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Home > Topic > Climate Change

Climate change, variability and sea level change

Warming the atmosphere - the greenhouse effect

Heat from the sun passes through the atmosphere and warms the surface of the Earth. Some of this heat is reflected back into outer space through the atmosphere and some is retained, just like in a greenhouse. It is this balance of absorption and reflection, known as the greenhouse effect, that has kept the Earth's temperature stable for eons. Over billions of years the Earth has developed a system that can absorb and recycle the gases produced by natural process like plant and animal respiration, volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

As oil and coal are burned the carbon they contain combines with oxygen in the air to give off heat and produce carbon dioxide, and other gases. As population increases and development spreads, more and more energy is being used and ever-increasing volumes of carbon dioxide are being generated. Since 1750, when written records were first kept, the global concentration of carbon dioxide has increased by about 30%. Emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, from fuel consumption, converting forest to farmland, cultivation and fertilization of soils, production of ruminant livestock and management of livestock manure, have increased by roughly 131% and 17% in 250 years. However, carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas.

The amounts of greenhouse gases that are being produced have exceeded the Earth's ability to absorb them and they are accumulating in the atmosphere. As they build up they trap more and more heat from the sun inside the atmosphere. It is generally accepted that this build up is one of the primary causes of an increase in the average temperature of the Earth, which will eventually cause significant changes in the Earth’s climate.

Climate change

One of the greatest challenges to sustainable development in the 21st century is climate change. Climate change is a change in the "average weather" that a region experiences. By increasing the amount of heat-trapping gases released, humankind has enhanced the warming capability of the natural greenhouse effect. It is the human-induced enhanced greenhouse effect that causes environmental concern.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that unless drastic action is taken, global temperatures will continue to rise and extreme events will become more frequent and intense. Most governments in the world are making efforts to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, even though fossil fuels will remain the mainstay of energy production well into the 21st century and agriculture must produce more and more food. Governments are also looking for ways to remove the excess carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere, but the amounts are so huge this may not be practical. This has serious implications for the fragile and vulnerable islands of the Pacific, already witnessing the negative impacts of climate change as sea levels rise.

The danger in the Pacific

Many Pacific islands are extremely vulnerable to climate change, climate variability, and sea level rise and will be among the first to suffer the impacts of climate change and among the first to be forced to adapt or abandon or relocate from their environment. The islands are low lying or have coastal features and characteristics that make them particularly vulnerable to climate change, variability and sea level change. In addition to significant coastal impacts climate change will affect biodiversity, soils and the water supplies of small islands. Most small island states will find it extremely difficult to adaptation to these changing conditions. The impacts will be felt for many generations because of the small island states’ low adaptive capacity, high sensitivity to external shocks and high vulnerability to natural disasters.

Failure to adapt to climate change now could lead to high social and economic costs in the future. For the low lying atolls, the economic disruption could be catastrophic, even to the extent of requiring population relocation into other islands or increasing the number of people emigrating from the islands. Some areas of coral reefs, may be so enfeebled by overfishing that they may not be able to recover from bleaching events in the future. Public pressure is mounting for action on adaptation. There is growing community and government concern about the need to reduce the islands' vulnerability and manage the risks posed by extreme events and long-term change.

The Pacific response

Climate change is recognized as serious threat in the region. The socio-economic, environmental, physical and cultural damages that climate change will wreak on the region are of concern to a great range of stakeholders. What makes the concern so urgent is the knowledge that there is a window of opportunity to halt climate change, that it is economically feasible to do so, yet actions by those most responsible for causing climate change has been lacklustre at best.

The region has understood the growing danger, and has taken steps, first of all by building capacity. Regional and inter-regional cooperation between island nations has been established. The activities in the region have also been shaped against the backdrop of international developments, such as the Bali Action Plan, further elaborated at the Bangkok Climate change talks. Some PICs have established nationally funded climate change focal points, and have taken the necessary steps to ensure continuity in their representation as well as in their staff development and capacity building.


Key issues for the region

The region is taking action because of the recognition of the dangers of climate change. It could be said that the basic rationale is to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable. However, there is only so much that the region can do in isolation, given the enormity of the impacts faced and the lack of wherewithal to finance adaptation. For PICs, the need for adaptation has become increasingly urgent. Long-term climate change, including the increasing frequency and severity of extreme events such as heat waves, high rainfall intensity events, summer droughts, tropical cyclones, windstorms, storm surges, and El-Nino-like conditions are affecting the lives and livelihoods of people in PICs. Coupled with overexploitation of resources, increasing urbanization and population increase, the compounding effect has caused considerable and widespread damage and threatens development in the region. For the low lying atolls, the likely economic disruption could be catastrophic, even to the extent of requiring population relocation into other islands or adding numbers to the Pacific Diaspora, with the subsequent social and cultural disruption having unknown proportions. Failure to reduce vulnerability could also result in loss of opportunities to manage risks in the future when the impacts may be greater and time to consider options limited.

