Paris climate agreement must guarantee our island survival

by Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak and Kiribati President Anote Tong
Tuesday, 6 October 2015 09:04 GMT

Binata Pinata cleans fish as she sits on the shoreline on Bikeman Islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, May 25, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

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Our countries are living proof of the peril to come but we are also the incubators of the new climate economy, and the world needs to follow our lead

Never before in human history has a country been wiped completely off the face of the Earth. But today, our nations face exactly this possibility. We face the prospect of a new world map on which our island nations have disappeared under the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.     

The science is clear and unambiguous. If the world continues its polluting ways, global temperatures will increase by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, sea levels will rise by a metre or two, precious forests will burn, and the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed. 

Already, with only 1 degree Celsius of warming, our island homes – two of the lowest-lying coral atoll nations in the world – are at the mercy of more severe and frequent tropical storms, loss of freshwater reserves and crumbling coastlines. 

For us, life in the Pacific has quickly become like living in a war zone. We limp from one disaster to another. Without urgent action, things will only get worse. Our countries will be the first to go, but others will surely follow. Unchecked, climate change promises to unleash the greatest breakdown in global security the world has ever seen.

Next month, world leaders and their ministers will gather in Paris with the opportunity to forge a new international pact to avert the oncoming climate crisis. Last week’s U.N. General Assembly in New York marked the beginning of the political endgame for that deal, and the signs are generally promising.

We saw the leaders of the world’s two biggest emitting countries – China and the United States – recommit to driving down their emissions and embracing a low carbon economy. Some of the big emerging economies – India, Brazil and South Africa – also came forward with new plans to reduce the emissions intensity of their economic growth. 

And a cavalcade of our world leaders rose to the U.N. podium to declare that climate action is our common responsibility, and that Paris must be a success to ensure that a safe climate future is our common destiny. 

UNAVOIDABLE TRUTHS

To succeed in this task, the Paris Agreement must recognise and respond to some unavoidable truths. 

First, in order to keep warming to less than 1.5 degrees - which the science tells us is the red line of our survival - the Paris Agreement needs to do more than simply list countries’ targets and recall our general aspirations. 

The Agreement needs to signal a break with the past, and set the course for a clean, green energy future. It needs to say loud and clear that our common goal is to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, and to fully decarbonise the world economy by the middle of the century. Our call for “no new coal mines” is intended to help make this happen.

Second, we need to recognise that the targets currently on the table for Paris fall well short of what is needed, and should be seen only as a starting point. The attempt by some of the biggest emitters to lock in their insufficient targets for the next 15 years through to 2030 is completely irresponsible, and is not compatible with limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees. On the contrary, a 2030 lock-in would lock out our atoll nations’ future. 

Together with our Pacific family, we are demanding that the Paris Agreement include an unequivocal commitment by all countries to come back to the table every five years to update their targets, taking into account new science and new technology. The first round of updates will be due in 2020. 

Third, we need to recognise that doing a deal for the future in Paris will require an atmosphere of trust, and a big dose of political reassurance. To start, previous commitments need to be honoured, not least by industrialised countries setting out a credible plan to deliver the $100 billion a year in climate finance they promised by 2020, and to go further after that. 

ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

The fall meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and the G20 in November, are perfect opportunities to reassure developing countries that their concerns are being heard. 

Before signing up in Paris, we need to know we will have the necessary support to protect our fragile communities and economies from the increasingly serious climate impacts that are not of our own making. And we need to see a serious reckoning with the reality that the most vulnerable will suffer impacts that they cannot adapt to, what our negotiators call “loss and damage”.

Finally, Paris needs to embrace the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century. While our two countries are living proof of the peril to come, we are also the incubators of the new climate economy. Our bold commitments to do away with expensive imported fossil fuels, to roll out solar power and to try potentially transformational technology like Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, have helped to demonstrate what the new climate economy looks like, and the significant opportunities that come with it. 

If we are to stand a chance at averting this climate crisis, the world’s leaders need to follow our lead. Our interest is the same as theirs. Saving our islands will also save the world. 

Christopher Loeak is the President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Anote Tong is the President of the Republic of Kiribati.