Environment & energy, International relations | The Pacific

5 November 2021

Despite many years of outward support for climate action, New Zealand and other developed countries haven’t done enough of real significance – COP26 will likely be no different, Jenny Bryant-Tokalau writes.

On 1 November 2021, the 2021 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference, or COP26, commenced in Glasgow. The summit is seen in many corners as the ‘last chance’ for humanity, particularly by small island states facing the worst of climate related damage. As such, it is useful to look back on the history of Pacific nations in climate negotiations and what this reveals about the likelihood of real outcomes this time around.

Global conferences on environment and development have taken place over several decades and, by the 1990s, small island states, including in the Pacific, were making their voices heard around their growing environmental concerns.

To this end, the Alliance of Small Island Developing States (AOSIS) was spawned in Nairobi in August 1990, where delegates from across the world had gathered at the UN First Preparatory Meeting for the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.

More on this: Podcast: COP26 and climate justice for the Pacific

Since then, AOSIS has been very successful in highlighting the concerns of small, vulnerable coastal communities, and now, in 2021 it is well beyond time for all nations to use action – rather than words – to combat impending global disaster.

In the 1990s, supportive donors, former colonisers, and regional and global organisations were proactive in elevating the concerns of island countries to the world stage. Given the benefit of hindsight, many of the statements made at these meetings may seem now to be less than genuine responses to Pacific concerns.

At the Nairobi conference in August 1990, the New Zealand (NZ) representative, Dr John Gilbert, made the following statement:

“NZ fully supports the need for the negotiation of a climate convention by June 1992. The 15 government leaders of the South Pacific Forum meeting last week in Vanuatu strongly urged industrialised countries to enact significant cuts immediately in the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, including the establishment of obligatory emission reduction standards…

“On climate change the NZ government has just announced a national target of aiming for a 20 per cent reduction in the 1990 emission levels of carbon dioxide by the year 2005.”

New Zealand did not reach that target, and in fact emissions significantly increased. Now, 31 years later as COP26 gets underway, the New Zealand government issued the following statement:

More on this: Podcast: What’s at stake at the Glasgow climate conference?

“New Zealand will significantly increase its contribution to the global effort to tackle climate change by reducing net greenhouse emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, [it was] announced today on the eve of the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow.

“The updated NDC announced today is expressed as a target to reduce net emissions by 50 per cent below gross 2005 levels by 2030. This equates to a 41 per cent reduction on 2005 levels using what is known as an ‘emissions budget’ approach.”

As low emitters suffering the consequences of high emissions by larger economies, it is painful for Pacific nations to hear such promises made year after year, especially as the world faces its ‘last chance’.

Given New Zealand, Australia and many other developed nations’ track record on emission reduction, it is quite clear that these are little more than words. History would suggest that the targets espoused will not be reached, will be ignored, or – and this is a weakness in the Glasgow announcement – New Zealand will continue to buy carbon offsets and credits that, in the words of Dr Olaf Morgenstern, allow us to ‘continue to fuel our fossil fuel addiction’.

Tellingly, New Zealand has only limited plans to reduce methane and is saying little about reductions of emissions in forestry or agriculture.

There is hardly any time left to reach reduction targets by 2030. If the emission reduction targets really can be reached by then, we will have done well, but without action Pacific nations are unlikely to believe the talk.

Pacific countries have worked hard over the last three decades to ensure that their voices are heard. Under the various conventions they are party to, they comply with climate change measurements and reporting, even though their own contributions to emissions are minimal on the world stage. But the dangers facing all small islands states are imminent, and in many cases, already here.

Hopefully, the Pacific nations that made it to Glasgow will come away from COP26 satisfied that not only have their voices been heard, but that enough will happen in the next eight years to give them a future, with no need for yet another ‘last chance’ global conference which will come around far too late.

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