Cop28 climate champion says vulnerable want to know what's being done to protect them

People who work on the frontlines and won a prestigious UAE award say the world must continue to unite at future climate summits

President Sheikh Mohamed presents the First Class Order of Zayed II medal to Ambassador Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Dr Pa'olelei Luteru, permanent representative of Samoa to the UN, and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States. Photo: Presidential Court
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When Samoa’s UN ambassador returns to visit his home in the Pacific Islands, he finds it difficult to answer questions from the chiefs about what the world is doing to protect vulnerable communities whose existence is threatened as the oceans rise.

Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Dr Pa’olelei Luteru, chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States, said keeping the global temperature limit of 1.5°C within reach is crucial for the survival of his people.

“I go home every few years and when I visit my village, the chiefs ask: 'What are you doing?' and I tell them we are looking at many issues.

“I say: 'You’ve got to be patient maybe wait for two years'. Then I go back the next time and they say: 'Remember we spoke, well nothing has changed. In fact, it has got worse,'” Dr Luteru told The National.

It recognises we cannot work in silos, that is not the answer to the climate emergency
Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Dr Pa’olelei Luteru, chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States

“Changes in sea level affects livelihoods and people are starting to move inland.

“For us in a volcanic island, you have some high grounds but some of our sister islands, the atoll countries, they have nowhere to run.

“That’s why we are very concerned about the issue of climate change, sea level rise and plastic pollution.”

Green commitment

Dr Luteru was among a select group bestowed the First Class Order of Zayed II award by UAE President Sheikh Mohamed this week for making Cop28 a success with their environmental expertise.

The climate conference resulted in framing the UAE Consensus, praised for securing a commitment for the first time from all parties to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems “in a just, orderly and equitable manner”.

Dr Luteru described it as a catalyst for change, and the loss and damage fund announced at Cop28 as a foundation for future climate conferences.

“It recognises we cannot work in silos, that is not the answer to the climate emergency,” he said.

“The UAE Consensus is an excellent framework that we hope will accelerate action in reducing global emissions, cutting down of deforestation, look at shipping emissions and the transition from fossil fuels.”

Cop28 also mobilised more than $80 billion in climate finance.

People living in small islands that have done very little to contribute to global warming – less than one per cent of emissions – have repeatedly asked for protection and finance for adaptation programmes.

Coastal communities are under threat with villagers relocating due to receding shorelines and loss of reef islands due to increased height of waves.

Dr Luteru said the spate of forest fires, surge in summer temperatures and flooding in western nations brought home climate changes that his people have suffered for years.

“Small Island States have been at the forefront of this fight, we have the moral voice because we experience it on a daily basis,” he said.

“Now with more climate-related events, flooding in Europe, severe storms in the US, people are seeing what it means.

“There is absolutely no time to lose, we all need to do our part as Cop28 showed – not just one country, one institution, it’s not just about the private sector, civil society, it’s about all of us as a collective”

Food security challenges

Dr Agnes Kalibata, president of Agra, an African-led alliance that assists small farmers, said bringing food systems, food security and farmers’ livelihood into climate change discussions was a big win.

A former agriculture minister, Dr Kalibata led food security programmes in Rwanda and now works across 15 African nations to transform the lives of small farmers.

“What will be critical coming into Cop 29 is to ensure the things we agreed in Cop28 carry on and that they are not left on the table,” said Dr Kalibata who also received the prestigious UAE award.

“For us it was important the UAE stepped forward to secure a consensus with clear language moving us forward on fossil fuels, loss and damage and bringing the challenges in food systems into the Cop conversations.”

Among the key developments of Cop28 was the creation of a $4.5 billion fund to help Africa unlock its clean energy potential and the formation of $30 billion fund, Alterra, launched by the UAE to create a fairer climate finance system.

Recognising the need to strengthen communities dependent on agriculture was a key aspect of Cop28.

“The UAE put its best foot forward with the Alterra fund to support climate initiatives around the world,” she said.

“The UAE’s leadership recognised that food systems are critical.

“Farmers in the South must have access to more improved varieties of seed, drought-tolerant varieties of seeds that help ensure they are still getting the nutrition and food they need.”

Voices from the front line

In arguably the biggest achievement since the 2015 Paris deal, the Cop28 agreement also called for a tripling of renewable energy capacity globally by 2030.

Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, the former president of Iceland, provided political guidance as a Cop28 advisory committee member and said it provided a template for future Cops by making sure the voices of people on the front lines were heard.

The conference, with more than 80,000 registered participants, was by far the best attended Cop so far.

“The old model was that unless you were an ambassador or a minister, you did not have a seat at the table,” said Iceland’s longest-serving president.

“Many of us believed that in order to succeed there was a need for a new, more open model which brought in not just ambassadors, diplomats, ministers but also NGOs, indigenous people, scientists, business leaders.

“Part of the success of Cop28 was that it was a new, open, democratic model of bringing in people who had anything to contribute to the table.

“The great success of Cop28 was that it proved that an alternative future is possible,” said Mr Grimmson.

Updated: May 25, 2024, 5:31 AM