji’s 2012 National Climate Change Policy (Fiji Gov, 2012a: 2).

Fiji’s commitment to international cooperation on climate change has perhaps been most clearly symbolised by Fiji’s promise to aid Kiribati islanders in case climate change sea-level rise forces citizens of Kiribati to request international relocation.


4.     Given that any national ghg emissions target is implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, to what extent has the nation identified the ethical and justice considerations that it took into account in allocating a percentage of global ghg emissions to the nation through the identification of a ghg emissions reduction commitment?


As mentioned above, the position of Fiji as a tiny emitter of ghg has largely made such considerations mute.


5.     To what extent, if at all, has the nation acknowledged that any nation emitting ghg above its fair share of safe global emissions has a responsibility to fund reasonable adaptation measures or unavoidable losses and damages in poor developing countries?


Fiji has not merely acknowledged the differentiated responsibilities of nations to reduce their ghg emissions based on their present ghg output and levels of economic development, but has repeatedly linked ghg output directly to the moral responsibility of major polluting nations to fund adaptation projects for Fiji and similarly affected countries. In the Fijian Prime Minister’s statement to the 65th UN General Assembly in 2010, Voreque Bainimarama stated,


Whilst some of us are more vulnerable than others, we must work in concert as a responsible international family to mitigate the adverse effects of this global phenomenon. In this context, I reiterate the common call of the SIDS that the promised fast-track funding from the international community for the finance of climate change adaptation and mitigation measures, be delivered with delay (Bainimarama, 2010).


In terms of diplomatic showdowns, the position of Fiji on the responsibilities of major polluters to foot the bill for costs incurred from climate change was most dramatically witnessed when the G77 + China group, then chaired by Fiji, walked out of the Warsaw COP negotiations when Australia started to back-track on previous commitments on the Loss and Damage agenda (Vidal, 2013).

Fiji, as a member of AOSIS, and in partnership with other blocs such as the Least Developed Nations and the African Group of Negotiators, has pushed hard for an International Mechanism that will compensate at-risk nations for loss and damages incurred from climate change. The mechanism would comprise of three elements: one part, insurance, ‘will assist countries to manage financial risks associated with increasingly frequent and severe climate‐related extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tropical storms, storm surge, floods and droughts’ (Fiji Gov, 2012b); the second part, rehabilitation and compensation, ‘will address the progressive negative impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, increasing sea and land temperatures and ocean acidification that result in loss and damage, such as permanent or extended loss of useful land, damage to coral reefs, damage to water tables and loss of fisheries’ (Fiji Gov, 2012b); the third part, risk management, ‘will provide both technical and financial support to reduce risks that result in loss and damage, including sea level rise, increasing sea temperatures, increasing air temperatures and ocean acidification, which have impacts on coastal infrastructure, shorelines, coral reefs, …etc’ (Fiji Gov, 2012b).

Perhaps second only to the constancy with which Fiji reiterates to major-polluting nations the for the reduction of their ghg emissions, Fiji remind wealthier nations of their responsibilities to vulnerable nations already suffering from the ffects of climate change.


6. What formal mechanisms are available in the nation for citizens, NGOs and other interested organizations to question/contest the nation’s ethical position on climate change?


The government body that has formulated Fiji’s National Climate Change Policy sits within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. General queries on the overall vision of Fiji’s climate change policy could well be directed there.

However, the 2012 National Climate Change Policy explains that ‘many of the strategies out-lined in this policy will cut across sectors and will require the contribution of a number of organisations and agencies for effective implementation… a lead agency and implementing agency has been identified for each strategy’ (Fiji Gov, 2012a: 21) . For instance on Education and Training, the Ministry of Education is the lead agency, on Awareness Raising, it is the Climate Change Unit, on Adaption, it may vary between the Ministry of Lands, Ministry of Health, the Meterological Office and other bodies (Fiji Gov, 2012a: 29-39). Questions regarding the pursuit of particular objectives taken under the authority the National Climate Change Policy would therefore best be directed to the relevant lead agency.