Today, roughly 1 million people live on coral islands worldwide, and many more millions live on low-lying real estate vulnerable to the rising waves. At risk are not just people, but unique human cultures, born and bred in watery isolation. Faced with inundation, some of these people are beginning to envision the wholesale abandonment of their nations. These islands could be rendered uninhabitable by other effects of climate change. Floods and rogue waves raise the saltwater table underlying the atolls, poisoning the staple crops of our atoll societies. Already some farmers have been forced to grow their taro in tin containers, and already some of the smaller islands in the atolls have lost their coconut palms to saltwater intrusion.

Since the impacts of climate change will be varied from country to country, comprehensive national strategies and action plans, supported by regional and international technical and financial services, will have to be developed. Mainstreaming of climate change in national sustainable development policies will be crucial, given that climate change impacts so many if not all vital sectors of the Pacific economies. A good start has been made in the PICs with the country-team approach to FCCC National Communications as well as towards the various GEF climate change projects. Such country teams require being institutionalised and at an appropriate level so as to be able to influence decision-making.

The priorities for the region continues to be adaptation primarily, but there are also country specific issues and particular community needs. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions has also been given political importance, from the point of view of the international message sent, but also from the perspective of fuel economy, energy independence and employment. There is also the recognized need to improve the climate change governance in the region, to establish practical working alliances and partnerships, and to improve the climate change knowledge base in the region.


Regional framework

The Pacific Island Leaders adopted the Pacific Islands Framework for Action (PIFACC) 2006-2015 in 2005 and SPREP was directed to develop an Action Plan to implement PIFACC, by establishing a set of national and regional activities that would meet the key principles of PIFACC. The PCCR will have a monitoring and evaluation function, amongst its other tasks, and will therefore allow PICTs to gauge the degree to which national and regional actions have met those key principles. It is envisaged that there will be yearly meetings of PCCR and that it will select specific themes to focus on each year to give particular attention to gaps, challenges as well as successes in the region. This will provide yearly opportunities to prioritise those areas where little progress has been made and to establish which key principles may have been met. Some principles may have to be revisited in future years.

In this sense the PCCR meetings can be viewed as stand-alone events in a continuum of PIFACC activities, while at the same time contributing to the overall achievement of climate change resilience in the Pacific region.

Objectives of the roundtable:

  • · To help update the PICTs on regional and international actions undertaken in support of the Framework and Action Plan;
  • To finalize a matrix to provide a clear overview of ongoing and planned activities at the national and regional levels, with responsible agencies or entities, and agree on mechanisms for measuring progress, identifying difficulties, and addressing actions needing special attention;
  • To assist donors in gaining an understanding of climate change initiatives in the region and allow for better targeted assistance to areas in the Action Plan where there are gaps;
  • To share lessons learned from best practices in the implementation of climate change programmes;
  • To engage a wide range of stakeholders and regional organizations;
  • To provide an opportunity to prepare for international meetings of the UNFCCC; and
  • To disseminate information on new and existing funding modalities and opportunities.

In order to meet these objectives participants will be expected to provide information to SPREP for inclusion in a matrix, to be developed by SPREP, of regional and international activities so that the meeting itself will allow for updating of all parties on actions undertaken in support of the Framework and Action Plan. Participants will be invited to provide views on the matrix to help finalize it. Participants, in particular donors, will thus be assisted in understanding the overall picture of what activities are occurring through discussion of the contents of the matrix. SPREP will seek to obtain information from participants and project implementers so as to structure a discussion on best practices as well as areas with less success. Information received in advance of the meeting will determine the manner and extent to which the various objectives will be featured in the agenda.

The region has also recognized the need to mainstream climate change with other sustainable development activities. The Secretariat has therefore initiated a mainstreaming exercise with other CROP agencies aimed at reaching a common understanding of 'mainstreaming' and its methodology. An agreed joint CROP-wide program on mainstreaming, including roles and responsibilities and an indicative budget has also been agreed with a timeline for the implementation of mainstreaming programs for 2008-2010.


Regional mitigation activities

The region has minuscule emissions of GHGs on a global scale, even if looked at from a per capita emissions basis. The transportation sector in the PICs has grown rapidly in recent years while about 70% of PIC populations don't have access to electricity so emissions are expected to grow in the future, as the transportation sector continues to grow and Governments seek to improve the livelihoods of the communities. Also, there are significant inefficiencies in the current power generation and transmission systems in the PICs, with losses calculated to around 30% of production. There are therefore opportunities for mitigation in the current energy mix and to ensure sustainable growth in energy production and access that does not increase the region's carbon footprint.

