Small Island States
A lucrative trade in oil and gas appears to be at the heart of a series of geopolitical moves in the Indian Ocean by Saudi Arabia and China. And much of the action centres on the Maldives, one of the small island states on the front lines of climate change, according to an in-depth report published yesterday on Climate Home.
The story begins with efforts by Saudi Arabia “to secure oil trade routes to east Asia through a multi-billion-dollar investment in a Maldives atoll,” write editor Karl Mathiesen and reporter Megan Darby, citing interviews with foreign policy specialists and ex-Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, now in exile in London, UK.
Climate Home describes the atoll in question, Faafu, as “a collection of 19 low-lying islands 120 kilometres south of the capital Malé and home to 4,000 people.” Recently, Faafu has been the subject of unconfirmed reports of a Saudi purchase. “President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has denied the entire atoll will be sold to the Saudis, but said plans for a ‘megaproject’ worth US$10 billion—three times his country’s GDP—would be disclosed ‘once the negotiation process was completed,’” the specialist news outlet notes.
The deal puts the Maldives at the epicentre of Saudi national interest, a possible military expansion by China, and both countries’ interest in safe, secure oil shipments.
“The economic future of the Saudi petro-kingdom is bound to the sale of oil, gas, and other goods to China,” Mathiesen and Darby write. “The supply lines for that trade run through the Indian Ocean, where terror is a growing concern and vessels are shadowed by piracy.”
But the shipments also pass by the Maldives, a tiny country with a “growing Wahhabist majority and autocratic government,” where “the Saudis have found—or, according to the Maldivian opposition, created—a pliant ally where few questions are asked and fewer are allowed.”
Nasheed said it was “disturbing” to see Faafu put up for sale with no public tender. “[The Saudis] want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard the trade routes, their oil routes, to their new markets,” he told Mathiesen. “To have strategic installations, infrastructure.” He added that a “cultural campaign” supported by the Saud dynasty had fueled the spread of Wahhabism in the island state, setting the stage for an “unprecedented” land grab.
The Saudis “have had a good run of propagating their worldview to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades,” he added. “They’ve now, I think, come to view that they have enough sympathy for them to get a foothold.”
Housing Minister Mohamed Muizzu told a news conference in Malé that he hoped to see a big investment. “We don’t want to move slowly,” he said. “We want transformational change. That is the whole mentality of this government. We want to bring better living conditions to this country on a large scale, in a small period of time.”
But Opposition MP Eva Abdulla was skeptical. “With Faafu or any other project, we are told there will be a trickle-down effect,” she told Climate Home. “That is not what we have seen. It is government MPs and their cronies who get all the benefits.”
The other part of the story is China’s growing role in financing infrastructure in the Maldives, including a “Friendship Bridge” connecting Malé to its airport island and a new port on Laamu atoll, south of Faafu. China now holds 70% of the Maldives’ foreign debt, and Chatham House associate fellow Cleo Paskal believes China sees Saudi Arabia’s Faafu deal as an opening to extend its own military footprint.
“China is on record as wanting a base in the Maldives,” she told Climate Home. “It was a big issue in 2015. It already has or is working on ‘commercial’ ports in several countries along the route from the Indian Ocean to China and recently opened an overtly military naval base in Djibouti. Saudis are unlikely to build anything like that for themselves, but may facilitate the construction of some sort of ‘resupply’ installation built by China that would likely have dual use capacity.”
But Ankit Panda, senior editor of The Diplomat, said the longer strategic view may be coming from the Maldives itself. “The geopolitical layer to this, in my view, is more on the Maldivian side for now,” he said. “The Saudis are looking primarily for a strategic investment opportunity,” but the Maldives “understands its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and sees a Saudi outpost there potentially paying dividends in the future.”
Climate Home points to the irony of a strategic oil and gas deal involving this particular small island state. “The employment of the Maldives as a strategic anchor for future oil trade rubs against the country’s vulnerability to climate change,” Mathiesen and Darby write. “It is the lowest-lying country on earth, with a high point of just 2.4 metres, meaning even small rises in sea level could be devastating.”
The former French climate ambassador who helped craft the Paris Agreement is predicting a showdown over climate change when the G20 convenes in Hamburg, Germany this summer.
