Back from the first Pacific Climate Change conference

The Paris climate agreement: Pacific dimension

After 23 years of international climate talk failure, the Paris Agreement adopted by 195 countries on 12 December 2015 in Paris hailed the first success for the United Nations process. The first collective step by all countries, not just some, to reduce global emissions that is key to saving the future of mankind.
Earlier this month, from 15 to 17 February 2016, Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) put up its hand to organize and host the Pacific region’s first conference to critically look at the Pacific dimension under the umbrella of the Paris Agreement.
Over the three days, delegates from 16 Pacific island countries and territories heard from experts across business, science, law, media, activism, climate justice and human rights, and the arts analyze and postulate about the decarbonization landscape of the Paris Agreement and what that means for the Pacific region, especially vulnerable low-lying countries like Tokelau, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu. Countries also had the chance to tell their stories and detail some of their fears and hopes for their future.
On the final day, the general take by Pacific participants was that the Paris Agreement may have been a global success by virtue of the first time that all 195 countries collectively agreed to stand together and fight climate change. But the reality is that for some Pacific countries, the agreement does not go far enough, for them, if things don’t go up a huge notch, it is already too late. Their future hopes dashed.


The Paris Agreement postulated that ‘any global warming is dangerous’, which satisfied the main objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which is: to avoiddangerous climate change and gave the world a collective starting point to fight climate change.
‘To avoid dangerous climate change’ under the Paris Agreement, nations agreed to hold global temperature rises “well below 2degrees Celsius and endeavour to reach 1.5degrees Celsius” and would individually commit to reduce emissions. They agreed that there would be regular reviews; that $100billion a year would be mobilised to help poor countries to adapt; carbon markets would be developed; forests protected; and renewable energy is given the biggest boost it has ever had.

As a result, the clear message endorsed by the 195 countries: The age of fossil fuels is over. That to reach the new goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of the century and save the world, all countries need to phase out fossil fuels - the easiest to cut - by 2050. This would also address the fact that 7.04 billion tons of carbon dioxide needs to stay in the ground instead of being spewed into the atmosphere for those reductions to happen and cap temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

It will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Targets outlined in the Agreement to phase out fossil fuels will need an estimated $16.5 trillion of spending on renewables and efficiency through to 2030, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

To move away from fossil fuels, governments will have to offer incentives for clean energy production, scale back support for fossil fuels like oil, make emissions more costly, and reduce deforestation.


The Paris Agreement is not law. Rather, it is more a framework for public problem solving on a global scale. 
It is certainly not a binding document that can be enforced by courts and arbitration tribunals. There are no penalties, direct liabilities or even legal commitments behind the lofty goals to which countries have signed up. It means that if the countries that would ratify the Paris agreement want to just walk out of commitment, there is no provision to deter them.

However, the intent of the Paris Agreement is that legally binding policies on compliances would emerge in the future.
For now, the mechanism for driving emissions reductions, known as “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs), is made up of a series of voluntary pledges by each country to reduce their domestic greenhouse gas emissions by amounts they chose themselves.
Ironically, it is this perceived ‘non-binding’ weakness that is perhaps the factor that could make the Paris Agreement successful. That in a world of 195 diverse countries ― from the desperately poor or conflict-ridden to the highly developed ― top-down obligations can never be uniform enough to work. But relying on the bottom-up INDCs, which require the citizens and governments of each individual country to come together to determine what they can reasonably achieve, is far more likely to succeed in today’s world.

It’s a shift that negotiators in Paris recognized as an opportunity to unite business, philanthropy, civil society, academia, and ordinary people to address a major global challenge.

Quite possibly, it was this collective aspect that attracted countries to come together as one to fight the problem, not just some.
As a framework for public problem solving on a global scale, the Paris Agreement has now set in motion global actions by all countries to tackle climate change through (i) mitigation to reduce emission of greenhouse gases; and (ii) adaptation to the adverse impacts of climate change.


However, for a number of small Pacific island countries the reality is that measures outlined in Paris are simply not enough. For some, it is already too late to save their lands and homes. Already, for many years, a number of Pacific countries have been living with the impacts of climate change. Deaths, food loss, more frequent extreme events, erosion, salt water intrusion, sea level rise have drowned some low lying islands forcing the relocation of populations that result in loss of culture related to the lands and heritage. A reality that gets worse every year.

It is true - the Paris Agreement as it stands does not go far enough to protect many Pacific countries from catastrophic events caused by climate pollution. The emissions targets (INDCs) pledged by each country are not big enough, and the Paris deal doesn't do enough to change that.
For instance, in order to cap global temperature rise at 2degrees Celsius, carbon dioxide emissions would have to drop to zero by 2075. And even if all countries meet their current pledges, global warming would still rise by more than 2.7degrees Celsius – well above the 2 degrees Celsius cap.
It means global efforts must redouble by people in civil society to put pressure on their governments and on businesses to decarbonise if low-lying Pacific nations like Tokelau, Kiribati, Tuvalu and others are to be saved.

But other things have changed to the disadvantage of small island states (SIDS). The 1992 context of their ‘special case’ as accorded in the UNFCCC is weaker in 2015.

Already, Pacific small states through lack of voice, lack of presence, lack of economic clout are being pushed down the priority list in the global scheme of things.

The larger and more attractive African countries to investors are taking over the “most vulnerable” tag that for more than 20 years has been the SIDS banner.

But of even more concern are results from a raft of new studies highlighting that even if the global warming goals of the Paris Agreement are achieved, such as capping temperature rises to 2degrees Celsius - 20% of the world’s population will eventually have to migrate away from coasts swamped by rising oceans. These studies highlight that megacities including New York (20.4m), London (8.6m), Rio de Janeiro (12m), Cairo (17.8m), Calcutta (14.3m), Jakarta (26m) and Shanghai (20.8m) would all be submerged.

That being the case, the cry by Tuvalu at Paris 2015, “Save Tuvalu, Save the World” could easily be replaced by “Save New York, Save the World”. When the two are put side by side, it is most likely that the world would back New York, or Rio, or Shanghai while tossing Tuvalu and other vulnerable Pacific countries some money and land to relocate to.

It highlighted a possible role for VUW’s Pacific conference as a regional platform for Pacific countries and territories who participated to recalibrate and focus on areas of collective priority. And a potential international event for Pacific preparations ahead of each Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC.

And that is important because the Paris Agreement is actually a lot stronger than many had hoped for or expected. As Penehuro Lefale of LeA International rightly stated at the conference, rather than look at the Paris Agreement to “deliver the emission reductions necessary, but whether the agreement has the potential to catalyse further changes, whether it becomes a pacemaker for policy processes – at the international level and in the capitals of the world.”

Small Pacific countries like Tokelau, Kiribati and Tuvalu are now looking earnestly to the next milestone after Paris. This will be on 22 April in New York where the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon has invited heads of government to come together to formally sign the Paris Agreement.

After that, the next stop in the global policymaking process will be COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, at the end of 2016. It will be a critical step for countries to step up preparation for the Paris Agreement to enter into force in 2020. And for the Pacific, start the tough work to getting access to climate finance, and tease out possibilities under the new article Loss and Damage where Tuvalu is the co-Chair for the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. 
For further information contact:
Paula Faiva, Climate Change Unit
Office of the Council for the Ongoing Government of Tokelau,
Apia, Samoa
Email:, phone +685 775 8820