Secretary-General: More than 8 million tonnes of harmful plastic waste end up in the oceans every year
Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in Fiji on 15 May:
Thank you, President Waqa of Nauru, Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, for bringing us together at this critical moment.
Thank you also to Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, for strengthening the cooperation between our two organizations.
I am delighted to be visiting the Pacific region for the first time as Secretary-General.
I was yesterday in Christchurch, to express my solidarity following the horrific attacks on mosques in March. In response to that tragedy, your voices from the Pacific were commendably strong about the importance of tackling intolerance and religious discrimination.
As the Pacific Islands Forum shows, diversity – rooted in very strong cultures and traditions –is a strength, not a weakness.
The United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum are close partners across the international agenda, as we support your peacebuilding efforts, your implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and so much else, fully aware of the enormous challenges represented by scale, isolation and the scarcity of resources.
But today I am here to focus on two fundamental challenges for your region and for our world: first, the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, and second, the deepening threats to the world’s oceans and seas.
As you know all too well, the Pacific region is on the frontline of climate change.
That means you are also our important allies in the fight against it.
In the days ahead, I will also visit Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
I am here to see the region’s climate pressures firsthand, and to learn about the work being undertaken by communities here in Fiji and elsewhere to bolster resilience.
Your commitment to adaptation, your need to develop adaptation, requires stronger international support, as climate change is running faster than our efforts to address it.
Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking.
The last four years were the hottest on record.
The loss of ice in Greenland and Antarctica is accelerating, meaning that sea levels will rise a full meter by 2100 if nothing is done to avoid it.
Here in the Pacific, sea-level rise in some countries is four times greater than the global average and is an existential threat to some island states.
The damage caused recently by Tropical Cyclones Gita, Josie and Keni, and by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in the region, along with other extreme weather events, give us ample evidence of the region’s vulnerability.
Climate change will further worsen the risks.
Already, the salinization of water and crops is endangering food security.
And the impact on public health is escalating.
Climate change also brings clear dangers for international peace and security, as you affirmed in the Boe Declaration adopted last year.
There is growing recognition of the links between climate change and security.
That link is particularly relevant in the Pacific.
I have recently appointed a task force in order to coordinate a set of UN initiatives to address the multiple challenges of this link. And I’m interested in listening to you and giving adequate consultation to your analysis and your suggestions.
Military strategists see clearly the possibility of climate impacts increasing tensions over resources and mass movements of people everywhere in the world.
As coastal areas or degraded inland areas become uninhabitable, people will seek safety and better lives elsewhere.
In 2016, more than 24 million people in 118 countries and territories were displaced by natural disasters – three times as many as were displaced by conflict.
I know that Pacific island communities have been responding actively to today’s hardships and tomorrow’s dangers.
You are drawing on a long history of adaptation and traditional ecological knowledge.
You are challenging the status quo.
And you are in the forefront of global climate negotiations.
I witnessed your leadership at the climate conference last year in Katowice, Poland, in support of the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees. Your efforts have been very effective in keeping that target at the centre of our objectives.
Moreover, without your advocacy, political leaders would not have recognized the need to address the “loss and damage” caused by climate change.
The United Nations is strongly committed to supporting your response to climate change and reversing the negative trends that have put your cultures and very existence at risk.
That is why I have asked France, Jamaica, and Qatar to lead the mobilization of the international community to materialize the $100 billion U.S dollars per year from 2020 onwards to support the developing countries both in mitigation and adaptation.
And that is why it is so important to replenish the Green Climate Fund but also to make it more operational – and in particular in relation to Small Island States.
Climate change is also a threat to the well-being of the oceans, which are so critical to the economies and traditions of the Pacific.
Oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, causing coral bleaching and reducing biodiversity.
Global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would cause severe damage to tropical reefs, but if warming levels were to reach 2 degrees Celsius or more, it would be catastrophic for marine life and humans alike. Food security would decline. Economic growth would suffer.
But unfortunately, the oceans are also under attack from other directions.
Fisheries in some places are collapsing from overuse.
Dead zones – underwater deserts where life cannot survive because of a lack of oxygen – are growing rapidly in extent and number. Many species could be extinct within decades.
Pollution is filling the seas with poison and trash.
Every year, more than 8 million tonnes of harmful plastic waste end up in the oceans.
According to one recent study, if nothing changes dramatically, plastic could outweigh fish in our seas by 2050.
Many countries are finally taking action, including through recycling efforts and by rejecting single-use plastic. We must encourage this to be a practice worldwide.
But we must do even more to address the conflicting demands from industry, fishing, shipping, mining and tourism that are creating unsustainable levels of stress on marine and coastal ecosystems.
Here, too, the Pacific countries have seized the moment.
Your leadership was critical in ensuring the adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 14 – “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”
Fiji’s Peter Thomson, serving as my Special Envoy for the Ocean, is promoting implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the outcomes of the United Nations Oceans Conference, including the “Call for Action” adopted by Member States on that occasion.
I am pleased that next year’s United Nations Oceans Conference will be held in Lisbon. As someone who grew up with a special relationship with the sea, I will do my utmost to help this gathering lead the world toward improving the well-being of this vital resource.
To address the intertwined challenges of climate change and ocean health, we need smart and far-reaching steps.
This requires action that is aligned with the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda, and that makes full use of tools such as the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
We have the blueprints, the frameworks and the plans. What we need is urgency, political will and ambition.
It is with that in mind that I will host a Climate Action Summit in September in New York.
The Summit will be an opportunity for countries to scale up their pledges so that we can stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.
I want the Summit to demonstrate the benefits of climate action and how everyone can benefit.
We are committed to highlighting the Pacific region’s concerns, along with other small island states, including in adaptation, resilience, finance and early warning.
The Summit will showcase initiatives in key sectors such as energy, mobility, agriculture and oceans.
It will underscore the need to end subsidies for fossil fuels and shift towards renewable energy, electric vehicles and climate-smart practices.
Our efforts should also include carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of emissions, and accelerating the closure of coal plants, halting plans for new ones, and replacing those jobs with healthier alternatives so that the transformation is just, inclusive and profitable.
My messages to governments around the world from the Pacific are clear:
First, shift taxes from salaries to carbon. Tax pollution, not people.
Second, stop subsidizing fossil fuels. Taxpayer money should not be used to boost hurricanes, spread drought and heatwaves, melt glaciers, and bleach corals.
Third, stop building new coal plants by 2020. We need a green economy, not a grey economy.
I also plan to stress the importance of gender diversity in all decisions related to climate change because climate change has particular impacts on women. Increased salinization of food crops, for example, affects pregnant women and the health of newborns.
There can be no successful response to a changing climate without also changing mind-sets about the role of women in prevention and response.
Youth participation, as we have learned today, is equally vital.
The continued leadership of the Pacific region will be critical.
Alongside the Climate Summit, four other major meetings will place sustainable development at centre stage during the high-level week in September in New York.
We will review progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, focus high-level attention on Universal Health Coverage, and consider how to mobilize financing to reach our objectives.
In this context, the mid-level review of the Samoa Pathway on Small Island Developing States takes on special importance. I will do everything possible in my ability to mobilize the solidarity and support of the international community for your sustainable development to become a vibrant reality.
This will be a critical moment as we strive for full implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
I know I count on your strong engagement.
Your commitment to promote your vision of the “Blue Continent” has already raised the region’s profile within the United Nations.
As we look ahead, your voices will remain crucial in global negotiations.
Your experiences underscore the urgency of the threat.
The Pacific has a unique moral authority to speak out.