”We Intend to Redouble Our Efforts for Maximum Ambition and Momentum This Year” – President’s Speech at the Launch of the International Year of the Reef

Fijian Prime Minister and COP23 President Frank Bainimarama’s speech at the launch of the International Year of the Reef at Nukubati Private Island Resort in Fiji on 17 January 2018. 

Bula vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.

This is an important day for Fiji and for the world as we gather in these beautiful surroundings to formally launch the International Year of the Reef 2018.

On behalf of every Fijian as their Prime Minister and also the President of COP23, I want to welcome our distinguished international guests and thank the UN for the honour of choosing Fiji to highlight the state of the world’s reefs.

This is a global event of relevance to every single person on earth. But it has a particular resonance for the Fijian people because of where we are today – on the edge of one of our most precious national assets, the Great Sea Reef or Cakaulevu Reef, as it is known in iTaukei.

It is the third longest continuous barrier reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Mesoamerica reef off Central America. It runs for more than 200 kilometres from the north-eastern tip of Udu Point on our second largest island – Vanua Levu – to Bua on the north-western edge, then across the Vatuira passage and along the coastlines of the Ra and Ba provinces of our largest island – Viti Levu – and into the fabled tourism playground of the Yasawas.

As it twists and turns its way across the seas of western Fiji, it takes on different local names but is part of one great system that according to a World Wildlife Fund survey, is home to 55 per cent of the known coral reef fish in Fiji, 74 per cent of our known corals and 40 per cent of all the known marine flora and fauna in our 332 islands.

Yesterday my Cabinet took an important step in protecting this Great Sea Reef. We approved the nomination of a significant part of the Reef as a Ramsar site under the Convention on Wetlands, ensuring its management and protection for future generations. I look forward to returning here in the near future to formally launch this initiative. But in the meantime, I want to congratulate the Tui Macuata and his people and partner organisations, like the WWF, for your leadership.

Throughout the world, coral reefs occupy less than one tenth of one per cent of the ocean floor. Yet they are home to a quarter of all known marine species. They are not only sources of food and economic wealth but places of infinite complexity, variety and beauty. Yet in one of the great tragedies of the modern age, these reefs are slowly dying. And we are here today to issue a plea to the world to summon the collective will to reverse this process. To save our coral reefs before it is too late.

With the dramatic increase in coral bleaching caused by climate change, the plastic pollution of our oceans and other forms of human abuse such as overfishing, it is a shocking fact that our generation could be among the last to witness the beauty of our reefs and benefit from their bounty.

The great naturalist – Sir David Attenborough – who made such an impact with his presentation at our Ocean Conference in New York last June – ended his most recent series, Blue Planet 2, last month with this stark warning: that because of our abuse of the oceans, coral reefs could be dead within 80 years. Yes, totally extinct by the year 2100, within the lifetimes of many of those being born today.

Imagine. Ecosystems built up over millions of years gone within the space of a generation. It cannot happen. It must not happen. We must come together as a global community as never before to prevent it. And today, as COP23 President, I appeal to every single person on earth to join our struggle to reverse this process.

We must do it. And we can do it by committing ourselves to change. To change the way we all live in relation to our surroundings. To live more in harmony with nature. And to join our Grand Coalition to make a difference. Governments at every level, civil society, the private sector and billions of ordinary men, women and children around the world. Working together to replace the present culture of abuse with a culture of care.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is why as the leader of a small nation in the Pacific, I took on the job of leading the global effort for decisive climate action. To link the global with the local. To link the lofty speeches calling for change in the great forums of the world with practical action in communities around the world such as this one. And I say to every Fijian and those living on the edges of reefs around the world – whether it is Australians around the Great Barrier Reef, Egyptians around the reefs of the Red Sea, the people of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, our Pacific neighbours. Wherever you are in the world, you too can make a difference.

Every person in our communities from the very young to the very old can be warriors for a more sustainable future and protectors of the health of our reefs. And above all of this – the umbrella effort if you like – is the duty of every nation, and especially the industrial nations, to join the global effort to tackle climate change. To reduce to net zero the carbon emissions that are causing global warming and the sea level rises, extreme weather events and changes to agriculture that pose a threat to us all.

Including the destruction of our coral reefs that brings us all together today.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to use this opportunity as COP President and as the new year begins to reaffirm Fiji’s determination to continue to lead the global climate negotiations with absolute vigour, focus and commitment. The COP23 negotiations in Bonn last November under Fiji’s leadership were a great success, with a range of important outcomes. And let me briefly outline some of them.

