Climate Crisis

Has Vanuatu just made the most significant change to any country’s climate change commitments?

a sky view of Vanuatu. climate change rising sea level global warming

Vanuatu suffers significantly from rising sea levels and increasingly wild weather. Image: Pexels/Alex Arcuri

Michael Taylor
Asia correspondent and sub-editor, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Climate Crisis

  • Vanuatu has added cost estimations for ‘loss and damage’ caused by the impact of global warming to its Paris climate accord commitments.
  • The Pacific island suffers significantly from rising sea levels and increasingly wild weather.
  • Climate-vulnerable countries have been calling for a global loss and damage fund for some time, but have faced obstruction from rich nations at UN climate talks.
  • Vanuatu hopes to be able to offer measures including affordable micro-insurance, and the possible relocation of communities away from threats.

Pacific island state Vanuatu has submitted a “groundbreaking” update to its commitments under the Paris climate accord to include phasing out fossil fuels and a costing of how it aims to tackle destruction caused by rising seas and wild weather.

Climate experts said that while most national contributions focus on cutting planet-heating emissions, Vanuatu's enhanced action plan www.vanuatuicj.com/NDC is one of the first to comprehensively address "loss and damage" from global warming impacts at a country level.

“Every day, Vanuatu suffers the consequences of the climate crisis,” Deputy Prime Minister Alatoi Ishmael Kalsakau told the plan’s launch at a regional meeting of economics ministers in the capital Port Vila.

“This is not a tomorrow problem - this is an emergency right now,” he said in a statement.

Loss and damage caused by climate change - and how to fund efforts to avert and repair it in vulnerable nations - has been the subject of fierce debate between developed and developing countries at climate talks in recent years, and is again likely to feature prominently at November’s COP27 conference in Egypt.

Vanuatu, with a population of some 280,000 people spread across roughly 80 islands, is among more than a dozen Pacific island nations facing rising sea levels and fiercer storms and droughts that can wipe out much of their gross domestic product.

The new loss and damage measures it hopes to adopt include offering affordable micro-insurance, ensuring the construction of public buildings and infrastructure minimises risks, providing essential healthcare, protecting disaster-displaced people and possible relocation of communities away from threats.

Implementing these measures would total nearly $178 million by 2030, the plan estimates - an amount Vanuatu says will mostly need to be covered by donors.

Bill Hare, a climate scientist and Australia-based CEO at think-tank Climate Analytics, described the Vanuatu plan as “a groundbreaking development” with its commitment to phase out fossil fuels, ambitious efforts to curb emissions and costed programmes to deal with adaptation and loss and damage.

“One of the complaints from developed countries has been that developing countries are not saying clearly what they need... but Vanuatu is leading the way,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The goal to end fossil-fuel use sends a very strong message, both globally and regionally to Australia and New Zealand, said Hare, noting the recent change in government in Canberra and its attempts to boost its green credentials in the Pacific.

The updated plan for the U.N. climate process says Vanuatu is already “carbon-negative” thanks to its carbon-absorbing forests and ocean.

Climate-vulnerable countries have been calling for a global loss and damage fund for some time, but have faced obstruction from rich nations at U.N. climate talks. Its creation will be a key political issue at COP27 in Egypt, Hare added.

Siobhan McDonnell, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University and a negotiator for the Pacific on loss and damage, said the perspectives Vanuatu had put forward reflect those held across the region.

Vanuatu has now brought the problem down to a country level and articulated concrete ways to track and address it, she said.

“This is innovative. It’s about a country trying to cost some of the implications they are facing,” she added. “Vanuatu should be congratulated for trying to begin to start to put that baseline in front of donors.”

Pacific nations generate negligible carbon emissions and yet are on the frontlines of global heating - a fundamental injustice, she noted.

"We are hitting planetary boundaries so fast, we have to change now," she said. "The weight of that change is not on countries like Vanuatu."

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