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21st Sep 2020

COP24: Vanuatu in 'constant state of emergency' on climate

  • Vanuatu, an island in the Pacific Ocean, has a population of around 270,000 - slightly fewer than that of the Polish city of Katowice, where COP24 is being held (Photo: Robyn Thiessen)

It is "disappointing" that Poland is using its presidency of the annual UN climate summit to promote the use of coal, said Ralph Regenvanu, foreign minister of the Pacific island Vanuatu.

Vanuatu is one of the countries feeling the most effects of climate change.

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  • Ralph Regenvanu, foreign minister of the Pacific island Vanuatu, said there was 'no future' for coal as an energy source (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"Three years ago we had the first 'category 5' cyclone in the Pacific," said Regenvanu.

"It cost us over 64 percent of our GDP. One event over a few hours. So really, huge impact."

He said his country was in a "constant state of emergency", and that the proportion of the national budget used to respond to extreme weather events is increasing – which means that less is available for public services and education.

The climate conference, known as COP24, is being held in Katowice, in a region with a long history of coal mining.

The conference is being sponsored by several fossil fuel companies, there is a small exposition about coal as a material for souvenirs, and the Polish pavilion has hosted events about "clean coal".

When EUobserver asked Regenvanu about Poland's focus on coal, he rolled his eyes.

"There is no future for coal," he said, talking to a small group of journalists on Wednesday (12 December).

"Coal is going to stay in the ground. That's kind of obvious to everybody. It's very disappointing that Poland is even talking about it," he noted.

Silesian heritage

Poland relies on coal for around 80 percent of its electricity, but there is also an element of coal being part of Silesian cultural heritage.

Some of the focus on coal can therefore be interpreted as a domestic message – but it was not yet clear if it was also hampering a successful outcome of the conference.

"We hope not. I can't really make a definitive statement about that one way or another but we hope not," said Regenvanu.

He spoke after a press conference with several members of civil society, who expressed their frustration with the lack of progress at the climate talks.

Several of them said that the summit should not only lead to clear rules on how countries will make good on their promises made at the Paris climate summit in 2015 – the so-called Paris rulebook.

They also believe that the publication last October of an alarming report by the UN's climate panel should lead to an increased ambition of those promises.

'Complacency in rooms'

"We are concerned there is a little bit of complacency in the rooms," said Li Shuo, climate campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.

"I think a lot of countries are coming here and their eyes are on the rulebook and solely on the rulebook," said Li, noting that the COP will only be successful with increased ambition.

Harjeet Singh, campaigner for the international development organisation ActionAid, said that the role of the EU at the summit had been "very disappointing".

He said the US was "using every single opportunity to destroy the agreement", and had Australia and Japan as allies.

"European Union remains a mere spectator. That's the reason we are stuck," he said.

Vanuatu's Ralph Regenvanu was more mild about the EU's role.

"We are very happy with the EU and their position," he said.

"What they are doing as the EU to address the issue of climate change they are showing all developed countries what they should be doing," said Regenvanu – although he conceded that the EU could do much to push the negotiations in the right direction.

Regenvanu saw the US and Saudi Arabia as being the most obstructive in the talks.

"[It makes me feel] very depressed. [I am] very angry about it and disappointed," he added.

"We thought we would be somewhere else by now, and not just back here."

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