The Pacific island state of Vanuatu will consider the COP27 climate talks “a failure” if they conclude without a new fund for vulnerable countries to tackle “loss and damage” fuelled by global warming, its climate change minister said.
Ralph Regenvanu said Vanuatu was the first nation to introduce the term “loss and damage” at the UN climate negotiations in 1991.
Today, large parts of the world are suffering from the accelerating impacts of climate change - and poorer countries on the frontlines are seeking help to cope and recover.
A year ago at COP26 in Glasgow, developing nations made a strong plea for a new fund or facility to channel “loss and damage” finance, but secured only a three-year dialogue on it.
“This is where it has to happen,” Regenvanu, who is also member of parliament for Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila, said in an interview at the talks in Egypt.
Vague language on funding arrangements in a final decision text would not be acceptable to island nations like his which are threatened by rising seas and fiercer storms, he said.
The issue is top of the political agenda at COP27, with developing nations pushing hard for a proposed new finance facility but facing pushback from some rich countries like the United States that want to use existing funds and institutions.
“Loss and damage” refers to the physical and mental harm that happens when people and places are not prepared for climate disasters, or cannot adapt how they live to protect themselves from slower impacts such as coastal erosion or creeping deserts.
Now we are seeing much more issues like heavy rainfall causing landslides and large areas becoming uninhabitable because of water damage and flooding. So we’re going to have to look into large-scale resettlement of people within the country.
Ralph Regenvanu, minister for foreign affairs, Vanuatu
A large share of “loss and damage” can be measured in financial terms, like the cost of lost homes and infrastructure.
But there are other non-economic losses that are harder to quantify, such as graveyards and family photos being washed away, or indigenous cultures that could disappear if a whole community must move because their land is no longer habitable.
Regenvanu - who was previously a minister working on land issues - said Vanuatu’s government needed to do more to help people living in low-lying areas near the sea who are struggling to cope with worsening floods and the intrusion of saltwater into the soils.
“Now we are seeing much more issues like heavy rainfall causing landslides … (and) large areas becoming uninhabitable because of water damage and flooding,” he said.
“So we’re going to have to look into large-scale resettlement of people within the country.”
The biggest focus of the government is to keep people safe from growing climate threats - but that is becoming harder, Regenvanu added.
“Right now, people are just moving with their feet - they are just leaving areas … They have got to move otherwise their lives are in danger,” he said.
In Vanuatu, they can at least relocate to higher ground in mountainous parts of the islands, where their ancestors used to live before colonisers and missionaries encouraged them to move down to coastal areas, Regenvanu said.
“Sea level rise won’t destroy our country,” he said, adding that lower-lying Pacific island states like Tuvalu and Kiribati could face that existential threat.
But the government of Vanuatu - which has a population of about 280,000 spread across roughly 80 islands - needs financial assistance to pay for expensive measures to relocate and protect its citizens, the minister said.
At least half of the country’s people may eventually have to move, along with part of the capital, he added.
Vanuatu is now spending 15 per cent of its budget on dealing with climate change impacts - the same share it is allocating to health and education.
And it has yet to receive significant amounts of climate finance from international donors, Regenvanu said.
Over the past ten years, climate funding of about $100 million has flowed to Vanuatu. It suffered losses of $600 million from top-strength Cyclone Harold in 2020 alone.
Earlier this year, Vanuatu costed new loss and damage measures it hopes to adopt, in its updated national climate action plan - one of the first nations to do so.
They include offering micro-insurance, constructing public buildings and infrastructure to minimise climate risks, providing healthcare, protecting people displaced by disasters and the possibility of relocating communities away from threats.
Implementing these measures would total nearly $178 million by 2030, the plan estimates - an amount that Vanuatu says will mostly need to be covered by donors.
One key way to make high-emitting countries fulfil their commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change - such as delivering on unmet pledges of climate finance - and other international treaties is through the courts, Vanuatu believes.
On Friday, it is expected to present the final version of a resolution it plans to put to the UN General Assembly for a vote by member states in mid-December.
The resolution seeks an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change.
Vanuatu says it has assembled a global coalition of more than 85 nations that back the resolution, and is confident of securing the simple majority it needs to get it approved, but Regenvanu said it is still working to enlist the European Union.
An ICJ opinion cannot force countries to do anything - but would set a “very important precedent” and influence courts at all levels from local to international, Regenvanu said.
“It will clarify (states’) obligations to the Paris Agreement in terms of finance, in terms of assistance to developing countries, in many terms,” he added.
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.
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