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Pacific's future under threat

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pacific Island countries have amongst the smallest carbon footprints in the world, yet they are likely to suffer the most severe consequences of climate change if the world community does not manage global warming.

This is one of the major topics raised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at the recent launch of the 2007 Human Development Report, Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World.

Carbon footprints refer to the amount of carbon dioxide produced by human beings as a result of the lifestyles they have and the impact this has on the environment.

However, many Pacific Islanders may wonder how the much debated trade off between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth has anything to do with the reality that various islands are actually disappearing below water.

This trade off was the crux of discussions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali earlier this month, which was attended by world leaders and civil society.

This conference was aimed at developing a road map to curb the harmful effects of climate change and laid the platform for further negotiations on ways to address this issue.

Climate change used to be the main agenda of environmental activists, but recently it has taken centre stage in all development work.

Climate change is now proven through scientific fact as having major impact on all aspects of development including agriculture, health and economic activities like tourism. This has been the subject of a whole series of international reports; UNDP's Human Development Report and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are the most recent.

So what are these reports changing for Pacific Island Countries?

The IPCC report provides an analysis of the physical evidence, occurrences as well as the consequences of climate change.

The UNDP HDR takes the argument further by showing the potential impact on human development.

Changing rainfall and seasonal patterns will have a direct impact on those who rely on agriculture and fisheries for their livelihood and nutritional intake. Higher temperatures may cause more natural disasters like cyclones, drought and could increase the areas where malaria will become a problem.

Investment in infrastructure such as roads, airports and harbors, will have to be simply written off when they disappear below water.

"Many coastal communities in the Pacific could be seriously affected by rising sea levels and flooding caused by global temperature increases of 3-4 degrees Celsius could result the permanent or temporary displacement of people living in low-lying areas," said Mr Richard Dictus, UN Resident Co-ordinator and UNDP Resident Representative.

UNDP recognises that the more climate change progresses, the more difficult it will become to for developing countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. This of course highlights the emergence of a new perverse reality. The most severe impacts of climate change are not suffered by the rich developed sources of green house gases, but by more vulnerable developing countries and their people.

And as usual the small island developing states are at the extreme of the spectrum of countries that are being affected and that have least resources to reduce the impact.

This year's Human Development Report provides a stark account of the threat posed by global warming.

It underlines that we are drifting towards a "tipping point" that could lock the world's poorest countries and their poorest citizens in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and a loss of livelihoods. Pacific Island countries stand to lose a great deal due to the development impact of climate change.

As the report makes clear, what we do today about climate change has consequences that will last a century or more.

The heat-trapping gases we send into the atmosphere in 2008 will stay there until 2108, and beyond.

We as a global community, sharing one planet, are therefore making choices today that will affect our own lives, but even more so, the lives of our children and grandchildren.

The Human Development Report calls for a "twin track" approach that combines stringent mitigation to limit 21st Century warming to less than two degrees Celsius, with strengthened international cooperation on adaptation.

While acknowledging the threat posed by rising emissions from major developing countries, the authors argue that northern governments have to initiate the deepest and earliest cuts.

They point out that rich countries carry overwhelming historic responsibility for the problem, have far deeper carbon footprints, and have the financial and technological capabilities to act.

The impact of climate change on development in the Pacific is not clearly visible at this stage and as a result relative 2007 HDI rankings of the Pacific have not changed much.

The report ranks the following Pacific Islands Countries as follows: Tonga 55 (unchanged when compared to 2006), Fiji 92, Samoa 77 (both have moved up by two ranks), Solomon Islands 129, Vanuatu (both moved up by one rank) and Papua New Guinea 145, representing an upward movement of six ranks. Apart from Tonga, all the Pacific Island countries are in the medium development range.

The report calls on developed countries to demonstrate leadership by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050 through a mix of carbon taxation, more stringent cap-and-trade programmes, energy regulation, and international cooperation on financing for low-carbon technology transfer. It further argues for reform including additional financing for climate proofing infrastructure and building resilience, with northern governments allocating at least $86billion annually by 2015 (about 0.2 per cent of their projected GDP). For developing and least developed countries, the report proposes an increase in international support for the development of local capacity to monitor climate and improve public access to meteorological information.

There are further suggestions to integrate adaptation planning into wider strategies for reducing poverty and extreme inequalities, including poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs).

It warns that inequalities in ability to cope with climate change are emerging as an increasingly powerful driver of wider inequalities between and within countries. It calls on rich countries to put climate change adaptation at the centre of international partnerships on poverty reduction.

"It is therefore very hard to accept that these will be the same countries that will be so hard hit if the world does not significantly cuts the emission of greenhouse gases" said Mr Dictus.

"The proof that climate change is happening as we speak is based now on hard scientific evidence.

"We can observe the changes ourselves and the consequences are inescapable. The world community needs to take action and the UN agencies in the Pacific are committing themselves to provide support and assistance in any way they can."

Reports however well written do not change things. The 2007 UNDP Human Development report, like many other global instruments, lacks a concrete focus on the Pacific.

It is useful as it focuses on the Human Cost of climate change and this is a concept that could save the Pacific well if it is picked up more consistently and with more Pacific detail.

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