Pacific Island states take lead on landmark UN climate deal

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The signing of the Paris Accord on climate change at the United Nations. Video: PBS News Hour clip

By Carole Landry in New York

With their very existence under threat from climate change, the world’s island states came to the United Nations this week not only to sign the Paris climate deal but to be first in line to make sure it goes into force.

Led by Fiji, at least nine island states are formally presenting their ratification of the agreement to the UN, moving quickly to the next stage in a bid to bind countries to their commitments to tackle global warming.

WebThe Paris agreement will come into force as soon as 55 countries responsible for 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases have ratified the accord.

“We wanted to be the first to ratify it,” said Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, whose cabinet quickly endorsed the deal in February.

That same month, Tropical Cyclone Winston that killed 44 people, destroyed 40,000 homes and caused more than US$1 billion in damage hit the Pacific nation.

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“A single climatic event can wipe out all the gains we have made and set back our development,” the prime minister told a news conference.

Other early ratifying countries of the deal are Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives – low-lying islands that face oblivion from rising sea levels – as well as Belize, Barbados, Nauru, Saint Lucia and Samoa.

Greenhouse gas giants
China and the US, the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters, are pushing for quick ratification so that the Paris deal can come into force, possibly as early as 2016 or 2017.

More than 150 governments, including some 50 heads of state and government, signed the historic accord during the ceremony on Earth Day yesterday.

It was the largest signing of an international agreement since the Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.

French President Francois Hollande was the first to sign the accord, but the ceremony would also see island leaders take the podium to appeal for urgent action to ratify the Paris accord.

“What was achieved in Paris was a positive first step, but it is not nearly enough to avert catastrophe,” the Fijian prime minister said.

Fighting for 1.5
Fiji and other island states want to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, instead of 2 degrees as outlined in the Paris accord.

A study this week explained a 2 degrees jump in the global temperature would double the severity of crop failures, water shortages and heat waves in many regions compared to a rise of 1.5 degrees.

An extra 0.5 degrees would also add 10cm to the average ocean waterline, further imperilling dozens of small island nations and densely populated, low-lying deltas, a team of researchers reported.

Island governments want to unlock international financing so that they can better prepare their economies and infrastructure to withstand the impact of climate change.

Tropical Cyclone Winston, the strongest ever to hit the South Pacific, affected some 250,000 people, or 40 percent of the regional population.

“After Winston, we’ve had three tropical depressions that have brought continued flooding,” said Bainimarama.

“We’ve received some 1000 earthquake tremors, so we are fairly worried about earthquakes and tsunamis,” he said.

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