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How a Carbon Tax Can Build Blue Economies in Pacific Island Nations

Fiji climate scientist Elisabeth Holland says the proceeds of tax on fossil fuel emissions could be used to help vulnerable island states adapt to climate change and restore coastal ecosystems.

Written by Elisabeth Holland Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Monuriki Island, one of the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji.Michael Runkel/Robert Harding Premium

When I need inspiration, I stop for a moment and recite the names of the countries I represent – the 16 tropical island nations that rise from the Pacific Ocean: Timor-Leste, Cook Islands, Samoa; Kiribati, Fiji and Vanuatu. The poetry created by the recitation calms me, reminds me of the history and resilience of these countries and the people who live there, and reassures me that there is still hope for a better future, for our oceans and our planet.

As a climate scientist who has worked on climate adaptation strategies in these communities for the past six years, I know that hope – while sometimes hard to come by – is a necessary first step for imagining and enacting a more sustainable future. We’ll need more than hope to get there, though. I am convinced that we need a carbon tax with global reach and revenues that benefit the countries and communities most heavily impacted by climate change. Willing nations, states and cities must come together to impose a carbon tax that will, in turn, accelerate action to reduce carbon emissions, increase mitigation and catalyze greater innovation.

Sinking Nations and Stormy Seas

Climate change is already shifting weather patterns in the Pacific, often to disastrous ends. In February 2016 Tropical Cyclone Winston became the most intense tropical cyclone yet to make landfall in Fiji. The destruction began near dawn and roared through Fiji’s islands and waters for a full day and night; wave heights topped 98ft (30m) and inundation extended kilometers inland. Despite having spared the most populated areas, thus avoiding worst-case scenarios, the Category 5 cyclone brought with it $1.4 billion in damage – nearly a third of Fiji’s GDP – and took the lives of 44 people, including an 8-month-old baby who was torn from his mother’s arms, never to be seen again. Now, more than a year later, children still study in tent schools as the rebuilding continues.

And Cyclone Winston is just the latest in a string of devastating examples. In March 2015, Tropical Cyclone Pam, another Category 5 storm, slammed into Vanuatu with the highest wind speeds ever measured in the South Pacific. The cyclone killed at least 15 people on the island, and the resulting storm surge displaced 45 percent of the population on Tuvalu.

Climate scientists know that if global carbon emission trends continue, the impacts of climate change will be felt much more severely by Pacific Island nations over the course of the next century. As continental ice sheets melt, sea levels could rise more than 10ft (3m) by the end of the century. In the coral atoll nations of Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, 3 meters is the islands’ maximum elevation – which means our homes, our nations and our entire reality could be submerged beneath the waves.

As the world’s waters continue to rise, the availability and quality of fresh water is falling fast. Ocean warming extends almost 1 mile (1.5km) beneath the surface, changing the species compositions and ecosystems on which Pacific food and economic security depend. Ocean acidification, too, is worsening, and will further threaten the coral reefs that sustain fisheries and protect our islands from wave energy.

When Pacific leaders raise the issue of an existential crisis, it is not a hypothetical exercise meant to spark philosophical discussion. For the Pacific Islands, the crisis is literal, and refers to very real questions about whether or not these nations have a future at all. Will Tuvalu continue to exist? Will Kiribati culture find a way to persist? Will Republic of the Marshall Islands retain its voting rights in the United Nations, one of the few organizations in which Pacific voices are heard? What happens in the high islands, like Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, where more than 80 percent of people now live along the coast? Where will our Pacific climate refugees go?

Slowing the Rising Tide

The Paris Agreement is a critical cornerstone of survival for Pacific nations. It reflects key demands made in declarations by the leaders of these island countries in advance of the Paris negotiations. The result is an international commitment to: a long-term temperature goal limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius); a periodic five-year review; and increasing ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some 195 member nations have signed the accord. In keeping with the vagaries of shifting national positions on climate change, though, Australia established and then two years later abolished its carbon tax – the world’s first. And in June, President Trump announced the U.S. was pulling out of the Paris Agreement altogether. These moves stand in stark contrast to the commitment and leadership of the Pacific nations, which was reinforced by the United Nation’s first-ever Oceans Conference, held just after Trump’s announcement. The result was a global call to action that underscored the connections between healthy oceans and climate change.

Why a Carbon Tax?

Our climate change research at the University of the South Pacific focuses on both describing the problems and searching for solutions relating to adaptation, risk and science-backed policy. The famed climatologist James Hansen has long argued that a carbon tax is the only way to ensure that everyone, every country, is accountable for their own carbon emissions – their own contributions to changing a climate. Like Hansen, I support early action to reduce emissions as well as a carbon tax – that is, a tax on fossil fuel consumption – to create economic incentives to reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.

But I take the carbon tax argument a step further. Revenues from the tax should be reinvested in those countries most affected by climate change, such as the Pacific Islands. The Paris Agreement acknowledges that these states retain special status because of their vulnerability to climate change, defined as the seriousness of the challenges and impacts they face as a result of increasing climate change worldwide.

To support the Pacific, carbon tax revenues should be directed toward sustaining and generating ecosystem services. Take, for example, the coasts. By investing the revenue from a carbon tax in replanting mangrove or dilo seedlings, we could provide storm protection, create subsistence fisheries and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These coastal ecosystems also support the establishment of sustainable blue carbon economies that do not rely on intensive fossil fuel emissions. Protecting these services could become the foundation for truly sustainable ocean economies for our big ocean states.

While such investments are certainly costly, the value of these services is very real. Every year, in Fiji alone, healthy ecosystems provide nearly $1 billion worth of services, driving $78 million in fisheries revenue and $574 million in tourism revenue, not to mention $85 million worth of coastal protection and carbon sequestration. The positive effects of these investments will reverberate throughout the globe, which is growing more connected every day. At the unsuccessful Copenhagen climate negotiations in 2008, a journalist asked minister and climate champion Tony deBrum of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, “Are you here to save your island?” DeBrum replied, “No, I am here to save the planet.”

A healthy future depends on the creation and maintenance of healthy ecosystems, both in our land, voana, and our seas, moana. The Paris Agreement, combined with a carbon tax, would give us a chance to do just that. And the best way to do it is through talanoa, the collective and inclusive decision-making process used by our Pacific ancestors – a strategy that Fiji will employ during its COP23 presidency this November. Such global collective action will lay the foundation for Pacific leaders to take us all on a new voyage to a sustainable planet on which diverse peoples and cultures flourish into the future.

This article originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Oceans Deeply.

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