The National Climate Change Policy itself is reviewed once every 5 years by a taskforce designated by the National Climate Change Country team. Again however, because of Fiji’s tiny share of ghg emissions, there has been little challenge by civil society to its overall policy on ghg emissions.


7. How is the concept of climate justice understood by the current government? Have they articulated any position on climate justice issues that arise in setting ghg emissions policy or in regard to the adaptation needs of vulnerable nations or people?


The present government of Fiji sees principles of justice as fundamental to the conversation regarding ghg emissions by OECD and other major nation-state polluters. In Bainimarama’s opening address to the Pacific Islands Development Forum, June 2014, implicitly speaking to the wealthy major emitting nations of the world, the Fijian Prime Minister said, ‘History will judge you harshly if you abandon us to our apparent fate of sinking below the waves because you don’t want to make the necessary adjustment to your domestic policies’. (Bainimarama, 2014). Narratives of fairness, justice and helping those who have been left in peril by the excesses of consumer-led economic growth and petty national self-interest, are a constant theme of Fiji’s discussion of climate change at the international level.


In terms of thinking how adaptation policies for climate change in Fiji may be pursued in light of principles of justice for those most vulnerable, it is useful to turn to the framing principles of Fiji’s 2012 National Climate Change Policy. The NCCP has 12 framing principles. Whereas some of these principles regard organizational efficacy and international collaboration, several touch on issues of justice, including ‘(3) Community Ownership’, ‘(8) Equity and Fairness’ and ‘(10) Gender considerations’ (Fiji Gov, 2014a: 20). The recognition that peoples vulnerable to climate change may, within these groups, suffer vulnerability to different degrees – such as between men and women – is a necessary consideration for adaptation policy implementation. Furthermore, that seeking to help those vulnerable to climate change may, in fact, lead to their disempowerment in other ways, such as where local autonomy is trumped by the power-knowledge of the outsider-scientist, is an ethical issue that is given careful attention in adaptation projects.



8. Are you aware of any regional, state, provincial, or local governments in your country that have acknowledged some ethical responsibility for climate change? If so, what have they said?


On the particular issue of local leaders calling for a specific ghg emissions target for Fiji, there is little to be said, as per the reasons above. However the inclusion of local authorities, be they civil – such as municipal and provincial councils – or traditional – such as the village chiefs – have been a major feature of Fiji’s climate change response.

Local councils have taken up the responsibility of raising awareness regarding climate change in their communities, and providing education to individuals regarding their common duties to conserve the local environment (Vuikailagi, 2014). Village chiefs have likewise stepped up to take charge of their ‘Locally Managed Areas’. For an example of how they do this we may make reference to the cultural practice of tabu. Chiefs will make use of their traditional authority that allows than to declare a tabu – a traditional ban that stops all fishing for 100 days, typically taking place after the death of a Chief to replenish fish-stocks for the feast at the end of mourning – but in this instance, the Chiefs use the tabu to better preserve dwindling fish-stocks in light of the food security risk posed by climate change (UNDP, 2012).


9. Has your national government taken any position on or otherwise encouraged individuals, businesses, organizations, subnational governments, or other entities that they have some ethical duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?


The Fijian government has taken several initiatives to promote the reduction of ghg emissions amongst its citizens, and has frequently employed an ethical rhetoric to encourage such action. Green growth has been promoted to the aviation industry with the government reminding them of the importance of green innovation in the industry (Aiyaz-Khaiyum, 2013). The government agency Tourism Fiji runs initiatives to reduce ghg emissions in the tourism sector, including the ‘Clean Me, Green Me, Fiji Me’ project that encouraged the tourist industry to plant 1,000,000 trees across Fiji in 2011 (The Fiji Times, 2010). The REDD+ strategy is being implemented across Fiji to encourage landowners and timber merchants to preserve and grow Fiji’s expanses of rainforest. As of 2016, climate change will be incorporated into the Fiji’s national curriculum. Tuisawai, a Ministry of Education official, has stated,


