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OPINION: Pacific nations lead on climate. We must now do the same for nature

Tuesday, 24 November 2020 10:45 GMT

Surfers walk out of the water at sunset after surfing along the coast of Kiritimati Island, part of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, April 5, 2016. To match Feature PACIFIC-JUSTICE/ REUTERS/Lincoln Feast

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Progress on climate action is at risk of unravelling if Pacific island states do not step up on the related crisis of nature loss

Peter Thomson the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, in which role he drives global support for UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, to conserve and sustainably use the Ocean’s resources.

On 20 February 2016, Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji. The most intense tropical storm system yet recorded in the South Pacific, it drove a path of devastation across the country, destroying 40,000 homes and causing $1.4 billion worth of damage.

As the tropical cyclone season begins again for the South Pacific, Pacific island nations look to their weather charts for signs of nascent storms. They well know that one of the main features of global climate change is that of increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms.

At the same time, they can look back proudly on the work they have undertaken since 2016, both at home and on the global stage of climate change negotiations. Pacific voices have been among the most strident calling for greater climate action. ‘Save us and save the world’, their Leaders have cried. The world’s first Gender Action Plan, acknowledging women’s role on the frontline of both climate change and climate action, was adopted at UN climate talks in 2017 under Fiji’s Presidency.

Yet, while the Blue Pacific has led and made the strong moral case for action on climate, this progress is at risk of unravelling if we do not also step up to the related crisis of nature loss. Our islands and history are closely intertwined with the ocean and its biodiversity. It underpins our cultures and economies while at the same time providing food and nutritional security for millions.

But the health of the ocean is in crisis. Overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change are causing populations of ocean species to plummet, placing entire ecosystems at risk.

Nearly 90% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. At the same time, warming waters are driving unprecedented bleaching of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of many species that Pacific islanders depend on for food security. Coral reefs are home to 30% of the ocean’s biodiversity - meanwhile the IPCC has made it very clear that most coral will die off in the near-future if global warming continues on its current course.

Action is critical to safeguard the ocean, and with it our livelihoods and health. The world must move from overexploitation of the ocean to sustainable use, reducing rather than adding additional pressures to existing stressors like pollution and over-fishing. Ocean use must be guided by ecosystem-based integrated ocean management, and through effectively managed and protected marine areas, sustainable fishing and aquaculture practices, and decisive efforts to eliminate marine pollution.

Pacific nations are already showing leadership in this regard. Palau has closed 80 percent of its water to commercial fishing. Just this October, Samoa committed to fully protect 30 percent of its ocean by 2024.

Work is also underway to protect our precious coral reefs and safeguard the vulnerable communities that depend on them. Coral Reef Rescue, an initiative led by conservation and development partners, aims to secure a future for the most resilient reefs, in collaboration with local communities and governments. Fiji’s Great Sea Reef has been found to be particularly resilient, and here a source-to-sea approach is being implemented - crucial to safeguarding this diverse and important ecosystem.

However, national action must also be accompanied by global leadership. Just as with climate, the Pacific must step up on the global stage and make the strong moral case for action from all countries to halt our global biodiversity crisis.

In this context, it was encouraging to see a number of Pacific island nations endorse the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature in September, committing with more than 70 other countries to take the necessary actions to reverse nature loss by 2030. I hope that others will follow suit.

The Pacific can and must lead by example. We can do so by ensuring a blue-green and just response to the global health and economic crisis and, crucially, pushing for transformative action on nature to be agreed at the global level.

Central to this must be the adoption next year of an ambitious global biodiversity agreement at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity conference to set nature on the path to recovery by 2030.

It will be essential that this agreement recognizes the urgency of our nature crisis. Pacific island nations can make the case compellingly. The agreement must also commit countries to tackling the drivers of biodiversity loss, most notably our broken food systems, and adequately recognize the interlinkages between biodiversity loss and climate change

With decisive action now, we can secure a resilient, carbon-neutral and nature-positive future for all. Pacific Islanders are on the frontline.