Bullish Marshall Islands aim high with UN climate plan

President says pledge won’t need a “crystal ball” to work out, unlike submissions from South Korea and China

Laura beach in the Marshall Islands (Pic: Stefan Lins/Flickr)

Laura beach in the Marshall Islands (Pic: Stefan Lins/Flickr)

By Ed King

The Marshall Islands’ 24 coral atolls are barely visible on a global map and account for 0.00% of world greenhouse gas emissions, according to EU data.

But the country’s foreign minister Tony de Brum is on a mission to “stamp fossil fuels with an expiry date” and force the world’s top economies to follow suit.

On Sunday, the vulnerable low-lying island state announced its contribution to a proposed UN climate pact, set to be finalised in Paris this December.

President Christopher Loeak said it would slash carbon pollution 32% on 2010 levels by 2025 and 45% by 2030, a move he said was in line with a 2050 zero net emissions goal.

The pledge, known as an INDC in UN jargon, was the first by a small island state and the first by a developing country to aim for economy-wide absolute emission reductions.

In a statement, Loeak mocked countries targeting cuts based on metrics such as business as usual and GDP intensity, saying they required a “crystal ball” to decipher.

“Our numbers don’t rely on unknown variables like size of population and future economic growth,” he said.

“This is the simplest and most robust type of target that a country can adopt.”

For de Brum, speaking to RTCC on the sidelines of a two-day climate change meeting of ministers hosted by the French government in Paris, it was vital his country showed others the way to go.

“It’s essential to our survival. Not just to talk about it but do what we can to contribute,” he said. “Doing it in the way that we have done it… it shows a small country can step up to the plate.”

The low-lying Marshalls are seen as especially vulnerable to global warming. Last year a UN panel of scientists said one metre of sea level rise was virtually guaranteed.

That’s a problem, as while the highest point of the Marshalls is 10 metres above the sea, the average elevation of the islands is only two metres.

This makes the country acutely vulnerable to extreme weather events like storm surges or typhoons like the one that hit the country at the start of July.

And while the government does want to receive more assistance in the form of finance and technology from richer nations, de Brum said its UN pledge was unconditional.

“We have laid out that thought, but we are not going to condition any of our ambition on whether we receive assistance from anyone,” he said.

Carbon cutting priorities include replacing diesel and kerosene on the outer islands with wind, solar and coconut oil.

De Brum also spoke of a return to sail power for commercial traffic between the islands, with small motor schooners replacing ships that solely rely on bunker fuels.

International efforts to reduce shipping pollution would likely have to wait, he added, given the failure of a Marshall’s sponsored move to target cuts to maritime emissions.

Road to Paris

But with talks on a global pact entering a delicate and potentially critical stage, the true value of this pledge would be to put pressure on other countries to raise their ambition, he said.

Few experts believe the offers put forward by Paris will allow the world to avoid warming of beyond 2C, a ceiling governments have agreed to avoid.

Instead, the deal will need to ensure regular reviews to ensure all countries move away from fossil fuels or develop ways to minimize their impact on the environment.

De Brum said there was convergence on the idea of five-yearly cycles starting in 2020, aimed to “ratchet” up the level of ambition and get the world on track to avoid 2C.

“We think that will probably hold on and we are very proud of that as we have been pressing for several years,” he said.

The US, small islands, least developed countries and some so-called ‘progressive’ Latin American states including Colombia, Costa Rica and Chile are believed to support this plan.

But it’s harder to work out other positions. The EU does not have a common position of what should take place every five years, said Liz Gallagher, a climate diplomacy analyst from the E3G think tank.

Other major emitters like India, China and Brazil may voice support for five yearly reviews but it’s less clear if they think emission cuts should be increased every time.

Cycle of commitments

Still, fresh from two days of climate talks in Luxembourg at the Major Economies Forum, de Brum seems confident 5-year cycles will make the cut.

That will help accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy, he argues. “It makes sense… there’s the finance and opportunities to phase out fossil fuels.”

His upbeat view seems to echo two recent papers on the UN process, one from the French government and another based on the views of senior diplomats.

Both stressed the developing common ground among governments, while stressing the need for clarity on finance and how the legal aspects of a deal will work.

The MEF gathering was characterized by “good body language” he said, and a dialogue focused on “what we can do to make [Paris] inclusive”.

That goodwill faces an early test on Friday when the two men co-chairing the talks release a shortened version of the negotiating text, compiled on the request of the 195 UN parties.

Some suggested versions are already floating about – one from the Track 0 group pushing for a zero emissions goal slashed the document from 90 pages to nine.

A grade one haircut is probably too much to expect. Officials may opt for a neat short back and sides and pray no-one notices the missing mullet, but de Brum wants them to be bold.

“We will hope the co-chairs can be more aggressive in cutting the words down… making sure it’s a document that can be understood,” he said.

“People don’t read long documents that don’t address the issue head on in an understandable manner.”

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