Tuvalu News


Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i

Tuvalu Steps Up Threat to Sue Australia, U.S.

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Australia (September 8, 2002 - IPS/PINA Nius Online)---Tuvalu is stepping up its threat to sue Australia and the United States over their greenhouse gas emissions.

It says these emissions are bound to result in the drowning of its islands as warmer global temperatures the emissions cause send sea levels rising.

During the World Summit for Sustainable Development that ended in Johannesburg last week, Tuvalu was busy lobbying other island states from around the world.

It wants their help to launch a World Court lawsuit against the two developed nations.

Australia is the biggest per capita producer of greenhouse gases, and the United States is the world's single biggest polluter of such gases.

The two countries were isolated in Johannesburg, as the only two developed countries to refuse to sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol that sets targets for them to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Announcements by China and Russia that they would sign on to Kyoto further underscored the isolation of America and Australia.

Many scientists argue that the melting of the ice caps due to rising global temperatures would push up the sea level, putting small Pacific Islands nations at risk.

Tuvalu -- nine atolls rising to no more than around four meters (13.2 feet) above sea level -- is expected to largely drown under the rising sea levels within 50 years, according to some scientific estimates.

These concerns drove Tuvalu, population 12,000, to last year request Australia and New Zealand to open their doors for its citizens to immigrate if they face imminent danger.

New Zealand agreed to plan a 30-year immigration program. But Australia's Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, said this action was based on speculation.

"Why would I agree with that?" he asked. "I think it is on a 30, 40 or 50-year horizon, if it's going to occur at all.''

Blaming the poor environmental records of Australia and the United States for its plight, Tuvalu now wants to file a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

Speaking to Radio Australia during the Johannesburg summit, Tuvalu's Finance and Planning Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu said that his people are already fearful of rising sea levels. Australian scientific evidence provided so far does not match the reality on the ground, he said.

"For the first time ever in my life that I have got scared because with the data or what have happened so far in Tuvalu doesn't seem to match the scientific data and information that they do have in Australia,'' he said.

Lack of resources has made island nations vulnerable to what critics say could be the manipulation of scientific data by developed nations, though Australian officials dismiss this.

During a meeting in Fiji last month of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum -- a grouping that includes Australia -- Australian officials produced results of a study that revealed no scientific evidence to support current claims by the islands on sea level rise.

Instead, it pointed to soil erosion as being the cause of the problem.

Australia's Environment Minister David Kemp has dismissed Tuvalu's legal threat, arguing that Australia contributes only one percent of global greenhouse gases.

"It is very much a global issue,'' he said, "and no country is doing more with the Pacific Island countries than Australia to put them in a position where they can adapt and assess the risks."

During the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Australia announced a AUD$ 7.2 million (US$ 3.9 million) package of "partnership initiatives with our Pacific neighbors."

This includes AUD$ 4 million (US$ 2.17 million) for a Pacific Island adaptation and vulnerability initiative. This is to help Pacific countries adapt to the future impact of changing weather patterns. A smaller amount has been set aside to help improve weather forecasting and to set up climatic prediction services.

Fiji's Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase -- the Forum chairperson -- said he welcomed the "partnership initiatives" as start of a process of turning the summit outcomes into practical initiatives or projects.

He said: "It is the first opportunity for the partners of the Pacific to look at areas or concepts where they themselves may wish to pursue practical partnerships with Pacific governments, organisations and stakeholders."

Australia's strong opposition to the Kyoto agreement is due to the strong lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, analysts in Australia say. Australia is a major coal exporter.

In June, Prime Minister John Howard told Parliament: "For us to ratify the protocol would cost us jobs and damage our industry. That is why the Australian government will continue to oppose ratification.''

Still, he said, Australia would take its own measures to try to meet its Kyoto targets.

According to United Nations Environment Program figures Australia emits about 27 tons of greenhouse gases per person each year, and the United States over 6,700 million tons a year.

To reach the Kyoto agreed targets, by 2010, Australia needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from industry, by 16.1 percent and the United States by 24.3 percent.

Australia is still behind its target. It is projected to reach 111 percent of 1990 emissions by the end of the decade -- still under its target of 108 percent under the Kyoto accord.

Still, data released by Australian government in August said that the country is ''within striking distance'' of its target.

Analysts in Australia believe that the threat of legal action against Australia by Tuvalu is some way off, if at all.

But campaigns like that of Tuvalu, especially at venues like the World Summit on Sustainable Development, help raise international awareness on legal means to address climate change.

"The message to nations like Australia is ignore this issue at your own peril," Greenpeace International campaigner Peter Tabuns told Radio Australia.

"Not only do you endanger the lives and well-being of people in your own nation, but you risk action, reaction, from other nations who are harmed by your irresponsibility.''

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