The Pacific Islands Greenhouse Gas Abatement through Renewable Energy Project (PIGGAREP) is a GEF-funded five-year regional GHG mitigation project that started in 2007. Eleven PICs are participating in the PIGGAREP. The PIGGAREP aims to remove the technical, institutional, financial, market, policy and awareness barriers to the widespread and productive utilisation of feasible renewable energy technologies in the PICs. These are to be carried through various national activities like resources assessments, feasibility studies, rehabilitation of existing renewable energy systems and the installations of new ones, various training and awareness programmes, the formulation and adoption of new policies and legislations and through various partnerships with donors, banks and agencies working on renewable energy in the region.
The PIGGAREP aims to reduce the GHG emissions by 33% under the business-as-usual scenario by 2015.

But energy efficiency also has economic and social benefits that often have been overlooked in the past. The increasing cost of fuel is impacting heavily upon lives in the Pacific, and the impact of this rising cost is transmitted through every aspect of daily lives. The electricity tariff has increased by about 20% in Tonga. RMI is currently in a state of economic emergency. The Solomon Islands government recently contributed US$400,000 to avoid the repeated power shutdowns at Honiara. Bus owners demanded a fare increase in Fiji. The price for a burger at McDonalds has gone up and Pacific Blue has just announced the introduction of a new extra baggage fee. Now, more than ever, is the need for renewable energy sources and improved energy efficiency becoming more of a reality.

The oil crisis of 1973 and 1979 drew the attention of some Pacific Islands to invest on renewable energy. We have witnessed the impacts. More than half of the electricity generated in Fiji and Samoa were from renewable sources of energy. But this share is slowly eroding because the renewable energy momentum has not kept up with the increasing demand for energy. Just imagine what it would be like, if 35 years ago the whole region was consistently working towards utilising its rich renewable energy potentials.

The key energy problem in the PICs is the heavy reliance on the imported, expensive and polluting fossil fuel. A fossil fuel energy path is not a sustainable one. Getting cheaper oil prices are therefore short to medium measures. Renewable energy is a medium to long-term measure. We invest on it now for the many crises that are yet to come. This week the Fiji Cabinet approved an electricity tariff increase of 1 cent per unit. This increase will be used for the construction of the Nadarivatu Hydro Power project where hundreds of new jobs will be created during its construction but also diesel cost savings as a result of a reduction in diesel imports.

It is interesting to note the current commitments to renewable energy in the region. The Fiji Electricity Authority has a vision of becoming a renewable energy power utility by 2011. The power utility in Vanuatu (UNELCO) has a target of generating 25% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Samoa aims to increase the current share of renewable energy by 20% by 2030. Tonga has just announced a US$50 million that will generation 50% of the country's electricity from renewable sources of energy in the next three years.

It is appropriate for PICs to take measures now and make the long-term commitments to pursue a Renewable Energy path and then work with development partners to try and utilize the vast potential that the region has for renewable energy. Renewable Energy should not be taken as a reactive measure to the rising costs of fuel as it is well known that a fossil fuel energy path is not a sustainable one. A visionary concept like a Pacific Fossil Fuel Free Future or P4F is therefore not a bad starting point. The international negotiations on Climate Change offer avenues where assistance can be provided to the region's renewable energy developments. The tidal, wave and OTEC energy that could be derived from our vast ocean remains virtually untouched and should be an area that PICs should raise as a priority for research, monitoring and development.


Regional adaptation activities

Growing evidence of climate change impacts in the region has been documented for many years. Various initiatives have been started to assist the region assess and document vulnerabilities and to find solutions that are acceptable to the local communities. This requires an approach that combines awareness raising and training, as well as capacity building within institutions and for personnel. Much more needs to be done however, and building on past experiences the region will commence implementation of a regional project that will introduce adaptation options in the areas of water resources management, food security and coastal zone management and infrastructure.

The Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change Project (PACC) is a regional project focusing on climate change adaptation. It is one of the few projects globally to access the Special Climate Change Fund of the GEF. In the April session of the GEF Council, the PACC Project Inception Form was approved which secures USD13.125 million of adaptation funding to the region. The objective of the PACC is to enhance the resilience of a number of key development sectors (food production and food security, water resources management, coastal zone, infrastructure etc.) in the Pacific islands to the adverse effects of climate change. This objective will be achieved by focusing on long-term planned adaptation response measures, strategies and policies. To ensure sustainability of the project, regional and national adaptation financing instruments will also be developed.

