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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tonga and climate change: Sione Taulo Fulivai "Our people are on the line, our cultures are going to disappear"

One World TV interviewed Sione Taulo Fulivai from the small Pacific Island state of Tonga on the last day of the UN climate negotiations at COP17 in Durban. Small Island states face rising atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels spoiling freshwater reservoirs and agriculture and threatening to innundate their land, and changing rainfall pattens. They are on the frontline of global warming.

Tonga is a nation of 100,000 people with a GDP per capita of US$3711. Tonga and Vanuatu are at the top of a UN list of countries most vulnerable to natural disasters in the Pacific.

Related: Pacific climate change: temperatures rise, sea levels increase, rainfall changing

"For small islands such as Tonga we have limited resources, so when it comes to finding funding for more people to attend these meetings, we can't cover every area in these negotiations. The problem is every area is so significant for us because our existence is pretty much on the line.

When you put that on the table versus the economies of the developed countries it pretty much comes down to your humanity. So, we think okay our existence is on the line, we have to try as much as we can to try and get as much as we can out of this.

So as a small island state we've got everything to lose, and because we are on the front line of this climate change, we don't know how long we are going to last."

The impacts of climate change and sea level rise on Tonga have been studied for twenty years, but there has been little action in the developed world to reduce emissions to mitigate the problem despite the scientific evidence and even legally binding treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol.

According to the Pacific Climate Futures website Tonga can expect to get hotter, but with little change in rainfall. By 2030 temperatures are most likely to be 0.7 degrees celsius warmer under A1B medium emissions scenario. By 2090 temperatures will be 2.0 °C warmer and annual mean rainfall increases of 5% relative to 1981-2000.

Over the next century the following changes are forecast for Tonga:

  • Surface air temperature and sea-surface temperature are projected to continue to increase (very high confidence).
  • Wet season rainfall is projected to increase (moderate confidence).
  • Dry season rainfall is projected to decrease (moderate confidence).
  • Little change is projected in annual mean rainfall (low confidence).
  • The intensity and frequency of days of extreme heat are projected to increase (very high confidence).
  • The intensity and frequency of days of extreme rainfall are projected to increase (high confidence).
  • Little change is projected in the incidence of drought (low confidence).
  • Tropical cyclone numbers are projected to decline in the south-east Pacific Ocean basin (0-40ºS, 170ºE-130ºW) (moderate confidence).
  • Ocean acidification is projected to continue (very high confidence).
  • Mean sea-level rise is projected to continue (very high confidence).

There is an interannual variability in sea levels of about 18 cm (estimated 5-95% range) after removal of the seasonal cycle. According to the Tonga country report:

The sea-level rise near Tonga measured by satellite altimeters since 1993 is over 6 mm per year, larger than the global average of 3.2 ± 0.4 mm per year. This rise is partly linked to a pattern related to climate variability from year to year and decade to decade. A projected rise in sea level of 5-15 cm by 2030, and 20-60cm by 2090. But sea levels may be more as this does not take into account ice sheet disintegration processes which will have a major impact on global sea levels.

There are also signs that some land areas are sinking which will increase the subjective sea leval rise. New software and technology trialled in 2010 found that "The Tonga tidal station shows a 9.21 mm sea-level rise a year, whilst satellite data records indicate a rise of 6.29 mm a year. This has led to the conclusion that the area around the tidal station is sinking at a rate of 2.92 mm per year. Projections generated under a high climate sensitivity scenario and worse case story line for global greenhouse gas emissions (A1F1) show a possible sea-level rise of 952 mm for Tongatapu by the year 2100."

Tonga already experiences extensive coastal inundation and erosion, significant saltwater infiltration which are expected to worsen as sea levels rise. Increasing sea surface temperatures and acidification will impact Reef degradation that will affect the productivity of coastal fisheries and marine ecosystems.

Increasing temperatures will pose a health risk of more frequent epidemics of dengue fever and foodborne diseases. A UN World Health Organisation country profile has assessed (PDF) that "Tonga has been generally slow to recognize and respond to climate change and human health risk."

As a small nation responding to the impacts of climate change is a big deal. Tonga is being proactive. A joint national action plan for climate change adaptation and disaster risk management was approved by Cabinet in Tonga in July 2010. Significant legislation was also passed: the Environment Management Act 2010 which led to the establishment of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, the Renewable Energy Amendment Act 2010 and the Tonga Energy Roadmap 2010 - 2020.

Tonga importa all it's diesal fuel used to run it's electricity well on the road to cut it's energy emissions by the use of more renewable energy. Aggressive targets were set in 2008 for 50% of electricity provided through renewable sources by 2012 and the overall cost of electricity should be reduced by 50%.

The first solar power plant is projected to be in operation in July 2012, with funding support by the New Zealand Government. The 1MW photovoltaic Popua Solar Farm on the main island of Tongatapu, located next to the Tonga Power Limited's Popua diesel power station, is expected to reduce the station's annual diesel consumption by approximately 470,000 litres, and to decrease carbon dioxide emissions by over 2,000 tonnes each year. It will supply about 4 percent of the requirements of the main island of Tongatapu according to a Tonga Energy Roadmap media release.


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