Climate-hit nations say UN talks offer little help for soaring losses

Though some delegates and observers claimed progress on key details of the Paris agreement, countries that are immediately threatened by climate change say enough isn't being done.

Small island states say they have 'grave concerns' about pace of international efforts

Delegates make pictures in front of a photo of an island at the COP 23 Fiji UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

From Fiji to St. Lucia, small island nations have taken every opportunity to flag the growing risks of climate change to their land and people at UN talks in Bonn — but their cry for help has fallen on deaf ears, officials and experts said on Friday.

Over the past two weeks, leaders of those states have spoken consistently of the loss of life and property caused by powerful storms in the last two years, and the existential threat to their low-lying territories as seas rise on a warming planet.

Dominica's Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit described how 90 per cent of buildings on his Caribbean island nation were damaged or destroyed when it was hit by Hurricane Maria in September, causing losses equal to more than double the size of its economy, and decimating its forests.

Two months later, 95 per cent of the country lacks electricity, water systems are not functioning properly, and many residents are still living in shelters, he said at a Friday news conference held in Bonn but hosted by Fiji.

"We are on the front line [of climate change], and this is not a metaphorical war, or a metaphorical line ... it is one in which we bury the dead, console the grieving, nurse our wounds and call out for reinforcements," he said on Thursday.

With Fiji leading the proceedings, its prime minister has also evoked many times the damage wrought there by powerful Cyclone Winston last year, and called for help to strengthen island developing nations against increasingly extreme weather and higher seas, which scientists link to climate change.

The 'coal trap'

However, as the COP 23 Fiji UN Climate Change Conference wrapped up Friday, some delegates and observers claimed progress on several key details of the 2015 Paris accord.

"We are making good progress on the Paris agreement work program, and we are on track to complete that work by the
deadline," Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told diplomats hours before the meeting in Bonn was due to conclude.

By late Friday, two main issues remained unresolved: the question of how far in advance rich countries need to commit billions in funding to help developing nations, and a dispute over whether Turkey should have access to financial aid meant for poor countries.

And the issue of coal is still on the table. Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, cautioned that while the Bonn talks might be considered a diplomatic success, little concrete progress has been made on tackling what he called the "coal trap."

"We are being pressured by the mass of available coal: it's very cheap on the market but it's very expensive for society because of air pollution and climate change," he said, noting that Japan, Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia plan to keep investing in coal-fired power plants — a major source of carbon emissions.

The Trump administration says it aims to revive the coal industry. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Governments of the most vulnerable countries expressed disappointment on Friday at the talks' lack of progress on concrete measures to boost support, particularly funding to pay for growing losses.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) adopted a declaration entitled "The Urgency of Now," which it said reflected "grave concerns" about the pace of international efforts to address the climate change crisis.

Thoriq Ibrahim, environment and energy minister for the Maldives, which chairs AOSIS, said the 2015 Paris agreement to tackle global warming was "a remarkable diplomatic achievement."

But "it will be judged by history as little more than words on paper if the world fails to take the level of action needed to prevent the loss of entire island nations" he said in a statement.

The need to deliver

Besides stressing the need to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 C, the lower ceiling in the Paris accord, the AOSIS declaration urges wealthy countries to deliver on long-standing commitments to provide the financial support developing countries need to transition to renewable energy and adapt to climate change impacts that can no longer be avoided.

It also called for greater attention to loss and damage from climate change, and access to funding to help pay for that.

An aerial shot of the village of Kivalina, an island on the outer coastline of Alaska, which is dealing with some of the North's most extreme effects of climate change. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/Facebook)

But aid experts said developed-country governments had offered little reassurance they were willing to advance those discussions, beyond launching an expanded partnership to provide climate risk insurance to 400 million more poor people by 2020.

Developed countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 from different sources to help poorer nations develop cleanly and become more resilient to climate change.

Slowly Africa is being pushed to the precipice.- Robert Chimambo, Zambian farmer

But so far they are less than two-thirds of the way there, and have shied away from setting out how the target will be reached in the next three years, especially given U.S. President Donald Trump's reluctance to contribute.

At the Bonn conference, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Ireland and Belgium did make pledges totalling more than $180 million to two UN funds for developing countries.

Experts said they hoped a climate summit organized by the French president on Dec. 12 in Paris would deliver larger promises of funding.

Robert Chimambo, a Zambian farmer who is a member of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, said rich countries had so far failed to deliver the money they had promised to help African countries carry out their climate action plans.

"Slowly Africa is being pushed to the precipice," he said on the sidelines of the talks. "The resources that have been promised to us must be put on the table." 

With files from The Associated Press