COP21 falls short in addressing climate change for the South Pacific Islands

Research done for the Pacific Peoples Partnership, Victoria BC 

Vulnerability in the South Pacific Islands

The South Pacific Islands are one of the most vulnerable areas in the world to the effects of climate change. The risks are not a matter of inconvenience, but a matter of survival. Failure of food systems, drinking water contaminated by saltwater intrusion, extreme storms destroying infrastructure (1), and the looming threat of submergence of entire island nations are the reality for the 1.9 million people who call this area home (2). Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was heavy anticipation among these diverse peoples that the COP21 Paris climate talks would dramatically reduce current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions trends and slow, or even reverse, the effects of climate change in the South Pacific Islands.

Earth’s Potential Futures

Climate science is not simple, but it is certain. What lacks certainty is the future. Will human populations continue to expand exponentially? Will we transition to a renewable energy future? If so, when? Will policy be implemented to cap or tax carbon emissions? Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) scenarios take into account the different potential futures of our planet, with the three below being the most important:

  • RCP 2.6 is the best-case scenario and involves the complete reversal of current economic systems, extreme reduction in fossil fuel use, rapid implementation of renewable energies as well as carbon capture and sequestration. Average surface temperature would stay at just under 2°C (3).
    • It is important to note that humans have already warmed the planet by 0.75°C to-date (4), and have increased global radiative anthropogenic forcing by 2.3 watts/m2 (5) through emission of man-made greenhouse gases. This means we are currently at RCP 2.3. In other words, humans have contributed enough watts of warming to power an energy smart LED lightbulb on every square metre of the globe.

  • RCP 4.5 is the standard accepted scenario among scientists and would result in 2.4- 3°C warming. This scenario is still considered ‘optimistic’ as aggressive action to reduce global GHG emissions would have to occur. This would involve climate policy and pricing, implementation of renewable energies, emergence of large scale carbon capture and sequestration, global use of bioenergy and expansion of forests, while still allowing the continued use of some fossil fuels (6).
  • RCP 8.5 is ‘business as usual’, based on a fossil fuel intensive economy, consistent with present-day use, and accounting for projected global demographic increases. A temperature change of 1-4.8°C would occur by 2100.

 The Likely Scenario Based on the COP21 Paris Talks

2°C is unequivocally agreed by scientists to be the threshold for dangerous and potentially catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate. However, emissions reduction targets, put forward by 187 countries at COP21, are not adequate to keep rising global temperatures below this level. At best, we are currently aiming for RCP 4.5, a warming of 2.7-3°C (11). Despite the inadequacy of proposed targets, they remain ambitious and should be celebrated as a momentous turning point and global transition towards a green, renewable, economy. There remains hope that targets will be reviewed in the coming annual COP climate talks, and that future meetings will set increasingly adequate targets.

Aiding Developing Nations

It is important to be optimistic, but it is also important to be realistic. The South Pacific Islands are already experiencing the effects of climate change and there is no way to shut the global economy down overnight to reverse these trends (even if this were possible, a further 0.6°C warming would still occur). The impacts on this region will continue to worsen and ‘the damage costs for small island states [will be] enormous in relation to the size of their economies (9)’. This is particularly disheartening considering the Pacific Islands as a whole account for only 0.03% of global co2 emissions, despite having 0.12% of the world’s population (10). This emphasizes the disproportionate effects of climate change – where countries with small economies that have contributed little to rising co2 emissions tend to feel the greatest impacts and incur the greatest costs.

The international Green Climate Fund hopes to distribute $100 billion per year as of 2020 to aid developing nations in adaptation measures, such as storm-proofing or relocating, as well as mitigation efforts, such as installation of solar and wind power to stimulate sustainable economic development. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged a $2.65 billion per year contribution to this fund over the next five years, making Canada the second largest contributor in the world after the U.S, who pledged $3 billion (7). However, it is unanimously agreed that the target of $100 billion per year is not enough to combat global climate change. The Worldbank estimates between 7-10 times this amount is what is realistically needed (8). Nonetheless, this fund is the first time developed countries have agreed to distribute wealth to address the disproportionate effects of climate change in developing countries. Without it, the targets now in place would not have been agreed to by countries like China and India. Therefore, this innovative and essential aspect of the COP21 climate talks should be celebrated alongside the emissions reduction targets.

