The Commonwealth must inspire greater climate action

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama calls on Commonwealth leaders to raise ambition for deeper cuts in carbon dioxide emissions as the probability and severity of storms loom for vulnerable nations.

I have travelled to London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the immediate aftermath of two extreme weather events in the space of a fortnight, that have again devastated parts of Fiji. Tropical Cyclones Josie and Keni caused severe wind damage and widespread flooding. At least eight people were killed and more than 5,000 others took refuge in evacuation centres as several of our cities and towns were submerged.

For Fiji, it was another devastating blow. Yet these storms have become almost constant threats for the nations of the South Pacific, increasing with severity and frequency as the years pass and leaving our people and our economies highly vulnerable. 

Two years ago, the biggest cyclone ever to make landfall in the southern hemisphere, Tropical Cyclone Winston, slammed into Fiji, packing winds at its peak of more than 300 km an hour. Winston claimed 44 lives, left thousands more homeless and inflicted damage equal to one third of our GDP.

In common with other vulnerable nations throughout the world, we live in constant fear of these random events - the prospect that storms of terrifying force can come out of nowhere, kill our people, ravage our economies and potentially set back decades of development. 

The probability and severity of these storms is increasing because of climate change, along with droughts, rising sea levels and changes to agriculture and oceans that threaten food security.

Last year, I became the first leader of a Small Island Developing State to assume stewardship of the global climate negotiations convinced of one imperative above all else: that we must all summon the will to tackle the root cause of these events head-on and with a much greater sense of urgency than the world has displayed thus far. 

We must all summon the will to tackle the root cause of these events head-on and with a much greater sense of urgency than the world has displayed thus far. 

In the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, the global community resolved to hold the increase in global temperatures to “well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees”. We recognised the need to achieve “net zero emissions” or a balance between the release of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and their drawdown. 

As president of the COP23 negotiations, I have been urging the world to embrace 1.5 - the most ambitious Paris target - as soon as possible. This will require more urgent action now and at least net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Yet we are nowhere near being able to achieve that goal with the Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, that each nation has put forward as its contribution to reducing carbon emissions. The NDCs now on the table would produce warming of at least 3 degrees by the end of the century. And it is vital that the whole world realises what that would mean for life on earth - untold suffering not just for the citizens of vulnerable nations like my own but the entire planet. 

Countless species of animals and plants would become extinct and humans would suffer acute heat stress, shortages of food and water, flooding and increased risk of disease. Precious marine ecosystems like coral reefs would be devastated. And the catastrophic impacts would threaten global order, not least by creating vast numbers of climate refugees. 

That is why the next stage of the COP process is so important - the Talanoa Dialogue, formerly the Facilitative Dialogue - to raise the ambition of our NDCs and produce deeper cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

Talanoa is a Pacific word for a form of inclusive consultation that we use to build consensus in our own societies. And it was embraced by the global community at COP23 as the best way to raise ambition and action.

Fiji will continue to be a force in the global climate negotiations after our presidency ends in December because we have carriage with Poland - as president of COP24 - of the Talanoa Dialogue. And I have come to CHOGM urging the leaders of the 53 Commonwealth nations to embrace this dialogue and spearhead the fight for more ambitious climate action. 

These leaders - ranging from the world’s biggest democracy, India, to two tiny nations that face an existential threat from the rising seas, Kiribati and Tuvalu - are powerful agents for change. Together, we represent 2.4 billion of the 7.5 billion people on earth, a third of the world’s population. And if we embrace the change that is needed, a significant part of the battle for more ambition will be won. 

The global community is at a crossroads, with a deeply worrying challenge to the multilateral consensus for decisive climate action. I urge the Commonwealth family to come together to reinforce that consensus and lead the world resolutely towards a solution to the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.

Frank Bainimarama is prime minister of Fiji and president of COP23. 

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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