Photo: Tomas Williams, Unsplash

Pacific Islanders chart a greener course for shipping

Indigenous navigation inspires a green renaissance for marine transport

When Pacific performing artist John Taukave stood in front of delegates at an International Maritime Organization (IMO) meeting in London last year, his first thought was: “What am I doing here?”

It wasn’t just any meeting. The IMO, a UN body, is responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships. Country representatives were gathered at the table to commit to decarbonizing shipping over the coming decades.

The room was tense, the discussions complex, the terminology heavy, “and I was standing there, getting ready to recite this poem,” Taukave recalls.

“It was such a technical space, and here I am: this boy from Rotuma, this Indigenous performing arts scholar. I felt… lost.”

But as he began to speak in his native Rotuman language about what the ocean means for Pacific Island communities like his, the room went silent. Taukave’s place there suddenly felt clear.

“It was a very deep moment for me,” he reflects. “It felt like we were recolonizing the space.”

John Taukave
Rotuman artist John Taukave performs at the IMO in 2023. Courtesy of John Taukave

You could be forgiven for never having heard of Rotuma. It’s an archipelago in the southwestern Pacific that’s officially a dependency of Fiji, but it sits about 500 kilometers from the capital and has its own distinct language and culture.

Rotuma’s only inhabited island spans just 47 square kilometers and is home to about 1,500 people. Like many Pacific Islands, it’s highly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis, particularly sea level rise and damage from increasingly intense cyclones.

Yet despite this vulnerability, not to mention its minuscule contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, the region is frequently underrepresented in international climate fora.

The oceanic superhighway

Indigenous scholars from the region have long argued for the need to see their nations not as lonely, tiny outposts, but rather as summits of culture and innovation that are literally fed by the seas that surround them.

They say the islands are interconnected by an oceanic ‘superhighway’ that can be traveled on craft fueled by wind and currents and woven from materials at hand – just as their ancestors did when they settled across the region.

As Fijian writer and anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa wrote in his 1993 work ‘Our Sea of Islands’, “the world of our ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes in, to breed generations of seafarers like themselves. People raised in this environment were at home with the sea.

“They played in it as soon as they could walk steadily, they worked in it, they fought on it. They developed great skills for navigating their waters, and the spirit to traverse even the few large gaps that separated their island groups.”

Hawaiian canoe
A traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe. Steve Cadman, Flickr

Taukave, who is a staff member at the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport (MCST), says that such an ocean-centric perspective, and the knowledge held within it, will be critical to a just transition to a low-carbon future.

Unfortunately, many political and institutional leaders appear to conveniently ignore what happens in the ocean and how it affects all of us. Emissions from shipping are no exception: governments don’t tend to include them in their carbon accounting.

This is a significant omission, because the sector produces around 3 percent of annual global emissions – about the same as aviation. And to date, the industry’s actions and targets have fallen far short of what’s required.

A sea of apathy

In 2018, the IMO set a target of halving emissions by 2050 – one described by Climate Analytics commentators Michael Petroni, MJ Mace and Maheen Haq as “woefully inadequate” for the scale of change that’s required.

At the 2023 meeting that Taukave attended, countries stepped up their game, setting their first targets for 2030 and 2040 and making a new commitment to reach net zero by “close to” 2050.

“But the choice of language is concerning – it’s unclear how legally binding “indicative checkpoints” are, or when exactly “close to” 2050 is,” said Petroni, Mace, and Haq, “and the targets still fall short on ambition.”

MCST scientific and technical advisor Peter Nuttall gave a blunter assessment in an interview with The Forever Project newsletter: “We were just fed a dead rat and told to swallow it.”

E-Ship 1
The shipping industry has started to develop hybrid rotor ships, such as E-Ship 1. The rotors act as sails to aid the ship’s propulsion, reducing fuel burn by up to 25 percent. Alan Jamieson, Flickr

The IMO’s target for 2030 now requires a 20-percent cut in emissions from current levels. However, Climate Action Tracker data shows that emissions from shipping need to fall much further by then – 47 percent below 2008 levels – to be compatible with keeping global heating at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

That figure – 1.5 degrees – may still seem like just a number to many. But for plenty of Pacific Islanders, it’s a question of survival.

If warming exceeds 1.5 degrees, we could trigger multiple ‘tipping points’ that would further melt the ice caps and raise sea levels so much that Pacific Islands like Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands would be left largely underwater.

That’s why a number of Pacific states and their supporters have been calling for tougher interim targets – 37 percent by 2030 and 96 percent by 2040. The Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands have also proposed a global levy on shipping emissions to help accelerate the shift.

A just transition for the Pacific

It’s crucial that Pacific Islanders are compensated to ensure they aren’t themselves unfairly penalized during the transition, Taukave emphasizes. Small island developing states are particularly dependent on shipping and already pay disproportionately high costs to do so.

At the same time, Taukave continues, it’s important that Pacific Island states don’t perpetuate ‘helpless victim’ narratives when it comes to coping with climate change.

Marshall Islands
Low-lying Pacific islands such as the Marshall Islands could sink beneath the waves as sea levels continue to rise. Kurt Cotoaga, Unsplash

“This is where we have been failing ourselves,” he writes in a forthcoming MCST blog article. “We accept solutions found and given by others, which are adapted to other cultures but not to us.” In fact, he says, Pacific Island populations are in many ways extremely well-placed to lead the low-carbon shipping transition.

And that’s exactly what many are already doing. The Marshall Islands, for instance, has commissioned an innovative cargo sailing ship, which, when completed, will provide essential supplies to its islands, as well as research and training opportunities.

“There is an ocean of available technology – if we can work out how to capture and harness it at the scale of our ocean states,” says Taukave.

Doing so will require funds, innovation and unwavering commitment to Pacific Islanders’ long, deep, and evolving relationships with their ocean home – as expressed in Taukave’s poem, performed at the IMO and shared below.

Mata’ua ‘os hanua

Hạikainagaga ne ‘os temamfua

Sua vaka ‘e li’u jarava

Ag fak hanua ‘e Pasefika.

Temamfua mata’ua hanua

Fäeag ‘ạkia rogrog ne tạusa

Kel’ạkia ufa se ufaga

Fuamamạu ne li’u jarava

Look after our home

the bond with our ancestors

Voyaging on the oceans

Our ways of Pasifika

They took care of our home

Told our stories

From the mountains to the sea

The beauty of this ocean



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