Climate Change Primary Concern at Pacific Islands Forum

AUCKLAND, New Zealand, September 8, 2011 (ENS) – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders of Pacific island nations Wednesday issued an urgent call for international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as climate change endangers the security, well-being and livelihoods of the peoples of the region.

Ban is the first United Nations chief to attend the annual Pacific Islands Forum, held this year on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland.

Before arriving in Auckland, Ban stopped on the low-lying island nation of Kiribati (KIRR-i-bas), describing it as being at the “front of the frontlines” on climate change as melting ice caps and glaciers cause sea levels to rise.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, is greeted by a Kiribati leaders.

“The high tide shows that it is high time to act,” urged Ban.

The South Pacific leaders urged “an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to enable the survival and viability of all Pacific small island developing states,” says a joint statement issued Wednesday by the Secretary-General and the leaders attending the Pacific Islands Forum – marking the Forum’s 40th anniversary.

Jimmie Rodgers, director general, Secretariat of the Pacific Community said, “The impacts of climate change are more pronounced in the Pacific Small Island Developing States. For many of their citizens, climate change touches and impacts their lives on a regular basis. For them it is about how food security can be sustained, how health is protected, how education is enhanced, how safe water supply is safeguarded, how coastal areas are protected, how human settlements are climate proofed and how the impact of high water surges and flooding are reduced.”

Reducing the region’s reliance on expensive fossil fuels and the promotion of renewable energy will be high on the list of forum leaders’ talks, which continue through Saturday.

The host country, New Zealand, will fund construction of one megawatt photovoltaic solar power plant in the island nation of Tonga.

Announcing the plan as leaders gathered in Auckland, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, said his country would invest NZ$7.9 million (US$6.5 million) in the solar project as spelled out in an agreement with the Tongan government, Tonga Power Ltd. and Meridian Energy.

Tonga’s Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano said, “The Tongan government is grateful for such assistance, which will contribute to Tonga’s target of reducing fossil fuel use by 50 percent by the end of 2012.”

Dr. Jimmie Rodgers, director general, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, left, and Thomas Nides, U.S. deputy secretary of state sign a climate agreement in Auckland, September 8, 2011 (Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy in New Zealand)

The United States signed a climate change agreement for the Pacific at the Forum on Thursday morning. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides signed the document, which pledges better cooperation between the United States and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme.

The agreement is intended to strengthen the capacity of the Pacific Island countries to improve food and water security, to protect critical ecosystems and to access information about climate impacts for more effective and sustainable decisions.

These partnerships are part of a larger US$21 million “fast start” finance commitment made by the United States for a Pacific Small Island Developing States climate change program, Nides said. The United States will manage the $21 million program through the U.S. Agency for International Development, which will open an office in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea in the coming months.

Nides is leading the largest and highest-level U.S. delegation ever to participate in the Pacific Islands Forum. The delegation includes senior officials from the White House, departments of State, Defense, Commerce, the United States Agency for International Development, the Coast Guard, and the Peace Corps. The State Department says the delegation demonstrates “U.S. commitment to the security and economic prosperity of the Pacific.”

“This support from the United States is historic,” said Rodgers. “It represents a new partnership approach of working with regional organizations.”

The European Commission announced at the forum that it will make $17 million available to Papua New Guinea and East Timor to help combat climate change. This commitment falls within the overall seven billion euro contribution of Europe under the Fast Start financing program agreed at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

Vanuatu looks idyllic but the planet’s warming climate is sending sea levels higher each year. (Photo by Ben M11)

Since 2008, when Pacific and European leaders adopted their Joint Declaration on Climate Change and signed country and regional strategies, the European Commission has provided 80 million euro to address climate change in the Pacific.

Speaking at the Forum, EU President Jose Barroso said, “Most countries in this region are the least responsible for global warming – indeed they are the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world – but the first to suffer its consequences.”

“The combination of sea level rise, ocean acidification, coastal erosion, more frequent and devastating tropical storms and cyclones is rendering many of your islands and coastal zones wholly or partly uninhabitable,” Barroso acknowledged.

“The EU has the most ambitious climate targets in the world and is willing to do more,” Barroso said. “We are open and ready to continue to push for a legally-binding global agreement.”

Ban Ki-moon, center, and his wife, Yoo Soon-taek, left, plant mangroves on Kiribati to fend off coastal erosion. (Photo courtesy UN)

“However,” he reminded delegates, “the EU only represents 11 percent of global emissions, those responsible for the other 89 percent will have to engage much more. Just as we stood together to make this argument in Copenhagen and Cancun we must continue to encourage all our partners in Durban for a strong global engagement.”

Australia pledged $200 million to Pacific Island nations to tackle education, health and environmental issues, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today.

Of that total, Gillard said Australia would spend $13.5 million on alleviating the effects of climate change in the Pacific, including the planting of mangroves on Kiribati and other water supply, agricultural and coastal maintenance projects in the region.

The UN secretary-general said that his top priority going forward will be sustainable development.

“Our challenge is to connect the dots among all the relevant challenges – climate change, energy security, food security, water security, infectious and non-communicable diseases, gender empowerment, and more,” Ban said. “All these issues are connected. We must look at them in a comprehensive, integrated way.”

The 42nd Pacific Islands Forum, held September 7-8, 2011, was attended by heads of state and government of Australia, the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Kiribati, the Republic of Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu. The Republic of Vanuatu was represented by its Special Envoy. New Caledonia and French Polynesia attended the formal session as associate members. Timor-Leste, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna, the Asian Development Bank, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations, Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, and the World Bank attended as observers.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.