We too are Pacific Peoples                                                

Climate change eliminates borders and does not play favorites. On the west coast of Canada, we too are Pacific peoples. While the effects of climate change are different in this area, we are not exempt. Longer, drier summers have increased wildfire prevalence in coastal BC (13, 14). Grasslands are increasingly replacing carbon-storing forests (14) resulting in drastic reductions in terrestrial biodiversity (15). Warmer waters are affecting Pacific salmon – a foundationally critical species for all wildlife in this area – by increasing their metabolism, exhausting their energy supply, and causing pre-spawning mortality (16). Highly conservative estimates of a 1m sea level rise in coastal BC (17, 14, 13) will displace 220,000 people who live in the Richmond and Fraser River Delta area of Vancouver alone. Here 4,600 ha of farmland and more than 15,000 ha of industrial and residential urban areas will be inundated (17). Impacts from increased average sea levels will be exacerbated by extreme weather events which will increase in frequency and severity (17, 18). This will further increase flooding and damage to coastal infrastructure, property loss from erosion, habitat loss, saltwater intrusion in coastal aquafiers, and groundwater and biodiversity loss (19).

We face many of the same environmental threats that also affect the South Pacific Islands; we are however, more adaptable due to economic, geographic, and technological advantages. Given these advantages, we must recognize that we have an important role to play in aiding our Pacific neighbors, we must break down the barriers and borders created by nations and recognize that we share this issue as one. We must unite to address climate change.


  1. Barnett, Jon. “Dangerous climate change in the Pacific Islands: food production and food security.”Regional Environmental Change. 11.1 (2011): 229-237.
  2. Keener, Victoria.Climate change and pacific islands: indicators and impacts: report for the 2012 pacific islands regional climate assessment. Island press, 2013.
  3. SPM, IPCC SRES. “Summary for policymakers, emissions scenarios: a special report of IPCC Working Group III, IPCC.”ISBN92.9169 (2000): 113.
  4. NASA. Global Temperature
  5. Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch,, 2013: Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forc­ing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis”RCP4. 5: a pathway for stabilization of radiative forcing by 2100.”Climatic Change109.1-2 (2011): 77-94.\
  6. Van Vuuren, D. P., Edmonds, J., Kainuma, M., Riahi, K., Thomson, A., Hibbard, K. & Masui, T. (2011). The representative concentration pathways: an overview.Climatic change,109, 5-31
  7.  Grandia, Kevin (2015). A Primer on Trudeau’s $2.65 Billion Green Climate Fund Announcement. nnouncement
  8. Climate Finance is Flowing, but it isn’t enough- yet. World Bank News.
  9. Field, Christopher B., et al. “Summary for policymakers.”Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part a: global and sectoral aspects. Contribution of working group II to the fifth assessment report of the IPCC change(2014): 1-32.
  10. IPCC. 2001. Ch. 17. Small Island States. Adaption and Adaptive Capacity.
  11. Climate pledges will bring 2.7°C of warming, potential for more action. (2015).
  12. Clague, John (2013). Cryospheric Hazzards. Centre for Natural Hazard Research, Simon Fraser Universit. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, The Geologists’ Association & The Geological Society of London, Geology Today, Vol. 29, No. 2, March–April 201
  13. Clague, J.J. and Turner, R.J. 2000. Climate change in southwestern British Columbia: Extending the boundaries of earth science. Geoscience Canada, v. 27, p. 111-120.
  14. Gayton, Donald V. “Impacts of climate change on British Columbia’s biodiversity: A literature review.”Journal of Ecosystems and Management9.2 (2008).
  15. B.C. Ministry of Environment. 2007. Environmental trends in British Columbia: 2007. Victoria, B.C.: State of Environment Reporting.
  16. Harford, D., Vanderwill, C., & Church, A. (2008). Climate change adaptation: Planning for BC.
  17. Bornhold, B. 2008 Projected Sea Level Changes for British Columbia During the 21st Century. B.C. Ministry of Environment
  18. Carlson, Deborah (2012) PREPARING FOR CLIMATE CHANGE: An Implementation Guide for Local Governments in British Columbia . Natural Resources Canada. Retrieved from < change_FINAL.pdf>

Why COP21 Matters

I am so hopeful for the upcoming Paris climate conference.

It is an overwhelming challenge we face, but nothing matters more.

The world’s most prominent leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century

Congratulations world. We are finally starting to head in the right direction, fuelled by the passion and commitment from a handful of dedicated leaders.

I’m so proud and happy today that the G7 leaders have agreed to decarbonize by the end of this century. Despite opposition from my own apparent ‘leader’ Stephen Harper, we can all breath a sigh of relief today as our planet takes a small step towards survival in these exciting months leading up to the Paris climate talks.