Tuvalu News

Tuvalu's SOS and the Pacific successes in Bonn

Saturday: July 28, 2001

by Kalinga Seneviratne

Singapore (IPS/PINA Nius Online, 28 July 2001)

While 180 governments were locked in intense negotiations on the climate change pact in Germany, the small South Pacific country of Tuvalu sent out an international SOS signal.

Officials of Tuvalu, which has a population of 11,000, asked Australia and New Zealand if they would be willing to allow the Pacific island nation's citizens to migrate there if the islands continue to sink due to rising sea levels, and become uninhabitable.

Tuvalu is made up of nine atolls of about 26 sq km, and several of the islands are fast shrinking. In the last decade, rising sea levels have claimed one percent of the land and some claims are that Tuvalu will be wiped off the map within the next 50 years.

The plea from tiny Tuvalu made it clear that the effects of climate change are already being felt.

This is why South Pacific countries, among the most vulnerable to changes caused by the warming of the Earth's temperature, welcomed the Bonn agreement on climate change reached on July 23, but with some caution.

The Bonn conference produced a broad agreement on rules for implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, whose implementation hung in the balance after the United States pulled out from it in March.

Like many developing-country governments that played a key role in keeping the tough talks in Bonn going, the Samoa-based South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) described the agreement as a triumph of multilateralism over unilateralism.

This was in reference to Washington's pullout from the pact, which made it much more difficult to get the protocol ratified into international law and which some said would effectively kill the agreement that binds industrialised countries into cutting emissions of greenhouse gases.

The agreement is also ''a triumph for exhausted Pacific Island negotiators who persisted for many years to voice their concerns,'' SPREP officials said.

Indeed, in an impassioned appeal to rich countries at the Bonn meeting, Samoa's Environment Minister Tuala Sale Tagaloa, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, called on countries to recognise scientific evidence and honour their commitment to the Kyoto agreement.

''For our countries it is undeniably necessary to do so,'' he said. ''There is no choice. We know and we can see the damage being done.''

Also, SPREP says that as a result of the Bonn agreement, Pacific Island nations can look forward to getting monetary assistance from developed countries to help them adapt to changing living conditions due to rising sea levels.

Canada has pledged 10 million U.S. dollars to help kickstart a fund and Japan and the European Union have also agreed to contribute to it.

Yet there were difficult parts of this agreement, including its acceptance of the use of emissions trading by industrialised countries and of carbon sinks to earn credits toward cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

Still, New Zealand's Energy Minister Pete Hodgson hailed this week's accord as a good deal, saying ''it means we've got rules which are easy to understand and hard to break''.

''Kyoto was only ever a very modest deal. It was never enough to get on top of the issue of climate change. That will take decades, yet we now have a mechanism by which we might,'' added Hodgson.

To implement the agreement, New Zealand however would have to work on cutting its emissions of methane -- the gas emitted by stock such as sheep and cattle -- and on cutting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

The Bonn agreement actually makes it easier for New Zealand to reach its greenhouse gas emission targets, because the agreement allows countries to take into account carbon stored in new and managed forests.

But the compromise agreement to allow the use of carbon 'sinks' to offset greenhouse gas emissions has been described by environmentalists as a big loophole that could help polluting countries write off their carbon dioxide on paper -- but do nothing to curb the harmful emissions themselves.

Indeed, New Zealand Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons was sceptical of this controversial provision. ''It is not a big victory for the planet, but it is a small victory for international diplomacy and cooperation,'' she told the 'New Zealand Herald'.

Pacific Island countries have been particularly critical of Australia's stance on the Kyoto protocol and its attempts to water it down in Bonn.

As the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the region, as well as one of the world's largest coal producers, Pacific islands view Australia as acting purely in its own self-interest.

Some Pacific island governments feared that developed countries would push for agreement in Bonn to include nuclear energy as an avenue against which to offset their greenhouse gas emission targets.

In such a scenario, Pacific Island countries suspected that developed countries like Australia would then try to establish nuclear energy plants in the Pacific to obtain ''environmental credit''.

''Pacific Island countries were not keen to see a proliferation of such projects in the Pacific because of issues related to sustainability of such projects,'' SPREP explained in a statement.

This scenario may not have happened, but in any case, countries like Tuvalu are unlikely to be able to get much sympathy coming from bigger neighbours like Australia.

To Tuvalu's question to Australia and New Zealand about offering shelter to people who have to leave the nation if it becomes unliveable, Canberra issued a reply from the immigration viewpoint.

Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told Radio Australia that the people of Tuvalu are not entitled to any special schemes.

''The fact is we've been talking about these issues for the last 20 years. And it is, not at the moment, an issue in which the populations of those countries are at risk,'' he said.

''Things are getting densely populated and land mass erosion is really becoming a great concern,'' Pusineli Laafai, Tuvalu's assistant secretary of foreign affairs, told the same radio programme.

Already, Laafai said, people have already started leaving and there is a substantial population of Tuvaluans in New Zealand. ''New Zealand has been quite relaxed and supportive,'' he said, criticising Australia for been lukewarm to their request.

IPS/PINA Nius Online

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