The European union with sinking islands
Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, was supposed to be at an international conference in Morocco this month, lobbying his counterparts for an ambitious climate change deal.
But he was trapped on his small Pacific Ocean island by torrential downpours, gale force winds and massive swells — the kind of extreme weather that de Brum blamed on global warming. “My own home is under climate attack,” he wrote to his fellow negotiators on a climate pact up for consideration at a December summit in Paris. “My children and grandchildren have been going to bed in fear.”
His plea was music to the ears of Miguel Arias Cañete, the European Union’s climate action and energy commissioner, and chief negotiator for the Paris COP21 summit.
Over the past few years, the EU has formed a strategic alliance with a group of small islands scattered around the world’s oceans. These unlikely bedfellows share little except a desire for the toughest possible deal on climate change in Paris.
Arias Cañete and Brussels have made these antipodal outposts — renowned for their idyllic beaches as well as rising sea levels that might one day erase them from the earth — into the poster nations for the kind of climate pact preferred by the EU.
Officials from the Marshall Islands, Tonga, the Seychelles, Grenada and other island chains are regulars on the traveling talk shop on global warming.
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At the UN General Assembly in September, Christopher Loeak, president of the Marshall Islands, said: “A world without a true commitment and meaningful pathway towards decarbonization is, for us in the island nations, ultimately no world at all.”
‘I listened to you’
Arias Cañete, the white-bearded Spanish aristocrat who runs the EU’s climate policy, has led the bloc’s effort to nurture this relationship, and visited the region as recently as last month. “Dear Pacific leaders: I listened to you, I understand you. We can succeed in Paris. Together,” he tweeted at the end of a September trip to Papua New Guinea.
Later that month in New York, he tweeted a picture of himself with Thoriq Ibrahim, energy minister of the Maldives and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, saying the EU and the alliance “will keep ambition up.”
The EU is trying to build up pressure through numbers on the U.S., Australia, Canada, China and others who are reluctant to follow suit on Brussels’ ambitious, and costly, climate agenda.
“The EU is not the most powerful bloc in the world. We are a bloc, but not the one that rules everything, so we need friends and allies,” Michel Rentenaar, climate envoy for the Netherlands, told POLITICO.
The islanders convey their urgency for Paris in existential terms. “The small islands and vulnerable countries cannot be expected to sign their death warrant in Paris,” de Brum told POLITICO.
“Their political weight is significant because of the moral high ground they’re occupying,” said Sam Van Den Plas of WWF Europe. “The EU can consolidate and create important leverage in the talks, especially towards other developed countries.”
Europe’s Pacific friends — at a price
The EU wants a legally binding agreement to stop using fossil fuels by the end of this century. It would include regular five-year reviews of progress, a long-term climate neutrality goal and strong transparency and accountability rules.
The islanders know the deal in the works for Paris won’t stop the planet from warming by more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The goal is to start a long-term process that does eventually hit that target. No matter what happens at the summit, the EU has pledged to cut its emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2030.
If the bloc fails to get support for an aggressive global pact from other nations — who are wary of the economic and political cost back home — European industry will be stuck with expensive regulations that will undercut their competitiveness.
This is where the Pacific islands come in.
The EU wants to line up their political support. That comes at a price.
Rich countries have committed $100 billion in annual financing by 2020 for developing countries — which includes most of the island states — to defray the impact of climate change in poorer nations as well to pay for a transition away from fossil fuels. Developing countries, including the islands, want much more.
“The strength of the [COP21] deal will depend on the finance on offer,” said Liz Gallagher of the E3G environmental think tank, adding the size of the financial package will be central to getting developing countries on board.
In the Pacific islands, the EU is the second largest donor after Australia.
“I know all the effort it takes to travel there, prioritizing it in a busy schedule, and the fact that Arias Cañete is doing it emphasizes again how much Europe attaches to really understanding the Pacific islands’ position and having a dialog with them,” said Connie Hedegaard, who was the host of the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009 and the EU’s climate action commissioner from 2010-2014.
The climate diplomacy offensive has been awhile in the making.
“It goes back to Durban 2011, the cooperation we had with small islands states, Pacific islands and least developed countries, many developing African countries, the progressive Latin American countries,” Hedegaard said.
In the battle for a deal that the EU wants in Paris, Arias Cañete’s trip to Papua New Guinea in September didn’t go unnoticed.
“We were very, very happy that he was able to make it to the Pacific,” de Brum said. “It’s good to have a good ally with us in the weeks of preparation for Paris.”
This article was first published on POLITICO Pro.