Deep Blue Pacific: Strengthening Pacific regionalism and resilience in a changing climate

By Reis Lopez Rello, Regional Technical Advisor — Climate Change Adaptation, UNDP Asia and the Pacific TW: @ReisRello

Each year, leaders from across the Pacific gather for one of the most important diplomatic events on the regional calendar, the Pacific Island Forum. This week, the Republic of Nauru stepped up to play host, welcoming member countries under the banner ‘Building a strong Pacific: our people, our islands, our will.

The annual forum is a platform for Pacific nations to unite and draw strength as a region. On issues like climate change, it is also an opportunity to strengthen Pacific positioning on the international stage and to activate the solutions to some of the region’s biggest shared challenges.

This year, climate action was again on the lips of delegates. But what about mobilizing the billions of dollars the region will need to both mitigate emissions and adapt to future impacts?

Children play along a seawall, Kiribati, 2008 © UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji

Rising tide of climate change

Since 1989, the Pacific Island Forum has brought together member governments to examine issues of national and regional concern, ranging from economic growth to political governance and security to regional cooperation and integration. The overall goal: to enhance the economic and social well-being of the people of the region.

At the center of discussions each year has of course been economic growth and sustainable development. However, it’s no surprise that over recent years, climate change has also emerged as a dominant theme.

Concern is evident and mounting.

Forum leaders have identified the growing impacts as among the top five priorities of the Forum, outlined in the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. In 2016, they endorsed a Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific zeroing in on building resilience to climate change and disasters.

Almost all members have signed and ratified the historic Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), outlining national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help keep the global average temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Samoa’s capital Apia flooded after Cyclone Gita, February 2018 © UNDP Samoa

At the eye of the storm

Of course, Pacific small island developing states contribute only a tiny share of greenhouse gas emissions in relation to global emissions. Their commitment, then, is highly symbolic and reflective of the disproportionate impacts Pacific communities are experiencing — not just more frequent and intense extreme weather events (such as tropical storms), but also less visible slow onset impacts (such as salination and inundation driven by sea level rise) that also affect communities’ livelihoods, health and welfare.

In the Pacific, climate change is already a very tangible and costly reality.

In the case of Samoa, flooding caused by Cyclone Evan in 2012 caused significant damage to both public and private assets, resulting in damages in urban infrastructure, serious health impacts and temporary displacement of people. According to the post-disaster needs assessment undertaken by the government (with the assistance of the World Bank), total damages were estimated to be approximately US$200 million with a further US$70 million required for rebuilding human capital. The total impact of the storm was calculated around 40% of Samoa’s gross domestic product (GDP) at the time.

In 2015, Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu having impacts and economic losses estimated to be approximately US$449.4 million, equivalent to 64.1% of the country’s GDP, representing a significant setback on development gains.

Recently, the total economic value of the effects caused by Cyclone Gita in Tonga was estimated to be approximately US$164.1 million — this is equivalent to 37.8 percent of the nominal GDP in Tonga, a staggering blow to the small island state.

Women in Port Narvin, Vanuatu, inform an assessment team about their most urgent needs and priorities post Cyclone Pam © Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP

Financing climate action

With an understanding that the impacts of climate change will intensify, the key question is — how are Pacific nations to finance the required shift to low-carbon economies and technologies, while also supporting the adaptation measures which will help ‘climate-proof’ people’s lives and livelihoods? Where or who will the money come from? What financial resources are available today?

Some studies suggest that in 2016, the total amount of global climate finance available was approximately US$383 billion, of which $270 billion was from private sources and $140 billion from public resources.

While these figures might seem like a lot, in light of the mitigation priorities and adaptation needs identified in national climate pledges (National Determined Contributions or simply ‘NDCs’) current resources fall well short.

Pacific leaders, of course, recognize the challenges and opportunities. Currently, Pacific small island developing states rely on Official Development Assistance (ODA), climate funds (in the form of loans and grants) and limited domestic resources to support their economy’s transformation into more climate-resilient pathways.

The aforementioned Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific recognizes the issues and raises the need for “collective approaches to effectively access climate change-related funding opportunities.”

Additional investments from both public and private sources are critical.

Enele Sosene Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-first session Sep 2016: “Will this UN canoe enable us to rise with the tide of progress, and to sail through the surges of environmental insecurity and climate change? Or will it sink us?”

Where to next?

As donor grants are only a small fraction of what is currently available to tackle climate change, Pacific leaders need to explore other potential sources of finance.

How can they do it? Domestic resources are already the most dominant source of public finance, however, combating tax evasion along with expanding tax bases could potentially raise revenues to finance public investment on climate change.

Innovative mechanisms, such as financial transactions taxes and carbon taxes, may raise substantial new sources of public financing and should be put forward for discussion.

To unleash the potential of private funds, there needs to be discussion on the design of policies that can effectively leverage private financing by aligning private sector incentives with public goals.

Raising the Pacific voice

Regional cooperation forums like the Pacific Islands Forum provide the space and mechanisms for Pacific countries to address issues of mutual interest and to influence the global agenda, in line with their interests and aspirations.

With the threat of climate change on their doorstep, Pacific countries are increasingly active and assertive participants in debates on climate change — as the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong clearly pointed out in 2012: “We have no choice but to engage even more aggressively internationally because the key to our survival will depend on whether international action is taken on climate change or not.”

Securing climate finance is a crucial agenda item — not just for the Pacific, but for all.

In the words of UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, “Trying to address climate change at current financing levels is like walking into a Category 5 hurricane — protected only by an umbrella.”

Editing by Kate Jean Smith, UNDP Asia and the Pacific

Working for a Sustainable Planet without Poverty