“It is key,” said Laurence Tubiana, now the incoming CEO of the European Climate Fund, in an interview with Climate Home. “It is something we should prepare for carefully. It should be a test of governments, civil society, companies to stick to the goals” laid out in the Paris deal.
With Germany taking this year’s G20 chair, Climate Home says the question is how far Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces national elections this year, will want to push on international climate leadership. Merkel, a physicist by training, was her country’s environment minister during UN climate talks in the early 1990s.
“The early indications are positive,” reports correspondent Ed King, citing sources who say Germany and China have talked about reinvigorating the Major Economies Forum, a 17-nation group convened by the United States in 2009 to discuss climate policy.
“I think Germany is thinking who it could invite to a new MEF,” Tubiana said, suggesting a form of “distributed leadership” that goes beyond an era when the U.S. and China, as King puts it, were the “twin heartbeats” of global climate negotiations.
“Now there are new African countries leading—look at Ethiopia, Kenya, and others like Morocco, which I think will continue to push on after hosting COP22,” Tubiana told King. She also pointed to the new High Ambition Coalition that emerged as a negotiating bloc during the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris.
Tubiana cited Saudi Arabia, Canada, and China as countries that may be on track to assert greater international climate leadership against the obstacles anticipated from the Trump administration in Washington. At last year’s UN climate conference in Marrakech, “it was important to demonstrate to the new administration there is a cost [to leaving the Paris Agreement], but the best way is to increase action at home. The big concern is funding—nobody can fill the gap the U.S. would leave.” But so far, “there is no sign the green economy is panicking. What will have to happen is implementation at home to change the atmosphere.”
While many international climate leaders are strategizing for a U.S. withdrawal from international climate fora, others are looking at how to respond if the new administration in Washington, DC decides to stay in the Paris Agreement and obstruct it from within. In a blog post Saturday, Chandra Bhushan, deputy executive director of Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment, calls on U.S. academics and civil society to “continually expose Trump’s regressive domestic and international climate policy. They must act as a watchdog and keep the Trump administration under pressure at all times.”
But the international community has other levers to pull, ultimately making a misbehaving U.S. a pariah in international climate negotiations. “Countries must adopt a policy of ‘isolating and shaming’ the U.S.,” he writes. “If the U.S. refuses to contribute to international climate finance, other countries, including developing countries like India, should come forward and contribute. If the U.S. refuses to adhere to its commitments, then countries should not give it any position on the high table. For instance, they should not ask Trump’s nominee to chair any committee, meeting, or institution.”
The high-level diplomatic snubs would fit well with a strategy of carrying the discussion of climate solutions and faster, deeper carbon cuts into smaller, more specialized UN agencies.
“We all know that the Paris Agreement is not sufficient to keep the world safe,” Bhushan writes. “Far higher emission cuts would be required so that the global temperature does not rise by more than 2°C.” But last year’s Kigali Amendment on hydrofluorocarbons pointed to the potential for multilateral agencies to lead on emissions cuts, clean technology, and climate finance, as long as those fora can be “suitably strengthened to convene these negotiations.”
Bhushan traces the strategy back to a principle of “division” used in warfare. “Large, coordinated forces are difficult to defeat,” he states. “But when you divide the enemy into small units, you can defeat each one with relative ease. If we want to defeat Trump, we will have to fight him at multiple platforms, and deny him one large, coordinated platform” like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Moana, a film inspired by Pacific Islanders’ fight against climate change, has received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song.
“Our protagonist, the teenage daughter of a Polynesian chief, lives on an island that’s slowly dying: the fish are gone, the crops are failing, and even the coconuts have mysteriously turned black,” reports Grist Assistant Managing Editor Kate Yoder.
“Moana then takes a jaunt to the United Nations to raise awareness of the need for meaningful climate action!” she writes. “No! This is Disney. She embarks on a seafaring mission to return a magical stone to its rightful place and defeat a giant lava demon, actions that will ostensibly restore the world to ecological balance.”
It might not be an evidence-based account of what it’ll take to stabilize the global climate, Yoder adds, but “frankly, we’ll take it.”
Members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) undertook to update their current carbon reduction targets and develop long-term decarbonization plans before 2020, and complete the transition to 100% renewable energy economies as soon as possible, on the final day of the United Nations climate change conference in Marrakech.
“Climate action does not limit development—it strengthens it,” declared the 48 CVF members, many of them among the world’s poorest countries, all of them facing the immediate, severe impacts of a rapidly-warming climate.
Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, who delivered the formal reading of the declaration, told delegates that, according to legend, her family’s ancestors had the ability to chant to the sharks and turn the tides around an island nation located two metres above present-day sea level. “I believe in the power of the spoken word because I believe we can change the tides,” she said, describing the declaration as the first step in “turning the tide and saving our world.”
“Without stronger climate action, we might not survive, and this is not an option,” said CVF Chair and Ethiopian environment minister Gemedo Dalle.
“Climate action is not optional, and neither is the developed countries’ obligation to support climate-resilient development. Adaptation is central to the ability of vulnerable countries like the Philippines to thrive,” said Evelyn Cruzada of the Philippines Office of the Cabinet Secretary.
“We are pioneering the transformation towards 100% renewable energy,” added Mattlan Zackhras, the Marshallese Minister in Assistance to the President. “But we want other countries to follow in our footsteps in order to evade catastrophic impacts we are experiencing through hurricanes, flooding, and droughts.”
CVF members include low-lying Bangladesh, a country that faces the prospect of 100 million environmental refugees due to sea level rise, but is currently planning more than 20 new coal plants to meet its growing electricity needs. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called that path “suicide” Wednesday, in a speech to COP delegates.
The CVF’s action earned it a Ray of the COP award from Climate Action Network-International, recognizing the Forum as “an example to all other governments” at this year’s UN climate conference. (Disclosure: After attending the first half of the CVF’s high-level meeting November 18, The Energy Mix Curator Mitchell Beer made the initial pitch for the Ray of the COP award at CAN-I’s daily meeting that afternoon.)
Russia bagged CAN-I’s better-known and much-acclaimed Colossal Fossil award for its standout performance as the worst-behaved participant at this year’s COP, and the biggest carbon emitter that hasn’t yet ratified the Paris Agreement. Earlier in the conference, Russia won another coveted Fossil of the Day for presenting rapid nuclear development as a realistic climate solution, apparently claiming the deeply flawed response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster proves the viability of the technology.
A coalition of maritime shippers and their organizations is calling on governments to adopt “ambitious” climate targets at a meeting in London this week, now that an agreement on aviation emissions has left shipping as the only sector in the world not bound by some form of climate agreement.
“It is time to recognize the important role which the global shipping industry must play in holding global temperatures well below 2°C,” the shippers wrote in a letter to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). “Shipping’s emissions are expected to substantially increase over the coming years. To curb this trajectory, IMO countries must demonstrate that they can match the ambition and pace of the UN climate body, the UNFCCC,” the agency behind the Paris Agreement.
Shipping emissions currently stand at about 1,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, compared to 781 MT from aviation, and “are forecast to rise to nearly 17% of the world’s total over the next 30 years if left unregulated,” The Guardian reports.
“The IMO and the industry needs to act fast,” a spokesperson for Brussels-based Transport & Environment told The Guardian’s John Vidal. “Shipping emissions are forecast to rise by 50 to 250% by 2050 if unchecked. The IMO sticks out like a sore thumb.”
During the IMO meeting, “progressive” shippers will have to overcome opposition from developing countries with major shipping interests, as well as lobbying by fossil industries and other trade associations, The Guardian notes. “Led by China, Brazil, and some small island states like the Cook Islands, one group has argued in IMO meetings that because shipping is a truly international industry, it cannot be regulated in the same way as countries, and must not be rushed into cuts,” Vidal notes. “It says the world’s 100,000 big ships have already reduced emissions considerably, but more data and analysis is needed.”
Until those systems are in place, argues a group led by the Baltic and International Maritime Council, “there is insufficient data to determine whether or not it would be realistic for IMO to adopt a firm contribution on behalf of the sector.”
According to documents obtained by The Guardian, the Cook Islands reversed position on climate change at the Paris conference last year, to lead opposition to shipping industry emission cuts.“Shipping must be profitable and has to keep growing to survive,” the country’s negotiator stated. “Any notion on imposing a system that would increase transport cost and availability of freight even further would be extremely detrimental to least developed countries and small island developing states, and severely impact on our economic security while inhibiting growth and development potential.”
Dean Del Mastro, a former federal Conservative MP currently appealing his conviction on charges of electoral fraud, is at the centre of new questions involving unmet commitments on a solar development project in Barbados.
