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NEWS: Placencia Ambition Forum keeps the drumbeat of climate ambition alive

Hundreds of senior leaders from Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and their development partners met virtually from 20-22 April 2020 for the Placencia Ambition Forum. Mairi Dupar reports.

Convened by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and chaired by Ambassador Lois M Young, the forum’s rallying call was: ‘keep the drumbeat of ambition alive’.

Climate change and coronavirus create a ‘disaster cascade’ for small island developing states

“The climate emergency does not take a break for the coronavirus,” said Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary – summing up the urgent need to press forward with climate action, even during the pandemic.

In fact, the COVID-19 outbreak and climate change are creating cascades of disasters in small island nations at present. Category 5 Cyclone Harold swept through Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Tonga this month, destroying lives and property. Communities were forced to abandon social distancing measures they had taken in response to coronavirus, in order to evacuate, shelter and save lives from the cyclone’s more immediate threat. Disruption caused by the cyclone means that more people may now be exposed to the virus.

However, in the long-term, climate change is humanity’s “greatest emergency”, said UNFCCC Secretary Patricia Espinosa. It poses an insidious threat across generations, which will outlive the risk posed by the coronavirus. That is why political attention to climate change cannot afford to slip.

“Even in the midst of the current health crisis, the need for climate action has not diminished,” said Sonam Wangdi of the Least Developed Country Group of climate negotiators.

Sustaining momentum to and beyond COP26

The Placencia Ambition Forum was designed to sustain momentum for climate ambition as key negotiations which had been scheduled for 2020 are now postponed. This is the year in which countries are due to submit their updated, more ambitious national climate plans (Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs) to the UNFCCC. Thus far, only the Republic of Marshall Islands, Suriname, Chile and Norway have done so.

Parties to the UNFCCC are also due to submit Long Term Strategies, which will lay out how they intend to steer their economies on to a pathway that will meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting average global temperature rise to well below 2oC and as close to 1.5oC as possible.

To achieve this temperature goal, global society will need to reach net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.*

COP26 President Alok Sharma and his Italian co-host Sergio Costa acknowledged that the coronavirus outbreak had put temporary brakes on UNFCCC meetings this year. Mr Sharma gave assurances that the UNFCCC is seeking alternative dates for both the technical meetings (the Subsidiary Bodies’ meetings) and the Conference of Parties, COP26, to be held in 2021.

Minister Costa reasserted earlier promises that Italy will convene youth climate leaders at a special preparatory meeting before COP26, to give young people a chance to articulate their concerns and visions for the future.

Finance must be more accessible – and change from ‘brown’ to ‘green’

Small island states’ political commitment to a net-zero-carbon, climate-resilient future was headlined throughout the Forum; and Ambassador Young reiterated AOSIS’ commitment to the measures the Alliance had brought to last year’s Climate Summit in New York. However, speakers also stressed AOSIS members’ high levels of public debt – and the likelihood that public finances will be further rattled by the coronavirus pandemic.

In this context, discussions moved quickly to SIDS’ key requests for development finance:

–         Make public climate finance more accessible for small island developing states and least developed countries. Numerous speakers bemoaned the ‘tedious’, ‘difficult’ and time-consuming processes involved in accessing international public finance to support climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. Satyanand Buskalawa of Mauritius’ Ministry of Environment said that like other SIDS, his country is both environmentally and financially vulnerable. Mauritius faces a “lack of capacity and accredited entities to access funding from the Green Climate Fund and Global Environmental Facility,” he said – burdensome procedures prevent small and poorly-resourced countries from getting the finance they need.

–         Consider debt relief for climate vulnerable countries. Many SIDS and LDCs face debt repayments that cripple the public purse just as they are looking to provide relief and boost resilience of their citizens in the face of multiple cascading disasters (such as the intersection of cyclone damage and coronavirus, described above). Omar Figueroa, Belize’s Minister of Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment and Sustainable Development, called for immediate cancellation of SIDS’ debts to aid their recovery.

–         Avoid fossil fuel lock-in as part of coronavirus response measures, embrace green stimulus measures. It is not just about turning on the tap for green finance to support actively pro-climate measures. There is a real risk that governments’ economic stimulus packages to protect industries and workers, in the face of the COVID-19 emergency, could prop up fossil fuel production and consumption and so lock in polluting pathways for decades to come. That was the message from Ambassador Selwin Hart, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change. Bail-outs for fossil fuel-based industries must be avoided, he cautioned. Investments, by contrast, should be fully in line with the Paris Agreement’s Article 2.1c: “Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.” Svenje Schulze, German Minister for the Environment, recognised the same risks and the opportunity to use this moment of economic crisis to pivot to a low-emission future. She pledged that Germany’s Presidency of the European Union Council from July 2020 would make green recovery one of its central pillars.

The pandemic is now an economic disaster, reflected Dean Oliver Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize, in opening words that echoed through the Forum. “Life as we know it has been completely upended, changed forever. Science portends that …humanity must recalibrate its trajectory and realign with sound markers for sustainable development, and do an about-face to hold temperatures to 1.5 oC. Failure to do so will breach the thresholds for planetary sustainability. Leading to a cascade from one catastrophe to another.”

“History will reflect that we are now in a defining moment”, Prime Minister Barrow noted, where we must respond with level heads to the intricately connected health, economic and climate crises.

With 2020 the year that countries are due to enhance their NDC ambitions and also to table their long-term strategies for climate change mitigation, the Placencia Ambition Forum was a timely event to keep the drumbeat of ambition alive. It raised everyone’s eyes to the mid-century target for net-zero emissions and 1.5oC of warming, both of which require urgent and collective action today.

For more information

For videos of the keynote speakers at the Placencia Ambition Forum, and more headline messages, please search #PlacenciaAmbitionForum and #SIDSLead on Twitter.

Please also find out more about the Forum and the Alliance for Small Island States at www.aosis.org

A version of this article was first published on www.casaclimate.org/news  Read more about AOSIS members’ leadership in the UNFCC and their demands for a roadmap for climate ambition here.

*In modelled global emission pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range). For more information, please see the headline statements of the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C of Global Warming.

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