Thirteen Pacific Island Countries (PICs) will take part in the PACC project. They are as follows: i) Cook Islands; ii) Federated States of Micronesia; iii) Fiji; iv) Marshall Islands; v) Nauru; vi) Niue; vii) Palau; viii) Papua New Guinea; ix) Samoa x) Solomon Islands; xi) Tonga; xii) Tuvalu; and, xiii) Vanuatu. Kiribati currently has a national adaptation project and did not wish to be part of the regional project.

Regional climate change science activities

The main programme in the region is the Pacific Islands Global Climate Observation System (PI-GCOS). In addition to work on adaptation in the region, serious gaps exist in the scientific and meteorological work that the region requires in order to address climate change and climate variability and predict extreme events.

In response to interest from the regions, WMO embarked on work to assist SIDS in all regions to access the GCOS network. In the Pacific PI-GCOS has been in existence since 2002 with a steering committee forming its Action Plan and Implementation Plan.

Under the latter, a list of 31 projects were identified (with initial indicative budgets) to meet needs in areas ranging from research and policy development, to technical capacity building in observation networks and enhancement of operational early warning systems.

Its main achievements to date have been the enhancement of the capacity in nine PICs in seasonal climate prediction, the rescue and management of historical climate data and improvement of access to data, as well as a marked improvement in the maintenance and increased output from GCOS identified GUAN and GSN stations in the Pacific. These achievements have been undertaken also in ways that have built local capacities in consideration also of the need for sustainability and appropriateness of these works.

It is a major contributor thus to cooperation and partnership for climate change work particularly in taking stock of, and supporting, the technical and scientific level needs for climate information and applications. At its formative meetings in 2000-2003 the then PI-GCOS Steering Committee decided to prepare project proposals with concrete and achievable targets, and with full budgets. These include pilot projects assessing the impacts of climate variability and change on ocean and island ecosystems, expansion and enhancement of climate prediction, along with operational training programmes to incorporate some of the new knowledge gained from this research within national climate centres of PICs. Unfortunately, the large majority of the most key projects identified have not received funding and this remains a major barrier for work in the region.

The Implementation Plan reaffirms that PI-GCOS is intended to be a long term, user driven operational system capable of providing the comprehensive observations required for monitoring the climate system, for detecting and attributing climate change, for assessing the impacts of climate variability and change, and for supporting research toward improved understanding, modelling and prediction of the climate system. Its nesting within the climate change programme of SPREP ensures that the gaps in scientific knowledge and information in this area are addressed and that it provides and builds linkages across to other areas of efforts in climate change.

Financing of climate change activities

At the international level most climate change financing has come through the GEF. In past years this was largely limited to enabling activities for fulfilling the reporting requirement under the FCCC. The establishment of the LDC Fund and the Special Climate Change Fund further added to the opportunities for financing. However, political considerations initially limited the outflow of resources from these funds. The 5 PIC LDCS have now all accessed their National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) funding from the LDCF and the reports have been completed. Within the NAPA each country has identified projects that are eligible for funding. Samoa was the first to seek funding for implementation of some of these projects, but a lack of resources within the fund will create a backlog.

All future disbursements under the GEF will be handled under the GEF-PAS, which makes available to the region over $30 million for adaptation and $14 million for mitigation initiatives over the next 4 years. Operationally this will create greater predictability for GEF resources but it may not increase the overall funding availability. However, the possibilities for additional co-financing and leveraging of funds should not be overlooked.

As mentioned, a NAPA process has been available for the PICs that are LDCs, funded under the GEF LDC Fund and with technical support from the LDC Expert Group. Other PICs have seen the benefit of this support and have called for a similar activity to be made available to non-LDC SIDS. At the recent FCCC subsidiary bodies meeting an agreement was reached that in principle approves such a process. However, the details such as financing and sourcing of technical support need to be worked out. If this support was to be disbursed on a bilateral basis, then action can occur fairly soon. However, if the GEF is to be involved a decision on GEF guidance must be taken at COP-14 in Poznan followed by acceptance by the GEF Council, which could delay action until mid-2009. There may therefore be a need to develop a concept paper for submission to interested donors.

The Secretariat recently submitted a series of climate change adaptation project concepts to AusAID, in order to benefit from the recently announced Australian adaptation funding. This funding will also be available to the PICs on a bilateral basis.

The Secretariat has also secured funding from the EC to build capacity for Multilateral Environment Agreement, and a key part of that project will be the Climate Change Convention. There are further opportunities for financing climate change projects under other EC funds. The Secretariat is also working with other UN agencies to access capacity building funds for adaptation.

What is SPREP doing?

For more information on specific SPREP climate-related activities and initiatives, visit SPREP's Climate Change Portal.

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