Last November, the Ottawa Citizen reports, a company called Deltro Solar—which lists Del Mastro as its chief financial officer and his cousin David Del Mastro as president—boasted in a press release that it was headquartering a Caribbean solar energy subsidiary in Barbados. According to the paper, Deltro said it was developing a $26-million solar farm that would “create more than 500 jobs and [provide] a cheap green energy source for locals.”
Deltro Solar said it would hire 140 people and begin work by April 6, the Citizen now says, “but operations haven’t started.”
In late 2014, the paper recalls, Dean Del Mastro “was found guilty of violating the Canada Elections Act during his 2008 re-election campaign for the Peterborough riding.” Earlier this year, David Del Mastro was acquitted of charges he had directed money to his cousin’s campaign.
“We certainly have been frustrated,” Dean Del Mastro said of progress on the company’s Barbados solar project. “But we are undeterred.”
A group of 14 Pacific Island nations will soon consider the world’s first international treaty to ban or phase out fossil fuels, setting binding targets for renewable energy development and prohibiting new or expanded coal mines.
Potential signatories “already possess the political courage and commitment needed to adopt a flagship legal instrument that is sufficiently ambitious to prevent catastrophic changes in the global climate system,” states the Pacific Island Climate Action Network (PICAN), the NGO coalition that drafted the model treaty.
“Such a treaty, when implemented in collaboration with PIDF [the Pacific Islands Development Forum] and civil society, would send a powerful signal to markets, governments, and civil society around the world that the end of fossil fuels is near, with Pacific Islanders acting not as victims of climate change but as agents of change.”
It adds: “As there is currently no treaty that bans or phases out fossil fuels, the Treaty would set a pioneering example to the rest of the world.”
PIDF is expected to debate the proposal at its annual forum in 2017, and could adopt it as early as 2018.
“Pacific island leaders are among the most proactive in the world on global warming because their countries are bearing the brunt of climate changes,” said Joeteshna Gurdayal Zenos, acting head of Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s climate justice project, Pacific Net.
“This is an avenue where the Pacific could again show or build on the moral and political leadership that they’ve shown earlier in their efforts to tackle climate change,” added PIDF climate advisor Mahendra Kumar.
Ahead of last year’s United Nations climate summit in Paris, the 14 countries had sought to bring forward a global commitment to a 1.5°C limit on average global warming through an older forum, the Pacific Islands Forum. That effort was defeated by Australia and New Zealand, The Guardian reports, but the Paris Agreement still included 1.5°C as a target for the second half of this century.
The new PIDF treaty “embraces the aspirational 1.5°C target set at Paris, setting mitigation targets that are in line with it, as well as establishing adaptation mechanisms to cope with the effects of that warming,” the paper notes.
The urgency behind the model treaty was captured earlier this month in a Huffington Post profile of the Marshall Islands, a country that consists of five main islands and 29 coral atolls with an average elevation of six feet above sea level. “Marshall Islanders seem destined to become climate refugees as the whole country threatens to disappear below sea level by the end of the century,” HuffPo reports. “And the seas are rising faster than international law can adapt. There is no international recognition of people displaced by climate change as refugees, leaving them without legal protection or rights.”
With as many as 160 countries, including 40 heads of state, expected to attend the symbolic signing ceremony for the Paris agreement today in New York City, “leaders will really be looking to see which countries go beyond mere ceremony and legally join the agreement, which would bind them to the promises made in Paris last December to keep warming below the agreed target of 2°C,” The Guardian reported earlier this week.
“You heard it here first: I think that we will have a Paris Agreement in effect by 2018,” UN Climate Secretary Christiana Figueres told an audience in London earlier this month. “Early entry into force—we are very committed to making that happen,” added Canadian Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, during a World Bank panel last week. “We can’t just now rest on our laurels and have a nice signing on Earth Day, and then we all go home.”
With the United States, China, Canada, and “a host of other countries” promising to sign this year, there is hope the agreement could enter into force this year or next, far ahead of the 2020 target date coming out of last year’s UN climate summit in Paris. That will happen 30 days after at least 55 countries, representing at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, sign and ratify the treaty.
But the Guardian report traces the challenges along the road to that target. “The assumption is that you have to do this without the EU to get to that 55% hurdle, if you want to see it in the next year or so,” Alden Meyer, strategy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told reporter Suzanne Goldenberg. That’s because the European Union will need agreement among all 28 member states before any of them can join the agreement.
