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- Women leaders in the Pacific Islands have acclaimed the agreement on reducing global warming achieved at the United Nations (COP21) Climate Change conference in Paris as an unprecedented moment of world solidarity on an issue which has been marked to date by division between the developing and industrialized world. But for Pacific small island developing states, which name climate change as the single greatest threat to their survival, it will only be a success if inspirational words are followed by real action.
“It’s a huge step forward and I don’t think it would have been possible without the voices of indigenous Pacific Islanders banding together and demanding action and justice…. I am very optimistic about the future,” Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, climate activist and poet from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, who attended the historic meeting, told IPS.
Intense negotiations and compromise between the interests of 195 countries, plus the European Union, which make up the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the climate change convention, marked its 21st meeting in Paris last month.
Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the regional Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), said that “while not all the issues identified by Pacific Island countries were included in the final outcome and agreement, there were substantive advances with recognition of the importance of pursuing efforts to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the inclusion of loss and damage as a separate element in the agreement and simplified and scaled up access to climate change finance.”
Claire Anterea of the Kiribati Climate Action Network in the small Central Pacific atoll nation of around 110,000 people added that the outcome was “good, but not perfect,” highlighting that the new temperature goal and call to boost climate finance were particularly important.
The World Meteorological Organisation predicted this year will be the hottest on record with average global temperatures expected to reach 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial age. Meanwhile Pacific Island countries are bracing for further rising temperatures, sea levels, ocean acidification and coral bleaching this century. Maximum sea level rise in many island states could reach more than 0.6 metres, reports the Pacific Climate Change Science Program.
Due to rising seas in the Marshall Islands “a simple high tide results in waves flooding and crashing through sea walls built of cement and rocks and completely destroying homes. The salt from the flooding also destroys our crops and food,” Jetnil-Kijiner said..
In the best case scenario, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea could experience a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but under high emissions this might soar to 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2090.
Global warming could result in yields of sweet potato, a common staple crop, declining by more than 50 per cent in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands by 2050, estimates the Asian Development Bank. The burden of crop losses will fall on the shoulders of Pacific Islands’ women who are primarily responsible in communities for growing fresh produce, producing food and fetching water.
Pacific Islanders led a campaign in Paris this year to recognize a new temperature rise threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is critical, they argued, to stem future climate shocks and mitigate forced displacement as islands become increasingly uninhabitable due to loss of food, water and land.
And in a sign of shifting views in the industrialized world, Pacific Islanders were joined in their campaigning on this issue by numerous developed and developing nations in a ‘Coalition of High Ambition’ which emerged during the second week of COP21. Solidarity was demonstrated by, amongst others, Mexico, Brazil, Norway, Germany, the European Union and United States.
The final Paris agreement which seeks to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and ‘pursue efforts’ to further reduce it by another 0.5 degree was a win for the coalition.
“1.5 degrees Celsius wasn’t even on the table before the conference began, so hearing it first announced that it even made it into the text made me cry with relief. That being said, the vague wording definitely has me worried and I know it’ll take a continued push from all of us to actually reach 1.5,” Jetnil-Kijiner said.
This will not decrease the immense challenges the region already faces in adapting to extreme weather, which cannot be met by small island economies without access to international climate finance. This year island leaders called for the international community to honour its pledge to raise 100 billion dollars per year by 2020 to fund adaptation in developing countries, an objective first conceived in Copenhagen in 2009. Assessments since then of how much has been raised vary, but the World Bank claimed in April there was a serious shortfall of 70 billion dollars.
Taylor believes “there is a positive outlook for climate financing post-2020 with Article 9 of the Paris Agreement identifying that, for Small Island Developing States, financing needs to be public and grant-based resources for adaptation.” There has been debate about whether finance mechanisms, such as the Green Climate Fund (GCF), should issue free grants or concessional loans.
Anterea emphasised that, to be effective, funding “needs to reach grassroots people through a simple processing method.”
Recognition of loss and damage caused by extreme weather and natural disasters in the final pact was also a milestone, the PIFS Secretary General added, even though it does not provide for vulnerable nations to claim liability or compensation from big polluters.
“The legal right of countries to test the liabilities of other Parties using other avenues has not been diminished by this decision,” she said.
But the greatest hope is being invested in the binding commitment by nations to set emission reduction targets and be subject to a process of long term monitoring and review, a move which would accelerate the global transition toward renewable energy and make the burning of fossil fuels, the greatest driver of greenhouse gas emissions, increasingly unviable.
“We need the five-year review as a crucial step to keeping countries’ governments accountable to our targets and goals,” Jetnil-Kijiner emphasised. If nations are not emboldened to better their goals every time, the planet may continue toward a devastating temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius or more, experts conclude.
The most pressing question, after the euphoria of the global accord demonstrated in Paris has died down, is how will these lofty promises be implemented? Pacific Islanders are depending on it. (IPS | 1 January 2016)
Photo: Coastal communities in the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific Islands are already threatened by climate change with rising seas and stronger storm surges. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS