COP21: ‘Ocean Challenges’ Provide a Path Forward

Visitor snorkeling over coral reef off Restoff Island in Kimbe Bay, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea.

By Laura Whitford, Coral Triangle Program Manager at The Nature Conservancy

Over the past two weeks in Paris, world leaders came together to work out a global agreement on climate change at COP21. People were optimistic that Paris would be different than Copenhagen and that countries would come determined to bring and share their best efforts and examples of effective action against climate change.

On December 3rd, The Nature Conservancy and the Global Island Partnership co-hosted an event that brought together four of the best examples of how countries are working together to achieve positive change.

These are the ‘Oceans Challenges’ – so called because they involve countries ‘challenging’ one another to improve marine and coastal resource management, and in-so doing, building resilience to climate change.

The first of these Oceans Challenges was the Micronesia Challenge, initiated by President of Palau Tommy Remengesau in 2007, which connected five Micronesian jurisdictions. It was created in recognition of the dependence of these places and people upon the integrity of their marine ecosystems, and the fact that truly effective management of these resources could not be achieved through isolated action alone. Collaboration would be necessary to adequately address trans-boundary issues like over-fishing and climate change.

The Micronesia Challenge then went on to inspire the establishment of three similar models in very different parts of the world: the Coral Triangle Initiative that links six countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste) in Asia Pacific, the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, and most recently, the Western Indian Ocean Coastal Challenge.

Local fishermen in outrigger canoes along the coastal waters near Deer Village. Deer Village at Kofiau, part of the Raja Ampat Islands of Indonesia, is located in the Coral Triangle, an area containing what may be the richest variety of marine species and corals in the world. The people of Indonesia's Deer village in Raja Ampat rely on the sea as their most important source of food and income. The Nature Conservancy has been actively working with here with local government, communities and other partners toward Raja AmpatÕs protection. Because of this program destructive fishing has virtually been eliminated from the local Kofiau Marine Protected Area. PHOTO CREDIT: © Jeff Jonover
Local fishermen in outrigger canoes along the coastal waters near Deer Village. Deer Village at Kofiau, part of the Raja Ampat Islands of Indonesia, is located in the Coral Triangle, an area containing what may be the richest variety of marine species and corals in the world. The people of Indonesia’s Deer village in Raja Ampat rely on the sea as their most important source of food and income.

For Small Island Developing States, the integrity and sustainability of their natural resources underpins food and water security, economic development, livelihoods, and the cultural heritage of their people. In this sense, care for the natural environment and effective adaptation to climate change cannot be thought of as separate issues – they are indistinguishable. As we are starting to learn, effective action on climate change requires a special recipe of high -level political commitments, collaboration between stakeholders, an enabling policy environment, the right supporting partners, and locally appropriate tool-kits and technologies that can be applied and shared. That is exactly what the Oceans Challenges have built over the last several years, and this is why the Oceans Challenges hold such promise for helping vulnerable small island states to adapt to climate impacts.

On December 3rd, high-level representatives from each of these four challenges reflected on the achievements of these regional frameworks, as well as their capacity to address one of the biggest challenges to arise within the climate negotiations – that of the ability of the receiving countries to absorb funding. Although significant financial commitments have already been made by developed countries to help developing countries adapt to climate change impacts, and more were on the table in Paris, it is often extremely difficult to ensure that this large-scale funding can be spent in a responsible, swift way that benefits those most in need.

Both the Micronesia Challenge and the Caribbean Challenge have established regional sustainable finance mechanisms that sit at the center of their regional frameworks. External donors can pool their funding in these mechanisms, which can in turn be used as an incentive for matching funding from member governments of the challenges. In addition, as part of the financial mechanisms, systems have been created to generate and responsibly distribute internal sources of funding, such as  the tourist fee paid by visitors to Palau, which are channeled back into funding management activities at sites in their Protected Areas Network. These financial mechanisms have governance systems in place, like boards of directors and criteria for disbursement of funding, which ensure that funding is spent exactly as described above, responsibly and swiftly, in order to advance the goals of the regional challenge.

These financial mechanisms hold great promise for helping to address this problem of absorptive capacity. It is far easier to channel large-scale climate finance to a small country like the Marshall Islands if there is a regional financial framework in place to help connect the two ends of the pipe. For this reason, the Micronesia Conservation Trust is in the process of becoming accredited as an implementing agency for the Green Climate Fund (GCF), into which a range of countries will make large-scale financial contributions to help address the global burden of climate change adaptation.

Younger initiatives like the Coral Triangle Initiative are also currently looking at what it would take to establish this sort of sustainable finance architecture across their own region.

The event on December 3rd provided an opportunity for representatives of these four challenges to share lessons around the development and operation of these financial mechanisms. In addition, two important donors for these regional frameworks, the Australian Government, which was recently appointed co-chair of the Green Climate Fund, and the Global Environment Facility, were part of the event, reflecting on their reasons for investing in these sorts of regional frameworks and their sustainable finance mechanisms.

All of the event’s speakers reflected on the need for quick action to address the immediate effects of climate change being experienced by islands. The final panelist, Marshall Islands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum, reminded constituents, “We have a challenge in the next couple days, coming to the table as a group of island citizens, from the Indian Ocean, Micronesia and the Caribbean to join us in this march for climate sanity. We can claim a spot in the climate leadership position.”

Although global agreement and action is notoriously difficult, these regional challenge models can allow us some hope that countries can work together for the benefit of all – helping to improve resource management in a changing climate, as well as to ensure that climate finance is channeled where it is needed most, and quickly.

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