“That will force governments to cobble together a coalition of smaller countries if they hope to reach the 55% emissions threshold,” Goldenberg writes. “Possible contenders include India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Australia.”
An earlier entry into force “would have one obvious advantage for Barack Obama,” she adds. “The standard withdrawal clause on any such agreement would force a future Republican president to wait four years before quitting Paris, according to legal experts.” An earlier start date could also boost momentum for deeper emission cuts and “help efforts to attain the more ambitious goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C—which would give a better chance of survival to small islands and other countries on the frontlines of climate change.”
When national representatives step forward to sign the Paris agreement today, they’d better remember that reaffirming their commitment to greenhouse gas reductions is just the first step in keeping their promises, writes Emmanuel de Guzman, secretary and vice-chair of the Philippines Climate Change Commission, on behalf of the Climate Vulnerable Forum.
“In signing this Paris Agreement on the dotted line, governments cannot forget the fine print that all states agreed to take steps towards a world where we limit warming to only 1.5°C,” de Guzman writes. “Despite momentum, huge and urgent follow-up action is required to live up to that promise.”
The Climate Vulnerable Forum “fought tooth and nail to make the Paris agreement as ambitious as it is,” he notes on Huffington Post, and the 1.5°C commitment was the CVF’s most important victory. “Keeping warming below this level would preserve most of the world’s coral reefs and glaciers. It would limit the spread of vector-borne diseases exacerbated by climate change, slow the spread of poverty in my native Southeast Asia, and provide a boost to the world’s plans to meet the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals it signed in 2015.”
But if all countries do is sign and ratify the agreement, the world will still be headed toward 3.0° to 5.0°C average warming that “would create unbearable conditions for the one billion people who live in the member countries of our Forum,” de Guzman writes.
And even before that happens, “a massive increase in effort is already required to help those worst hit by climate change cope with the beginnings of these challenges. Under the new climate pact, obligations for financial support, technology sharing, and measures to compensate for the loss and damage suffered by vulnerable groups that barely pollute would skyrocket if we don’t halt the warming.”
That means “the swifter we move, the better off everyone will be,” and vulnerable nations “are doing our best to lead”: last week, finance ministers from the Vulnerable 20 Group promised to adopt domestic carbon pricing within 10 years, and “called for an international tax on financial transactions to help fund efforts to tackle climate change,” de Guzman notes.
“If small and poor countries can take such steps, any country can, especially developed countries who are expected to lead on emission cuts before 2020.”
At least 20 people were killed, villages were flattened, and crops were shredded as Cyclone Winston slammed into Fiji with winds estimated at up to 285 kilometres per hour, prompting the government to declare a month long state of disaster.
“The damage has been widespread, homes have been destroyed, many low-lying areas have flooded, and many people have been left stunned and confused about what to do,” said Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.
“As a nation, we are facing an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” he added on social media. “We must stick together as a people and look after each other.”
Government officials “were trying to establish communications and road access to the hardest-hit areas, and said they would not know the full extent of the damage and injuries until then,” The Weather Channel reported Sunday. Bainimarama said many people had been left without power, fresh water, or communications.
Al Jazeera reported concerns that “casualty numbers will increase once reports come in from outlying islands and from so-called ‘squatter areas,’ where shanty-standard housing was unlikely to have withstood the category 5 storm.” Alice Clements of UNICEF Pacific said Winston hit the capital of Suva “with destructive, howling winds, and the sound of rivets lifting from roofs a constant throughout the night.” But “it is likely that smaller villages across Fiji will have suffered the most, given their infrastructures would be too weak” to withstand the storm.
“We haven’t seen so much damage in any of the past cyclones, not in my lifetime,” local businessman Jay Dayal in the district of Ba told Reuters. “The three and a half hours of wind that we had, it just literally destroyed buildings. “Looking at all of the smaller houses and the squatter areas, they are almost flat.”
He added that “”I wouldn’t be surprised if people are now starting to go without food. It looks like a different country. It doesn’t look like Fiji.”
Before Winston hit Fiji, the Washington Post noted that the cyclone “took an incredibly unusual path to get to where it is right now—winding through the South Pacific and crossing over a single island twice. The cyclone passed Tonga’s island of Vava’u once earlier this week as a category 2, and then strengthened, turned, and passed over the same islands again as a category 4.”