There is a need to filter down knowledge on climate change to our children in a language that they can understand and that enables them to act. We need our children to be aware and to look after our environment well…We, at the Education Ministry, have told schools not to have incinerators to try and minimize burning. We want our children to practice recycling and reuse methods. Children must be taught to use grass and other green waste into compost rather than burning it. We have also included green economy into the climate change perspective. (Tuisawai, 2014)


The interesting ethical aspect about how climate change mitigation is discussed at the local level in Fiji is that whilst the emphasis in national policy documents is sustainable development, and whilst at international level the drive is to get wealthy nations to act, at the grass-roots climate change discourse is dominated by in-group blame. When I ask students who is responsible for climate change, they do not first point the finger at the big industrial nations, but at themselves: ‘Us, we are to blame’. Despite Fiji’s tiny ghg emissions, Fijians tend to look inwards, rather than outwards, for why climate change is occurring. Rudiak Gould has written of a similar trait in the Marshall Islands and argues this response is best viewed positively (Rudiak-Gould, 2013). One way to empower Fijians over the devastating impact of climate change, wrought upon their nation from afar, is to emphasise personal responsibility. To talk of climate change mitigation not in terms of ‘global efforts’ but in terms of living the good and virtuous life. In Fiji, it is reduced to a matter of ‘respecting the vanua (the land)’. The good Fijian does not pollute their environment but attempts to live in harmony with her surroundings. In this sense, even if the rest of the world fails to reduce ghg emissions, mitigation efforts in Fiji may still succeed. That is, in terms of the individual successfully committing to living the good life. The government, through various educational and awareness programmes, actively encourages this ethical framing of climate change.


10. What recommendations would you make to get the nation or civil society to take ethics and justice issues seriously in climate change policy formulation?


As suggested elsewhere, as Fiji is already suffering from climate change, and as a nation with limited hard and soft power on the international stage, a discourse of ethics and justice has necessarily been central to its climate change discourse.


Fiji’s climate change policy has focused on those most vulnerable – its own citizens. Fiji has cried foul at global summits where wealthy nations pursue narrow economic self-interest at the expense of genuine hardship in the Pacific, and continued to bang the drum for proper levels of compensation and assistance to combat climate change hazards. Additionally, despite their ghg emissions being so small, efforts to reduce these emissions are being made in earnest. Driven by the economics of sustainable development, but also from a perspective of living the good life. Even though, from a utilitarian perspective, these reductions will have little impact, and even though, from a deontological perspective, their duty to the global community to reduce ghg emissions pales to insignificance when compared to other wealthy nations’ obligations, the aim affirming one’s self-worth in terms of sound ecological living (as well as providing moral leadership to the international community), drives on Fijian efforts to reduce their ghg emissions.


Where the ethicality of Fiji’s climate change policy must continue is in terms of making sure adaptation policies do not cause more harm than good, either through impinging on villager autonomy or entrenching patriarchal hierarchies. The framing principles of the NCCP – particularly those that mention gender, fairness and community ownership – must remain at the heart of climate change action in Fiji. Fiji needs to continue with its efforts of trying to lead by example in terms of mitigation, even though its own ghg outputs are so small, and not let its low ghg emissions output mislead Fiji into a false sense of entitlement, licensing it to engage in the expansion of carbon-heavy industries (such as mining), seduced into increasing their ghg emissions with the promise of hard cash. Lastly, Fiji must be careful not to give into despair, even when the rest of the world appears so complacent regarding the devastating future climate change threatens for the South Pacific. For in giving into despair, even the prospect of climate change will bring hardships – social, economic and spiritual – before the physical impacts truly hit home.




Aiyaz, Khaiyum, (2013) ‘Opening of the State of Action Plan Workshop at the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji’, August 14th 2013, http://www.fiji.gov.fj/Media-Center/Speeches/OPENING-OF-THE-STATE-ACTION-PLAN-(SAP)-WORKSHOP-AT.aspx accessed 20th October 2014

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