COP27: Don't water down pact at the last minute, island nations implore major economies at climate talks

Low-lying island nations, being battered and beaten by climate change, have implored big economies not to dilute progress at the COP27 climate talks at the last minute.

"Many times the larger countries at the very end [of the COP summits]... always water down the negotiations," Surangel Whipps Jr, president of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean, told Sky News in an interview in Sharm El-Sheikh.

"We're asking them to stop watering down, and start acting responsibly."

Major economies do have some form on this.

Last year in Glasgow at COP26, a commitment to "phase out" coal was downgraded at the eleventh hour to "phase down" after a dramatic intervention from India and lobbying from China, bringing the then COP president, Alok Sharma, to tears.

A promise to "phase out fossil fuel subsidies" also morphed into just "inefficient" subsidies.

Palau, an archipelago of over 500 islands and home to 18,000 people, is acutely vulnerable to climate breakdown.

Warming seas are eroding its coastlines, disrupting its crops and bleaching its vast coral reef - a major source of income via tourism.

Its leader warned the low-lying islands are "going under" if we do not limit global heating 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, as almost 200 countries signed up to in the Paris Agreement.

Since that pact was struck at COP21 in 2015, scientists have realised things like hurricanes, droughts and floods are even worse at lower temperatures than predicted.

"Listen to the small islands, listen to the facts," President Whipps urged major economies, following an event in support of a goal to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030.

The climate minister of the Maldives, the lowest-lying nation on Earth, said "absolutely" she is worried about watering down from big countries.

Shauna Aminath told Sky News: "We have 86 months. That difference of 2C and 1.5C for us, that could be the death of our nation. And who is going to take responsibility for that?"

The world must cut emissions by half in seven to have any hope of keeping warming to 1.5C, but current plans put it way off track.

But Patricia Espinosa, who was the United Nations' climate chief running COP negotiations until June this year, said it is "probably too broad of a statement" to say they always get watered down.

"Of course if you remember Glasgow, you could say that's the assessment that they made. But let's take the example of Paris," she said, when, at the last minute, the 1.5C warming limit was added in alongside the less ambitious 2C goal.

However, the diplomat said this COP conference, taking place amid tensions between China and the United States, war in Ukraine, an energy crisis and escalating extreme weather disasters, is "one of the most complicated situations for decades".

But "if we do not address this challenge, all the other challenges will not be relevant," she told Sky News.

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Summit hinges on taboo issue of whether developed nations will pay climate compensation

The success of COP27 hinges on a few key issues. One is making headway on the idea of rich, polluting countries compensating vulnerable nations for the loss and damage inflicted by climate change.

Another is improving adaption to a hotter world, something particularly important in Africa, for example. The continent is responsible for just 4% of global emissions but is suffering devastating impacts, like the recent drought in the east and flooding in Nigeria.

"We know this year is a really critical turning point to keep 1.5C in reach," said Ipek Gencsu, from global affairs think tank ODI.

"We can't afford for [large economies] to just do the minimal."

If people walk away from COP27 thinking other countries "haven't done their best, so why should we?" then that would "definitely jeopardise us not just in terms of mitigation targets but also the whole climate progress, for countries to be able to cooperate in ways like signing the Paris Agreement."

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