For an island country that rests barely three meters above the sea level, climate change essentially is a matter of survival. It is for this reason that more than any country in the world, the people of Kiribati, a poor tropical island nation tucked away in the Pacific Ocean, would be looking with great hope at the proceedings of the all-important COP21 climate conference in Paris, France later this month.
In Bali, Indonesia on October 26, Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bahs), underlined the need for bolder initiatives on climate change in an address to the delegates of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
“We look forward to Paris and the conclusion of a legally binding agreement with targets that will help reduce global warming and leave no one behind. But in order to achieve a positive outcome, I believe it is critical that countries refrain from regarding climate change from their national perspectives because after all, any country’s emissions becomes every countries’ emissions so purely the global community must have the right to set its collective level of emissions,” said Tong in Bali.
Tong heads a country which is on the forefront of the fight against global warming, but is left weakened every time flood waters seep into people’s homes engulfing the island bit by bit. Climate scientists have predicted that in the absence of strong steps on carbon emissions, Kiribati, with its 100,000 people, might vanish from the face of the earth by 2100.
“My people living on low-lying atoll islands no higher than 3 meters above the sea, are facing unprecedented challenges. Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and others – we are on the frontline of this major calamity,” said Tong.
Tong’s statement at the IFAD conference in Bali assumes greater significance as major powers like India, China and the European nations have begun forging alliances to ensure their concerns are addressed when leaders converge for talks in Paris.
Even as bigger powers negotiate over emissions, will smaller countries like Kiribati, in spite of being grave victims of the climate change process, be reduced to mere bystanders?
“It is, unfortunately, unlikely that the key asks of the small island states will carry the day. The major emitters will likely determine the contours of the Paris deal. However, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations offer the best chance for the interests of vulnerable nations to be factored in,” said Lavanya Rajamani, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
But regardless of the impact of climate change in the immediate future, Tong has already prepared drastic measures in case his people are forced to relocate to safer places. Last year, he confirmed the purchase of about 20 sq. km of land in Fiji’s Vanua Levu island so that Kiribati citizens can move there when the time comes. Tong indicated however that it will be a ‘migration with dignity’ so that his people would not have to live as refugees or second-class citizens.
India’s road to Paris
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is scheduled to attend the Paris talks alongside US president Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping and Germany’s Angela Merkel, made it clear earlier at the UN General Assembly that ‘climate justice and equity’ is the need of the hour.
“We are here today at the UN because we all believe that international partnership should be at the centre of our efforts, whether these efforts are directed towards development or towards the challenges of climate change. The bedrock of our collective enterprise is towards common but differentiated responsibilities (CDR). When we speak of climate change, there is a hinge unspoken or not of safeguarding what we already have. But when we speak of climate justice, then the responsibility of saving the poor from the vagaries of climate is something that will help us evolve positively,” the PM said stressing on CDR, an agenda for developing countries at climate change conferences.
As early as October, India declared its INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) at the doorstep of UN as part of which the country aims to cut emissions intensity by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The goal which includes measures such as increasing forest cover to create a carbon sink and introducing new technologies in thermal power generation has been seen as fiercely ambitious by many. There are also concerns as to how India would strike a balance in pursuing its climate initiatives and realizing its larger developmental ambitions to boost its economy and pull millions out of poverty.
“To some extent, India’s concerns in relation to having a balanced negotiating text to work on were addressed in at the negotiations in Bonn, Germany in October. Our country is a part of several coalitions, including one with like-minded developed countries and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) . It remains to be seen which coalition it uses to its advantage in Paris.” said Rajamani.
She added that it is possible for India to be proactive on its climate needs.
Meanwhile, striking a bell of caution for smaller island countries like Kiribati, a new report by the United Nations urged nations to do more so as to bind rising global temperatures to 2 degrees celsius. Exceeding this limit could cause catastrophic effects such as floods and droughts all over the world.
For the people of Kiribati and other island nations, a lot rides on the negotiations in Paris. The pledges that are taken there are bound to have irreversible effects on the future of countries that are on the brink of the effects of climate change.
Tong, Kiribati’s leader, puts it quite aptly.
“I have often stated that development is not only about economics, it is not solely about higher profits to increasingly raise the comforts of living today. Development should encompass much more — it is about living within our means today to ensure our children and their children have a future,” he said.
(The writer was in Bali, Indonesia at the invitation of IFAD to attend the Asia-Pacific workshop on climate change and rural development)