Marshall Islands carbon plan carries global message

Marshall islands seawall - main
A boy in Marshall Island stands on top of the seawall that protects his home from the sea. Despite this structure, the waters still occasionally reaches their house. Copyright: Vlad Sokhin/Panos

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  • Marshall Islands climate plan aims at going carbon neutral by 2050
  • Only 10 countries have submitted a decarbonsation plan under the Paris Agreement
  • Marshall Islands is listed among the world’s most climate vulnerable countries

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[NOUMEA] The Marshall Islands climate strategic plan to go carbon neutral by 2050 is also an environmental message and challenge to the world from this tiny Pacific nation that is responsible for less than 0.0001 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions.

The Marshall Islands is only the tenth country to submit a long-term plan to reduce carbon emissions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as required by the Paris Agreement.    

A new assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on 8 October, said limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented commitment from all countries to reduce carbon emissions.

“If one of the smallest and most isolated nations can do it, so can everyone else, including the big emitters”

Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine

“If one of the smallest and most isolated nations can do it, so can everyone else, including the big emitters,” said Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands, while launching her country’s plan at the opening of the (24—30 September) Climate Week NYC in New York.

The plan focuses on the electricity sector, which has the greatest potential to reduce GhG emissions. At least 10 per cent of the Marshall Islands GDP is spent on importing fossil fuels for electricity generation.

About a third of the low-lying equatorial country’s emissions have to do with an outsized shipping industry, the result of thousands of tankers, oil rigs and freighters finding it convenient to fly the Marshall Islands flag. 

Like all the other Pacific island nations, the Marshall Islands are leading by example and have submitted ambitious national contribution propositions to reduce global emissions above the Paris Agreement, says Sylvie Goyet, director of the Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability department of the Pacific Community.

“And they remain faithful to it,” says Goyet, pointing to the fact that the Fiji Islands have just published their energy transition road map and the Tokelao islands are now fully based on green energy, with the Tonga and Cook Islands following close with their climate strategic plans.

Goyet tells SciDev.Net that it is not easy for a small country to have a long-term low GhG emission strategy. The Pacific islands face many difficulties starting with extreme tropical climatic conditions. Solar panels need to be extra strong to endure violent winds, sea air, sands and tropical storms, and that can be expensive.  

There also are social considerations, like differentiated impacts of climate change on women, men and youth. On the islands, women are in charge of the shellfish fisheries on the reef flats, while men work the offshore fisheries. With shellfish sensitive to ocean acidification, the women face the prospect of not being able to fish anymore and the men having to stay away due to depleting fisheries. 

“It’s a fact that by 2050 even if global carbon emissions are reduced, some tropical islands will disappear,” says Goyet. Rising oceans that reduce water availability and Pacific acidification that causes coral bleaching and threatens food security are among issues facing the island territories, she says.

The Marshall Islands are among the nations that are most vulnerable to sea level as the average elevation of the 1,150 islands that make up the territory is less than two metres above sea level.

The Pacific islands are now calling on the international community to consider climate change security. “Global warming can lead to multiple insecurity questions; should a climate refugee status be created for climate migrants, if an island is submerged do maritime boundaries move?” Goyet says.

These questions will be at the centre of the climate vulnerable summit organised by the Marshall Islands this coming 22 November just ahead of the Katowice (Poland) Climate Change Conference meeting on 2-14 December. 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.