'Green not grey': UN head calls time on coal during Pacific climate change mission

UN chief Antonio Guterres Source: AAP

The world’s top diplomat has called for no more new coal fired power stations and more ambitious emission reduction targets while visiting the Pacific to tackle climate change "crisis".

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres wants the world to stop building coal fired power stations and turn from a grey to green economy as he tours the Pacific to rally support for ambitious carbon emission cuts to stem climate change "crisis".

Mr Guterres will meet with Pacific Island Forum leaders on Wednesday in Fiji to amplify the call and present a unified front ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York in September.

His visit comes just days ahead of the Australian federal election but the caretaker government will not have a seat at the historic regional leaders meeting and be represented by a senior diplomat instead.

Pacific Forum nations have been at the forefront of pushing for global action on climate change and in the joint “Boe Declaration on Regional Security” last year, also signed by Australia, called it the “single greatest threat” to the region.

“Stop the construction of new coal plants by 2020. We need a green economy, not a grey economy in the world,” Mr Guterres told a Pasifika Youth event in New Zealand yesterday on the first stop of his regional tour.

“Stop subsidies to fossil fuels. Taxpayers money should not be used to boost hurricanes, spread drought and heatwaves, to bleach corals or to melt glaciers.

“We must tax pollution not people.”

Mr Guterres will see first-hand the impacts by also visiting Vanuatu, the country considered most vulnerable in the world to climate change impacts, and the low-lying nation of Tuvalu. He is not due to visit Australia.

He has warned the political will to tackle climate change is “fading” in some countries, especially some of the heaviest polluters.

“Our central objective (is) not to have more than 1.5 degrees of increasing temperatures at the end of the century. The international community, and especially the scientific community, has been very clear that to reach this goal we absolutely need to have carbon neutrality by 2050,” Mr Guterres said.

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to keep warming to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels this century but estimates put the world on track to exceed the target, with the current rise calculated at 1.8 degrees.

Australia currently has “low ambition” targets which the Scott Morrison’s Coalition government said will be met while admitting the country’s emission are rising.

Mr Guterres wants all nations to reduce emissions by at least 45 per cent over the next decade and to net zero emissions by 2050.

Labor’s election policy mirror’s the UN but the Coalition is proposing a 28 per cent reduction by 2030 and beyond that their position is unknown.

Australia has embarked on a Pacific diplomacy and aid funding “step up” to counter the influence of China in the region but its on-going commitment to fossil fuels has drawn the ire of many Pacific leaders, some who also want an end to coal mining.

The Pacific island nations are among the most heavily impacted by the effects of climate change but are the smallest contributors.

Antonio Guterres attends a roundtable event with Pasifika Community Organisations and International NGOs during a visit to Auckland.

Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Dame Meg Taylor will host the meeting between Pacific leaders and Mr Guterres on Wednesday and says the “critical message is the urgency of the situation”.

“If many of our small atoll nations are inundated with sea water, fresh water is diminished, food security is not enough to survive on, people will have to leave their homes and we don’t want that,” Dame Meg told the ABC.

“Australia has been very supportive in terms of climate financing but in the long-term what we need is a commitment to zero carbon emissions, just like New Zealand’s parliament has just passed, by 2050,” she said.

“Our leaders are pragmatic people and understand you’ve got an economy to run but a lot has been said in the election campaign about climate, and we owe it to the future generations, not just in Australia, New Zealand but the rest of the world to do something.

“When Mr Guterres gets to his summit he’ll have the Pacific behind him, if you save Tuvalu, you save the world.”

Action needs to follow

How far Pacific leaders will go when they standing alongside the UN secretary general after their meeting is highly anticipated.

“In itself their statement will be significant, but it’s a question of how significant,” said Dr Wes Morgan, Adjunct Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute specialising in Pacific islands’ engagement in climate negotiations.

“It’s a bit of a repeat of what happened in 2014, when Ban Ki-Moon went to Samoa, and generate momentum for his Climate Summit in New York that year, the one (then Australian prime minister) Tony Abbott didn’t attend.

“Under the Paris Agreement all countries must increase their ambitions, so it’s a real push to update their commitments by 2020.

“The Pacific has been leading from the front and Australia is really the isolated outlier.“

Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama is one of those leading advocates for climate change action and Mr Guterres will address the country’s parliament during his visit.

Fiji's Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama
Fiji's Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama.

Mr Bainimarama has repeatedly criticised Australia’s position, telling Mr Morrison it is “no laughing matter” during his visit to Fiji in January.

He also damned Liberal MP John Alexander’s election campaign comments to "move to higher ground" to escape rising sea levels and former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd’s “neo-colonial” suggestion to relocate Pacific islanders to Australia in exchange for control of their exclusive economic zones. 

Ahead of Mr Guterres’ visit Mr Bainimarama told the 3rd Climate Action Pacific Partnership meeting this week in Suva “this is everyone’s crisis”. 

“There’s only one way we can prevent the current crisis from escalating into total chaos, all nations will arrive in New York this September at the UN secretary general’s Climate Summit with clear commitments in place to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030,” he said.

“We want every nation to care for every other nation. We want people to care that some small islands could disappear altogether.”

Mr Guterres’ trip comes as a group of Torres Strait islanders in far-north Queensland have filed a landmark case with the UN human rights committee against the Australian government claiming inaction on climate change. 

It is thought to be the first legal action by low-lying islanders against a nation state alleging failure to reduce carbon emissions and thereby threatening their culture, livelihoods and homes.

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