Op-Ed in Fiji Times: Urgent need for a Green Climate Agreement

09 Dec 2009

The Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are amongst the most vulnerable to climate change. Responsible for only a miniscule part of the world’s carbon emissions, they are the first to bear the brunt of the effects. With climate related disasters inevitably on the rise in our region, we should not miss the opportunity to make a difference in Copenhagen.

The outcome of the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen will be crucial for the Pacific people. This meeting that begun on Monday, should result in an agreement that promotes development and makes sure that the most vulnerable countries are addressed. Climate change is also a development issue affecting key sectors, such as water, agriculture, health, coastal management and tourism, which can hinder efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals.

Affecting the vulnerable

Fearing the impacts of climate change, several PICs are amongst those who are asking for assistance to be able to adjust to the impacts of climate change. Some countries are already reported to be experiencing increasing climate change-induced damage – like fresh water supplies corrupted by salt water intrusion - particularly in highly vulnerable, low-lying atoll islands.

In Kiribati, the Government has prepared skill training programmes to make the people more competitive and marketable so they have better opportunities in the labor market abroad, the day they might have to leave their country. In Tuvalu, the possibility of a future evacuation is being discussed. Here, tropical cyclones appear to be increasing and escalating crop damage and reduction of freshwater supplies and coastal erosion are some of the concerns.

In Fiji, more than 9,000 people had to leave their homes due to flooding earlier this year. This could be a taste of what several pacific communities can expect in the future, as a result of climate change.   

Adaptation

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the small island states are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Even though the PICs are responsible for only 0.03 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, they are amongst the first to bear the brunt of the effects. Floods, sea level rise and more extreme weather conditions including storms and cyclones are of great concern to the leaders and population of the region.

A new, global climate agreement is crucial for the island states, but while the international debate to a great extent is concerned about emission reductions, adaption is a greater priority in this region. We must now reconcile ourselves to the fact that while mitigation efforts remain crucial and urgent and can also have benefits for PICs in the form of improved energy access, they are coming too late to avoid some of the current effects of climate change in particular vulnerable populations. Therefore, adapting to the effects already felt, and to the inevitable effects that will hit us in the next few years, must be a central part of the response we are planning.

UNDP’s largest project in the region is currently the Pacific Islands Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) programme, supporting 13 island states’ efforts to build resilience to climate change. The main focuses are on food security, coastal management and water resource management. In addition to these PACC projects, UNDP also has community projects in waste recycling, mangrove replanting, coastal protection, renewable energy and sustainable land management.

National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA) to Climate Change are implemented in several countries including Kiribati, Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. In November 2009, the Government of Tuvalu and UNDP agreed to the “Increasing Resilience of Coastal Areas and Community Settlements to Climate Change in Tuvalu” project, addressing key priorities within the Tuvalu NAPA and funded from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). UNDP will assist Tuvalu on national and local levels, with different programmes from training of government officials to raising climate change awareness in the communities and implement projects such as crop production, erosion control and water conservation techniques in all islands.

Promoting development

At the ongoing Copenhagen conference, the rich nations can still contribute to a climate agreement which also promotes development. While the large-emission countries need to commit to increased reduction of emissions, they must also ensure that the developing countries are given opportunities to grow and that there are resources available for protection and help to people who are already affected. At the same time, developing countries need to take responsibility for reducing the growth of their emissions.  

A climate agreement which promotes development means that developing countries would keep achieving economic growth so their population can be lifted out of poverty. But as much as possible this growth needs to be ‘green’, supported by the necessary resources, technology and knowledge from developed countries. It is also necessary to provide significant funding so these countries can strengthen climate resilience.

What we need is an agreement supporting development focusing on adaptation, with an outstretched hand to the Pacific people.

Mr Knut Ostby is the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, representing 10 Pacific island countries:  Fiji, Tuvalu, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.