The Pacific's threatened islands

The low-lying Pacific islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are taking little solace from a December alliance between developed and developing nations at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. The conference concluded with agreement for further talks on a new climate change agreement with ‘legal force’ by 2015, to be ratified by 2020.

For these islands, however, that may be too late. Climate extremes are already threatening their land, cultures and socio-economic survival.

The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, initiated by the EU, Alliance of Small Island States and Least Developed Countries, was hailed as a last-minute breakthrough at the summit talks. The ‘Platform’ or roadmap reiterates the main objectives of the Cancun Agreements conceived at the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference in Mexico, such as reducing human-generated carbon emissions by all countries and inception of a Green Climate Fund to assist vulnerable nations in climate change mitigation and adaptation. For the first time an agreement will encompass both developed and developing nations.

“What we were pushing for is a continuation of the efforts to reduce emissions by developed nations and to start the process of establishing a parallel agreement which will include countries not included in the Kyoto Protocol," said the Reverend Tafue Lusama, a Durban conference delegate from Tuvalu, a nation of three reef islands and six atolls in the Central Pacific.

"The outcome is really disappointing because this is what we feared might happen, a delay in the process of trying to counter the problem. The implication of the outcome is that the world is not willing to solve the problem while it is solvable,” he said, “No one is willing to sacrifice for the sake of Mother Earth.”

In a statement in November, Ambassador Dessima Williams, Chair of the small island state alliance, which represents 39 small island nations in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, and 28 percent of developing countries, asserted that “If Durban puts off a legally binding agreement and closes the door on raising mitigation ambition before 2020 many of our small island states will be literally and figuratively doomed. As noted by the International Energy Agency, delaying action until 2017 would close the door to any hope of keeping warming below 2°C and put humanity on a course to the devastation of 4°C warming and many meters of sea level rise. The proposed 2020 timeline would also leave more than five years between the next report of the IPCC due in 2014 and a new round of emission reduction commitments.”

A key demand of the small island alliance is a second five-year commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, which currently binds 37 industrialized nations and the EU to reduce their carbon emissions to agreed targets by 2012, and a new parallel agreement for those with no current Kyoto obligations.

“The developed countries must keep to their word and cut their emissions as pledged,” said Caspar Supa, a UNFCCC delegate to the Durban Conference from the Solomon Islands, “Many in the developed world have already accepted formal targets under the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which will lapse by the end of next year. Now it is time for major players, like the United States, to ratify its commitment.”

Although a five-year extension to the Protocol to commence from January 2013 has been agreed, Canada has since withdrawn and Japan and Russia will not extend their pledges beyond this year.

Pelenise Alofa is from Kiribati, a Central Pacific nation of 100,000 people who live on one raised coral island and 32 atolls. As a member of the Kiribati Climate Action Network, she responded: “It is sad and frustrating that developed countries like Japan, Russia and Canada have rejected the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and the US has never felt the need to be part of this. We cannot force people to meet their responsibilities, but maybe the International Court is the right place to discuss this.”

Meanwhile global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing each year. The UNDP estimates industrialised countries are consuming 90 percent of the sustainable global carbon budget, while the poorest 1 billion people are responsible for approximately 3 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint. Small island nations emit less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the IPCC, the average global temperature of the earth, which is influenced by the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, could rise by 1.8°C to 4°C by the year 2100, exceeding the estimated sustainable threshold of 1.5°C. The resulting expansion of water in the oceans could translate into a sea level rise of 59cm in the 21st century.

An IPCC special report on disaster risk and climate adaptation issued last year reconfirms the predicted scenario for small tropical islands of extreme coastal high water levels and tropical cyclone wind speeds. Environmental impacts are likely to include continued coastal erosion, flooding and saltwater penetration of coastal aquifers.

Small island nations, many of which rise only 3-4 metres above sea level and are threatened by a further rise of only 1 metre, are grappling with this scenario now, with the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands and Tokelau on the frontline. On the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea in the South West Pacific, inundation by the sea has already forced communities to begin migration to nearby Bougainville Island.

It is the socio-economic devastation caused by rising seas which renders island communities uninhabitable. Seawater flooding is eroding land and destroying staple crops of taros, breadfruit and coconuts, resulting in food shortages and malnutrition, while saline contamination of freshwater sources is causing dehydration. Inland seawater penetration is spreading water and vector borne diseases, such as malaria.

In marine areas, higher sea surface temperatures are impacting coral mortality and fish supplies, reducing a further staple and global food source.

If the major economic sectors of agriculture, fisheries and tourism are impacted and foreign investment declines, Pacific and small island nations would be in greater need of international aid. To assist the developing nations, parties to the Durban conference endorsed the Green Climate Fund, which aims to distribute US$100 billion per year by 2020, although it is unclear how the monies will be raised. A Fast Start Funding of the fund has also been pledged, but the promised US$30 billion for 2010-2012 still hasn’t been provided, and 2012 has arrived.

Meanwhile Pacific Islanders say that funds are required now, not in 2020.

“There is no time to waste,” declared Alofa, “We need funds to build more seawalls and work on water projects. The biggest threat to Kiribati is coastal erosion and water salination. We need to address these problems before 2020. The Green Climate Fund should be made available today.”

In the Solomon Islands, an archipelago situated in the Coral Sea, sea flooding has decimated freshwater supplies and crops and displaced communities on the low lying islands of Guadalcanal and Makira.

For the Solomon Islands government, climate change is the most serious environmental threat to sustainable development. Caspar Supa emphasised the urgency of international assistance.

“Time is limited as many coastal communities and low lying atolls have been severely affected by the impact of climate change on their food production and food security,” he said, “There is a need to upscale activities on the ground and expand adaptation activities across the country. Funding availability is a major challenge which international donor agencies need to consider, especially when funds go through many processes and many strings are attached.”

For Reverend Lusama, Tuvalu with a population of 10,544 faces an uncertain future in the next few decades.

“Something should be done as soon as possible if Tuvalu is to be saved,” he stressed, “That is why we wanted the GCF to be effective immediately after Durban. Delaying the effectiveness of the fund till 2020 will only leave us more vulnerable to the impacts. This is not helping at all. This is a clear signal of how our very survival is being ignored in favour or profit making.”

If international climate action and assistance are further delayed, the people of Tuvalu may be forced to migrate, Lusama says. “We have been trying to put into place plans for that purpose, meaning that when it comes to the extreme and we need to move, then we have made arrangements. These initiatives have been undermined by rejection from our neighbouring brothers.”

After 32 years of world climate conferences, with the first held in Geneva in 1979, Lusama is questioning what they have achieved in tangible results.

“I think it has been a waste of time and money, and we have been adding a lot of carbon to the atmosphere going to these summits every year,” he said, “The outcome is being dictated by the powerful and the rich, as always the case, ignoring the cries of the poor and the vulnerable.”