• We secured agreement on the 2018 Talanoa Dialogue, an inclusive process that allows the nations of the world, as well as non-state actors, to share stories and showcase best practices and urgently raise ambition in our Nationally Determined Contributions to reduce carbon emissions. Our collective goal is to move closer to the more ambitious target of the Paris Agreement of limiting the rise in the global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial age. And we look forward to working with our Polish partners at COP24 to ensure that the Talanoa Dialogue delivers.

• We made significant progress towards clear and comprehensive guidelines for the Paris Agreement, which will make the agreement operational and need to be finalised at COP24 next year. The “Fiji Momentum for Implementation” decision adopted by the parties in Bonn underscores the importance of maintaining momentum as we move forward and the urgency of completing this work.

• We finalised a Gender Action Plan, to increase the participation of women in the climate action process. And we finalised a Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform to give a greater voice to local communities and indigenous people in the climate negotiations and allow them to share their traditional knowledge and best practices.

• The Parties adopted a decision that will strengthen the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. And they authorised an expert “Suva Dialogue” at the end of April to raise awareness about the vulnerability of Small Island Developing States and explore options to mobilise more support for those affected by climate change.

• Fiji made a special effort at COP23 to highlight the need for more affordable insurance for vulnerable countries and enable them to recover faster from extreme events like Tropical Cyclone Winston two years ago next month. We launched the Fiji Clearing House for Risk Transfer – a new online resource to help connect vulnerable countries with the best available information on affordable insurance and solutions. And in one of the most significant outcomes of COP23, we launched the InsuResilience Global Partnership that will bring affordable insurance and other financial protection to millions of vulnerable people around the world. As COP President, I am especially grateful to Germany for the 110-million Euros it has contributed to launch this landmark scheme – along with another 30-million pounds provided by Britain – and urge other nations to contribute to this partnership. It is of vital importance to Fiji and every other vulnerable nation.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, time does not permit me here to go into the detail of all the other COP outcomes that benefit Fiji and the rest of the Pacific. And I urge anyone with access to a computer to get a more comprehensive briefing by visiting our website at COP23.com.fj.

But one of the most important achievements and one that is of special relevance to all of us here today has been the launch in Bonn of the Ocean Pathway Partnership.

This Partnership encourages the COP negotiation process to create a stronger link between climate change and a healthy ocean. The two – as we all know – are inseparable. Intertwined. And in the spirit of our Grand Coalition, we are bringing together governments at all levels, civil society and the private sector, plus all the existing ocean alliances and coalitions, under one umbrella. To consolidate the work that is being done to improve the health of our oceans and provide us with stronger coordination moving forward.

The Ocean Pathway Partnership will be co-chaired by Fiji and our friends from Sweden, who we are joining forces with us again after our successful leadership of the first UN Ocean Conference. I also want to thank the United Nations for the commitment it has shown to this effort, not least through the appointment of one of Fiji’s own – Ambassador Peter Thomson – as the Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean. Vinaka vakalevu.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, in closing, I want to stress as COP President that it is absolutely critical if we are to save our coral reefs that the world embrace the 1.5 degree warming target and achieve net zero emissions within a few decades. As a landmark UNESCO report stated last year, achieving 1.5 is the “only opportunity” we have to save our reefs, the only way to avert extinction. And all around us, the evidence is mounting that time is running out.

Excellencies, ladies and Gentlemen, the global community must summon up all its collective will and ingenuity to confront this crisis head-on. Because on present indications, we are losing the battle. I repeat: Time is running out.

To give our combined effort on climate change the urgency it deserves, I have instructed the Fijian COP23 team that success in Bonn last November does not mean that we can rest on our laurels. On the contrary, we intend to redouble our efforts as the negotiations continue right up to the time we hand over the presidency to Poland in December.

Fiji wants maximum momentum and ambition as the year progresses. To hand over the negotiating process in the best possible shape. And to work closely with our Polish friends, just as we worked with the Moroccans, to ensure that we fulfill the task the world has given us.

In an article earlier this week, The New York Times described the devastating effect of global warming on the world’s reefs as akin to being “ravaged by war”. Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are all engaged in a battle to save those reefs and a battle for the survival of our planet that we must win for ourselves and for future generations.

It will take courage, perseverance and all the ingenuity that humanity can muster. But we have that ingenuity – the know-how and enterprise to fast track the development of alternative clean energy sources and make them more widely available throughout the world. And I remain convinced as COP president that however daunting it may seem, we can meet this challenge and we will.

I am also convinced that by doing so, we can give our grandchildren and future generations here in Vanua Levu the ability to continue to enjoy our Great Sea Reef and also reverse the degradation in other parts of the world. And with that sense of optimism and confidence, I now have the greatest pleasure in this magnificent setting in Fiji to officially launch the International Year of the Reef.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.