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Pacific states seek to lead on climate change

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 September 2013 13:15 GMT

A man swims next to a manmade wall built to protect the island from rising tides near the village of Eita on South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati on May 25, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

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Declaration aims to drive greater ambition on climate action, but offers no new immediate promises in effort “not to spook anybody”

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Leaders of Pacific nations are due to sign up to a declaration this week asserting their political will to take a leading role in international efforts to tackle climate change, as they meet at a summit in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The hosts of the 15-nation Pacific Islands Forum - which includes small island states as well as Australia and New Zealand - hope the statement will also garner support from countries that are major emitters of planet-warming greenhouse gases, including the United States, China, India, Japan and the European Union.

The "Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership" is expected to urge governments, cities, the private sector and civil society groups to commit to being "climate leaders by listing specific commitments, targets and actions that contribute more than previous efforts to the urgent phase-down of GHG (greenhouse gas) pollution".

It is also intended as a tool for Pacific nations to shape the global process of negotiating a new climate agreement. The president of the Marshall Islands hopes to present the declaration to the U.N. secretary-general in New York at the U.N. General Assembly later this month, his office said in a statement from Majuro on Wednesday.

"We hope to use (it) as a way of representing to the world that we made new commitments to political leadership in climate change," Minister-in-Assistance to the President, Tony de Brum, told Thomson Reuters Foundation from the Marshall Islands capital. "We want to make this declaration a notice to all our Pacific leaders that the train is moving - we must get on it as Pacific climate change leaders."

On a website promoting the declaration, it is billed as a "platform for an upward spiral of ambition which allows committed climate leaders to continue to scale up their action by listing new and more ambitious efforts over time". But de Brum said in its first incarnation it would likely bring together existing pledges and plans for emissions reductions by Pacific and other governments, rather than presenting any fresh initiatives.

Neither will the declaration include a goal - previously floated by an alliance of small island states - of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a level more ambitious than an internationally-backed 2 degrees goal, the Marshall Islands senator said.

The scope of the declaration reflects a desire "not to spook anybody", de Brum added. "We wanted something that people could still subscribe to without the additional burden of making it...controversial to domestic politics, or to their own national interest," he said. He pointed to this weekend's elections in Australia, in which a conservative-led coalition that has promised to repeal Australia’s carbon tax is considered likely to win.


Nonetheless, the push by the Pacific Islands Forum for a climate change declaration has received considerable international support, not least from the European Union.

Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action, spoke at a panel of experts on the issue and presented its outcomes to leaders on Wednesday, alongside de Brum. In an article published beforehand, she noted that, at the Durban climate talks in 2011, Europe and the Pacific region got all countries to agree that the world needs a new global climate deal by 2015, as well as a process to raise the level of global ambition before it takes effect in 2020.

"The Pacific can count on Europe's cooperation and ambition," she wrote. "We count on the Pacific region to help us bring all other major economies on board the future climate regime."

She had recently seen "attempts to backtrack from the 2015 deadline" agreed in Durban, she added. "We must make clear to all countries that we don't have time for this. We must secure a deal in 2015," she wrote.

De Brum said most Pacific island nations are already undertaking their fair share of low-carbon measures, in line with their relatively small contribution to global emissions. For example, in the Marshall Islands, island communities mainly use solar power for lighting, he said.

The Cook Islands is also installing solar photovoltaic mini-grid systems on its most vulnerable and isolated islands, reducing reliance on diesel-powered generators, with funding from Japan.

Yet, while finance for individual projects is trickling into the region, it is nothing like the amounts that were promised by rich nations at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, and many local people feel like they are not benefiting, de Brum said.

Meanwhile, the negative effects of climate change are already being experienced on Pacific islands, which are threatened by rising seas and more extreme weather. The urgency of acting to deal with climate change is widely recognised by the region's leaders, he said. "I think everyone agrees that it is a problem that is real," he added.

In the Marshall Islands alone, the north of the country has been suffering from drought and shortages of drinking water, while the south was hit by storm surges and floods in June, which knocked out part of the sea wall protecting the airport runway.

Members of the panel of experts who discussed climate change in Majuro this week also visited the nearby Anebok atoll, which has been almost entirely consumed by rising seas in recent years.

"People who had no idea what atolls look like are now true believers," de Brum said. "What we do in the next five years is important for what happens in the next 50."

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