VANUATU AND BEYOND | Loss & Damage Costs are Exploding and the Politics are too: Vanuatu’s island solutions at the UNFCCC and beyond

Vanuatu is leading Pacific and global efforts to scale financing for loss and damage, and addressing its fossil fuel root cause

Back in the early 1990’s the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, a founding member of the Alliance of Small Island States AOSIS, called on what would become the United Framework Convention on Climate Change: “help us pay for addressing the impacts from sea level rise.” Essentially, the first global call for finance to address loss and damage.

Back then, when sea level was 12cm lower, before 34 cyclones had smashed into the archipelago, and before our coral reefs were bleached through marine heat waves and dissolved by ocean acidification, ni-Vanuatu villages were already moving away from the sea to escape the rising tides.

Today, there is still no operational global facility to help our island villages address the slow onset impacts of sea level rise, and global politics on funding loss and damage is heating faster than the planet.

How does a small, geographically isolated and dispersed country, recently graduated from the Least Developed Country classification, pay the annual climate damage bills of more than 100 million USD when its entire Government budget appropriation for 2023 is only 342 million USD?

To put it bluntly, we cannot.

The much-touted LnD financial solutions fail to scratch the surface: humanitarian aid (meets less than 10% of the needs identified in Post Disaster Needs Assessments), insurance (less than 5% penetration), and climate finance to the Pacific (a mere 2% of all global flows). There is a serious gap in finance to address loss and damage that is being shouldered by island farmers, fisherwomen, chiefs and children. The house doesn’t stay unbuilt after the cyclone, so the family digs into savings, or uses bush materials and goes it alone. And that family has a miniscule carbon footprint and isn’t responsible, with Vanuatu responsible for only 0.00108% of global emissions.

Vanuatu has an independent and indefatigable spirit, which it effectively demonstrated to both the British and French colonial governments in 1980, and has been playing an outsized role in the global solution space to address loss and damage. Not waiting for help that is slow to arrive, the country is leading on domestic mechanisms to raise finance, including through highly tailored taxes and levies on especially polluting individuals and sectors. Government has written four solution-packed papers to the Transitional Committee working on the design of the new Loss & Damage Fund highlighting real-life experiences from decades of expending our own sovereign funds on impacts.

In 2022, Vanuatu released a new Loss & Damage-heavy Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and Parliament unanimously passed a Declaration of a Climate Emergency, which committed to a “no-stones-left-unturned” approach to climate action, including asking the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) to clarify the obligations of States under international law to protect the climate from GHG emissions for present and future generations, while at the same time outlining the legal consequences for States where they have caused significant harm to vulnerable countries like Vanuatu.

Vanuatu is working to transition forever away source of these compounding climate crises: fossil fuels

Dozens of nations are now working on their written submissions to the court, and most of them will argue that States must do much more than make promises and pledges in their far-off-track NDCs to the Paris Agreement. They must fulfil existing legal obligations to ensure that their emissions aren’t destroying the environment, undermining fundamental human rights or causing significant transboundary harm. (Aside: have a look at the summary of the 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment Report for a horror movie-like rendition of what transboundary climate harm looks like on planet earth today).

Frighteningly for many historical emitters, one of the core principles of International Law is that it is designed to stand up for the little guy. A wrongful act (say for example a Government expanding fossil fuel production knowing, in science-backed detail, the impacts it would have on small island developing states) gives rise to an obligation to make reparation. What the Court says will shift finance for loss and damage from the realm of “charity” to an exacting requirement under international law.

But contrary to the fears of some, Vanuatu’s goal isn’t to punish wrongdoers. These emitters have punished their own climate vulnerable communities more than enough (recall the climate-exacerbated wildfires, floods and extreme events in the richest countries in the world this year). Vanuatu’s intention is to fix the problem as fast as we can, together, as an international community.

Beyond the ICJ, Vanuatu is campaigning for the International Criminal Court (sister to the ICJ, but able to prosecute individuals) to make “Ecocide” a fifth international crime under the Rome Statute, equivalent to crimes like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. This solution puts up preventative guardrails against future perpetration of the worst acts of severe, widespread or long-term damage to the climate and environment.

Beyond Law, and tackling the problem directly, Vanuatu is working to transition forever away source of these compounding climate crises: fossil fuels. In early 2023 (the same week Vanuatu was hit by two back-to-back category 4 cyclones), a group of Pacific Ministers launched the Port Vila Call to Action for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific. At its heart is a message that fossil fuels are at fault for loss and damage in the Pacific.

Pacific Ministers set the end point demanded by science, and essential to keeping warming below 1.5 degrees: an end to the era of fossil fuels. Of course, this can’t be done immediately, and it will require a lot (let me repeat a LOT) of help from outside to ensure that the Pacific Island transition is just, equitable and leaves none of our most remote and underserved island behind. But it is an unambiguous signal that its just not OK to keep expanding fossil fuel production. It is not definitely OK to subsidise them. And that it is time for human ingenuity to work in overdrive and get us off this dirty, planet-killing source of energy that is responsible for loss and damage. In this vein, Vanuatu and at least 9 other countries are committed to negotiating a new Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to complement the work of the Paris Agreement.

So, if Vanuatu can demonstrate this level of leadership from the islands, imagine where we’d be if all (or even most) Parties showed up to COP28 ready to work for our shared Planet and the rights of its citizens, and not the pocketbooks of the fossil lobbyists who will outnumber all the SIDS and LDC negotiators combined! There is a solution to climate change, and to financing for loss and damage. Will you join Vanuatu to realise them?

Authors: Dr. Christopher Bartlett is working in the Government of the Republic of Vanuatu as the Head of the Climate Diplomacy Program