The Pacific Island country of Vanuatu is showing leadership on climate change. Its new climate plan commits to a rapid transition to renewable energies and multiple forms of adaptation to climate change. The country is already a net carbon absorber but is acutely vulnerable to impacts such as rising sea levels and extreme weather. Ahead of the COP27 climate summit, Vanuatu’s fully costed plan sets a challenge to the global north states most responsible for climate change that for years have dragged their feet on funding for adaptation and compensation. Vanuatu has given them the model: now they must support it.

With a population of only around 300,000, scattered across some 80 islands, the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu has become a world climate leader.

In August it published its new climate plan, setting out an eye-catching commitment to switch almost completely to renewable energies by 2030 – including by using coconut oil to generate electricity. But it’s trying to do more than that – and asking for help from the powerful states that have the greatest responsibility to act on climate change.

Climate emergency in Vanuatu

Vanuatu knows only too well the impacts of climate change. It sees the creeping effects of sea-level rise, already flooding once-dry lands as the ocean advances across its low-lying islands. It has also seen the big shocks caused by extreme weather, which climate change makes more likely.

In 2020 Vanuatu was one of four Pacific Island countries struck by Tropical Cyclone Harold. The cyclone destroyed and damaged buildings and caused heavy flooding and the loss of agricultural crops on which the economy relies. At least four people were killed and around a third of the population was directly affected. It caused an estimated US$600 million of damage – 60 per cent of the country’s GDP.

More extreme weather is inevitable: the 2021 World Risk Report concludes that Vanuatu has the highest disaster risk in the world.

Vanuatu is responding by playing an increasingly assertive global role. In September 2021 it asked the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial body of the United Nations (UN), to issue an advisory opinion on the rights of present and future generations to be protected from climate change. It is now pushing for the votes of at least half of UN member states to take this forward.

In May 2022, Vanuatu’s parliament declared a state of climate emergency. But it isn’t only government making the running here. Civil society and state are working in partnership.

In March 2021, when civil society organised a protest in the capital, Port Vila, as part of the Global Climate Strike, government officials stood shoulder by shoulder with them. Over 70 organisations, including civil society and government bodies, work together in the Vanuatu Climate Action Network. Civil society is supporting the International Court of Justice campaign.

A progressive plan

The value of that partnership, and civil society’s influence, can be seen in the new climate plan. Making clear that the climate crisis is not a future problem but a current one, the plan emphasises the need to adapt. It calls for a multi-faceted response to climate impacts. Its proposed measures include investments in disaster protection, enhancement of traditional agricultural practices, risk mitigation in infrastructure and building construction and affordable micro-insurance.

Civil society’s fingerprints can be seen in the inclusive nature of the plan: it takes account of the gendered dimensions of climate change and the role of traditional and Indigenous knowledge and culture. It sets out a key role for women and young people in the response.

The plan puts Vanuatu at the heart of a vital global debate. For years intergovernmental processes, organised around the COP series of annual climate summits, have dragged their heels on the essential matter of funding the response to climate change. Climate financing commitments have consistently lagged behind targets, even though these underestimate the funding needed.

Most of the progress made so far has been on financing for mitigation – measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This is clearly vital but it’s also the area most amenable to market-based interventions, in the form of investments in renewal energy initiatives, and one where global north states and companies most stand to see a sizeable return.

There’s far less support for the essential adaptation that will protect communities from the worst impacts of climate change. Funding remains short of the 50/50 split many global south states are calling for.

And there remains no consensus on financing for ‘loss and damage’ – compensation to global south countries for the impacts of climate change disproportionately caused by the industrialisation of the global north.

Zero progress was made on this at the last climate summit, COP26, held in the UK in 2021. Global north states remain resistant, seeing loss-and-damage financing as dangerously close to reparations. Ahead of COP27, which will take place in the closed civic space of Egypt, global south states are again urging global north states to pay their due. Vanuatu is among the states calling for a loss-and-damage financing facility.

Vanuatu has offered a model. It has published a precisely costed plan that sets out what it needs and what for.

Every state signed up to the Paris Agreement – which is almost all states – must have a national climate plan, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). But current NDCs won’t meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. The conclusions of COP26 called on states to submit more ambitious plans by COP27.

But hardly any have done so. Vanuatu is one of just 12 countries to have submitted a new plan. Russia’s war on Ukraine and the associated economic chaos are the latest events to get in the way of serious action on climate change. Soaring oil and gas prices haven’t prompted a rush to renewables but, among many major states, a determination to extract more domestic fossil fuels and a return to the dirtiest fuel of all, coal.

A challenge to donors

Unlike the wealthy states of the global north Vanuatu already has a carbon-negative economy – its forests and oceans absorb more carbon than the country produces. This puts it at the sharp end of the injustice inherent in climate change – that those who have done the least to cause it suffer its worst effects.

It’s now thrown down the gauntlet to challenge that injustice. One of the ways in which powerful states have dodged responsibility is to claim loss and damage is too complicated. But Vanuatu has offered a model. It has published a precisely costed plan that sets out what it needs and what for.

Its loss-and-damage measures are costed at around US$178 million to implement by 2030. Now Vanuatu is looking to donors to show they’re serious by funding action.

This is a real test for Australia’s new government, which came to power in May following an election in which climate change loomed large. The Australian government is committed both to improving on its predecessor’s dismal record of climate denial and rebuilding relations with Pacific Island nations – not least to try to head off China’s attempts at growing its regional influence. Pacific Island states are calling for climate commitment. There should be no attempt to build relations in the region without this.

Vanuatu is leading the way. If there’s any hope of stopping climate change running out of control, the world must follow.


  • Global north donors must commit to financially supporting Vanuatu’s climate plan.
  • Vanuatu’s climate plan should be used as a model to develop more ambitious climate plans by other states ahead of COP27.
  • Genuine progress on financing for adaptation and loss and damage must be made at COP27.

Cover photo by Vanuatu ICJ Initiative