THE CHALLENGES for the Pacific Islands thrown up by climate change was the focus of the University of New South Wales Faculty of Law’s Ingram Colloquium on International Law and Development last week.
Speakers, who included lawyers, scientists, engineers and academic, looked at the significant impacts that climate change will have on these particularly vulnerable environments and the difficulties they will face in adapting to it.
Baker & McKenzie senior associate Ilona Millar explained that even though the Pacific collectively accounts for less than 2 per cent of global emissions, it’s set to bear the brunt of its impacts.
Perhaps most pressingly, Millar explained, a conservative estimate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put global average sea level rises at between 0.2 and 0.6 metres by the end of this century, and for many of the Pacific Islands, the majority of their land sits below 5 metres. At best, Millar said, sea level rises will reduce the already limited amount of agricultural land available, and at worst it could put entire islands under water.
“Is the international community willing to lose one of its sovereign nations because of the impacts of climate change?” she asked.
Professor Peter Christoff, the co-ordinator of environmental studies at the University of Melbourne, believes the emissions reductions targets developed countries are taking on will not be sufficient to prevent the effects of dangerous climate change, including significant sea level rises.
According to Christoff, if the Pacific Islands are to have any chance of avoiding the impacts of serious sea level rises, developed countries should be committing to stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at 300ppm rather than 450ppm which is currently the aim.
Christoff also believes that sea level rises could be far greater than the IPCC’s prediction which “is based on reporting and modelling that is at least six years out of date”.
Other challenges that the Pacific Islands will have to contend with include ocean temperature rises and coral bleaching which could threaten commercial and subsistence fishers, an increased frequency of natural disasters (which have cost Fiji alone more than $100 million in the last decade), a reduction in the size and quality of the fresh water supply and an increase in pests and diseases.
Millar also noted that the Pacific Islands face particular difficulties in terms of adaptation because of the significant costs involved. Although a number of international funds have been set up to help the smaller, worst-afected countries cope, they will be nowhere near sufficient, Millar said. The Adaptation Fund, for example, currently holds around $500 million, but in comparison to what is needed — an estimated $10 to $40 billion even before natural disasters are taken into account — it’s a drop in the ocean.
Kosi Latu, the deputy director of the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), said that for the Pacific Islands, adaptation — rather than mitigation — is now the top priority. He explained that several adaptation projects have been established, such as the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change program, but Latu agreed with Millar that the funding is far from adequate.
He also pointed out that while some countries may be able to adapt to some extent, for others whose territory becomes submerged under the sea, relocation could be the only option.
“Climate change is potentially the most serious long-term threat to the pacific region which is already experiencing major climatic changes,” he said. “For the Pacific, it’s not just about adaptation and mitigation, it’s about survival.”