Fijian COP23 to give the most vulnerable to climate change a louder voice

In November the annual UNFCCC climate conference takes place in Bonn but it is presided for the first time by a small island developing state: Fiji. The country is among the most exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the mission of this year’s COP Presidency is to bring the requests of Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and other developing states to the top of the international agenda.

Fijian Prime Minister and incoming COP23 President Frank Bainimarama made it clear in his speech to the UN general assembly in New York in September, expressing “solidarity and sympathy” to the people recently hit by devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean and in the United States. “Last year, we lost 44 of our own people and a third of our GDP when Fiji was struck by the biggest cyclone ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere”, Bainimarama said. “So as incoming COP President, I am deeply conscious of the need to lead a global response to the underlying causes of these events. And the appalling suffering in the Caribbean and the US reminds us all that there is no time to waste”.

PICs’ contribution to climate change, in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases, is negligible, but they present the highest vulnerability to several natural hazards climate change is exacerbating, such as tropical cyclones, droughts, storm surges and flooding. Sea level rise represents an existential threat to low-lying atoll island nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu and Republic of the Marshall Islands. According to a recent report by the World Bank, climate change represents the major risk for the future of the PICs, as its impacts affect agriculture, fisheries, coastal zones, water resources, health, and ecosystems and thus threaten entire communities and economies. The economic costs of natural disasters are already high for most Pacific countries (on average between 0.5 to 6.6 per cent of annual GDP) and climate change will increase vulnerabilities. The study estimates that the cost for coastal adaptation to deal with sea level rise and adaptation to increases in rainfall and temperature alone ranges between US$400 million and US$1.2 billion annually.

By raising the attention on the disproportionate effects climate change has on the most vulnerable countries (who mostly are the smallest emitters of GHG), the “Pacific COP” will bring to the center of the stage the two most cumbersome topics discussed during climate talks in the past few years: the 1.5°C temperature goal and the “Loss and Damage” (L&D) framework.

The first is the aspirational goal agreed in Paris in 2015, to “pursuing efforts” for a more ambitious target than limiting the global temperature increase to “well below 2°C” and having a better chance of avoiding global warming’s worst effects. Interpreted as a symbolic victory for small islands states, the 1.5°C goal is considered out of reach at current emission levels. The IPCC is expected to release a special report on the implications and feasibility of the 1.5°C target in 2018. Meanwhile, a new study published in Nature Geoscience estimates a larger carbon budget than previously thought to stay below the 1.5°C limit and revived the debate on whether the goal is within reach. Back in the political arena, Bainimarama said the rapid development of clean and affordable energy technologies “offers great promise that we can achieve this 1.5 degree target and prosper” and committed to make it a key topic at COP23: “There is an urgent need to fix this number as our objective and as soon as possible”, he said in New York [2].

The U.N. mechanism for L&D was established at COP 19 in 2013 to address unavoidable negative impacts of climate change in vulnerable developing countries. The framework has seen slow progress so far, with thorny discussions and stalemates between poorer and richer, older industrialized states, because of its link to the concepts of historical responsibility, liability and compensation. The extreme weather events that have hit the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and southern United States in the past few months have brought the attention back on the need of accelerate the process. COP23, led by a small island state still recovering from the devastating effects of Cyclone Winston in 2016, is expected to be the main stage to resume discussions about adaptation finance, climate-related insurance, disaster risk reduction and climate displacement management.

It is hard to envisage whether the Fijian presidency will be able to impose the urgency it wishes on these questioned topics, as the deadline to deliver the Paris rulebook by 2018 is already seen as a top priority. However, the global community has regained momentum after the U.S. withdrawal, showing (at least in words) cohesion and determination in following the path set at COP21.

The government of Nicaragua announced it will sign the Paris Agreement in solidarity with the population who suffered from the recent weather disasters. Nicaragua’s participation would leave only Syria and the United States out of the climate deal.

Canada, China and the European Union have consolidated a joint line of climate diplomacy with a first international summit in Montreal in September, participated by 34 governments.

The role of non-state actors is on the raise in the climate policy arena and COP23 may become the first summit where this new role is fully acknowledged. COP23 President Bainimarama appointed California governor Jerry Brown as Special Envoy for States and Regions, to involve local jurisdictions in actively committing to reduce their emissions within the Under2 Coalition. Currently 187 cities, states and countries representing 1.2 billion people and 39 percent of the global economy have joined the coalition.

Together with Michael Bloomberg, Brown is also leading the “America’s Pledge on climate change”, an initiative born after the White House announced the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. To be presented at COP23, the initiative will compile climate commitments of U.S. states, cities and businesses and quantify their contribution to deliver on the U.S. pledge under the global climate deal.


(Image: Beachcomber island, Fiji. Photo credit: Malcolm Peacey/Flickr)