Third of Pacific islands unable to attend Cop26, sparking fears summit will be less ambitious

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A third of Pacific small island states and territories do not plan to send any government figures to the Cop26 summit in Glasgow due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The lack of high-level representation of Pacific nations at the meeting has led to fears that the concerns of these countries, which are among those most at risk due to the climate crisis, will not be appropriately represented at the summit.

At a meeting of Pacific regional organisations last week, it was confirmed that 13 of the Pacific small island developing states plan to send a leader or minister to Cop26 and seven do not, and instead intend to send representatives from their missions in New York, Brussels, or other cities, though sources present at the meeting say the number could change in the next few weeks.The port in Funafuti, Tuvalu. Around a third of Pacific island nations will not be represented at Cop26, leading to fears the summit could be less ambitious due to their diminished influence.© Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images The port in Funafuti, Tuvalu. Around a third of Pacific island nations will not be represented at Cop26, leading to fears the summit could be less ambitious due to their diminished influence.

Related: Rising sea levels threaten Marshall Islands’ status as a nation, World Bank report warns

“It’s a big issue for the Pacific, the fact that we will not be able to be there in person as we would like,” said Ralph Regenvanu, opposition leader of Vanuatu. “If we go back to Paris [Cop21], it was the personal presence of Pacific leaders that really made a change and brought us to the one point five degree figure that we have now in the agreement.

“I know, for example, Vanuatu will not be sending anybody in person [this year]. Other countries are sending much smaller delegations … and that will significantly, I think, reduce our ability to influence the outcomes of that Cop … which is what we’ve done in the past.”

The smaller numbers are largely due to Covid travel restrictions. Most Pacific countries have remained Covid-free or had very low case numbers throughout the pandemic, due to closing their borders to international travel.

As a result, travelling from these Pacific countries to the Glasgow summit would require leaders to complete up to a month of managed quarantine.

“We’re really really struggling to get a high-level delegation to go to the Cop,” said Albon Ishoda, ambassador from the Marshall Islands to Fiji and the Pacific Islands.An aerial view of the coastline in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Pacific island nations are some of those most at risk of coastal erosion and rising sea levels caused by climate change. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian An aerial view of the coastline in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Pacific island nations are some of those most at risk of coastal erosion and rising sea levels caused by climate change. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“It’s always expected that the head of the country … would attend these meetings and we cannot have the president be indisposed for a huge amount of time,” he said.

Anyone returning to the Marshall Islands, a low-lying atoll nation in the north Pacific, which has recorded just four cases of Covid-19 and no deaths during the pandemic, must complete two weeks of managed quarantine in Honolulu and then another two weeks in the Marshall Islands.

Ishoda says the difficulties for Pacific leaders in getting to Cop should motivate other world leaders to make sure they don’t waste the opportunity afforded by the summit.

“They should recognise that … we’re crossing huge oceans and scaling mountains to get there, so you know, don’t waste our time by saying: ‘OK, we’re going to push this back to another Cop’.”

The impact of travel restrictions will have an even more dramatic effect on the number of civil society representatives from the Pacific who will be able to attend.

Lavetanalagi Seru, a Fijian leader from the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), said Cop26 had proved “near impossible to attend” for activists and campaigners.

The challenges include strict quarantine rules upon return to Pacific countries, which have to be paid for by the delegates and mean many delegates have to take a month off work; flights that cost up to double their pre-pandemic prices; high accommodation costs in Scotland and the fear of bringing Covid-19 back to vulnerable communities.

“It’s going to be really really small,” said Seru, estimating there will be 20 to 30 civil society delegates from the Pacific this year, compared with 70 to 80 in normal years.

Seru says that civil society representatives have traditionally played a significant role at Cop summits.

“It keeps this drumbeat of pressure on government … we break down whatever the outcome is in a very digestible approach and communicate that back to people in the Pacific, so we can keep the pressure on Pacific governments, also on Australia, New Zealand, the US.

Related: ‘Catastrophic pathway’: UN secretary general urges action to save Pacific lives

“We’re also there to provide support for Pacific small island developing states, where we have smaller delegations, leaders are unable to be in all the rooms at once, so this is where civil society steps in and covers some of the meetings.”

Seru estimates the costs for him to get to Glasgow will be about FJD20,000 (£7,000), in a country where the starting salary for a government employee is about FJD12,000 (£4,200) a year. He has managed to attend because NGOs including Greenpeace, Oxfam and Climate Justice Resilience Fund have provided support to his organisation.

Alisi Rabukawaqa is a Pacific Climate Warrior and Council of Elder member in Fiji. She has attended Cop summits in the past but will not be attending this year.

“The bottom line really is time and money,” she said. “For me, I do this voluntarily, it is not part of my 8-5 job. There is absolutely no organisation that would allow for a staff to have that much time away.”

Rabukawaqa says that while it’s “crucial” that Pacific leaders and activists attend Cop, “I think so far I can count with one hand the number of people I know personally who will be in attendance.”

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