The Debate

PNG’s Prime Minister Wants to Save His Country’s Rainforest. He Can’t Do It Alone.

Recent Features

The Debate | Environment | Oceania

PNG’s Prime Minister Wants to Save His Country’s Rainforest. He Can’t Do It Alone.

Prime Minister James Marape championed the Pacific’s climate push at the 76th United Nations General Assembly with a proposal to preserve PNG’s rainforest in exchange for development financing.

PNG’s Prime Minister Wants to Save His Country’s Rainforest. He Can’t Do It Alone.

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-sixth session.

Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, has made a bold pitch to take on the colossal issue of climate change by leveraging PNG’s forests for developmental financing.

Climate change is often called a devilish problem. Even the matter of implementing already-made commitments related to the 2015 Paris Agreement is complicated, as calls for action are being met with some resistance by industrialized nations of the world.

On September 24, during his address to the 76th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Marape proposed that his country be recognized as a front-line state in the preservation of carbon sinks of the world. Carbon sinks are a critical complement to reducing carbon emissions to stay within the 1.5-degree mark by 2030 as set under the Paris Agreement.

With his country holding nearly 13 percent of the world’s rainforest and up to 6 percent of its biodiversity, Marape is pushing for PNG to have its rainforests preserved by the global community in exchange for development financing by big carbon emitters to mitigate the climate threat.

“Papua New Guinea recognizes the need to save Earth. God has blessed us with 13 percent of the world’s tropical rainforests and 6 percent of its bio-diversity. These global assets, we want to preserve,” Marape told the UNGA.

“If the world’s rainforest reservoir were the global lung, we have a significant proportion of this organ that keeps the world breathing. We function as a great carbon sink; we have this significant asset for our planet.”

But he made clear that PNG will need financial assistance to be able to keep its rainforest intact. “We want to see major carbon emitters in the industrialized nations be genuine and committed in their actions to fund climate change mitigation and adaptations,” Marape continued.

“I want to make this statement. Enough of talk. We have to take actions commensurate to the volume of emissions from our industries.”

Speaking exactly a week after addressing his country during its 46th Independence anniversary celebrations on September 16, where he had reiterated, among other things, resource sector reforms by his two-year-old government, Marape was clear on the role he sees for PNG in this area.

He said as the chair of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, PNG stands at “an important crossroad”:

We are a net remover of carbon from the atmosphere. The removal capacity from our forests is over 100 million tonnes per year. Our energy emissions are presently around 10 million tonnes annually.

“Therefore, if the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation and enhancing forest stocks) Mechanism delivers as it should, PNG can remain where every country needs to be by 2050 under the Paris Agreement – a net remover of carbon from the atmosphere.

The preservation and conservation plus sustainable harvest and use of forest resources can be our commitment to you all for the upkeep of earth heading the “red code for humanity” call by Secretary-General Guterres.

I make a call to all of us especially to the big carbon-emitting nations who are now enjoying their national economic transformations through industrialization to pause, think, and take responsibility to save our planet.

Marape’s call at the UNGA sets the scene for his upcoming submission to this year’s U.N. climate change summit (COP26) in the United Kingdom in November, where he is seeking to progress a number of issues for PNG and the smaller island nations of the Pacific.

As far as climate change ambitions go, Marape’s advocacy to find the balance between conservation and development for his country will be right up there with those leaders who have recognized the existential threat climate change is posing to livelihoods and are now doing something about it.

The prime minister said he would be seeking support and advocacy from developed and industrialized countries to back PNG and the Pacific’s efforts toward adaptation and mitigation through global funding assistance.

This is in line with PNG’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) , submitted in 2020, to be carbon neutral by the year 2050. This plan includes the country’s NDC implementation plan, regulations, and alignment of NDC adaptation and national adaptation plan, all supported by the U.N. Development Program.

Marape told the UNGA: “I will be seeking an understanding to build a special set of criteria that is simplified to enable us to qualify for financial support for our adaptation and mitigation strategies… PNG wants to achieve both conservation and development.”

As part of his call for increased funding, Marape suggested that “the US$100 billion annual commitment by developed countries to developing nations on climate financing must be considered different from Official Development Assistance. This will allow the guidelines to be sensitive to the climate change mitigation and adaptation agenda and their specific requirement.”

Back on home soil, Marape has already ordered a cease in the issuance of new timber permits and renewal of existing ones, as part of the various resource sector reforms under his government. PNG is also phasing out round log exports, with a complete ban by the year 2025, as it moves into value adding and downstream processing.

A tract of 3,600 square meters of rainforest land in the country’s Northern Province has also recently been set aside for an environmental conservation pilot program, which will provide a “learning experience” in managing conservation areas, adding to PNG’s renewed vision for sustainable development.

As an exporter of natural gas and oil, PNG is also working toward ensuring its carbon footprint is minimized through the implementation of its Sustainable Development Goal 13 Roadmap 2020-2030 on Climate Change, launched in 2020, said Marape.

The country has now moved into the renewable energy space with its recent partnership with International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and Fortescue Future Industries to develop its solar, hydro, and geo-thermal capacity.

Allocating nearly half of his 40-minute inaugural UNGA speech to climate advocacy, Marape utilized the global platform to call for immediate climate action, especially because climate change has now become an existential threat in the Pacific.

He told the UNGA:  “Our oceanic homes and way of life is intertwined with the ecosystem in its natural equilibrium. This equilibrium is now affected by human influence, not of our making. But we are the first victims and the most affected because of our inherent vulnerabilities.”

The prime minister’s advocacy is part of the fight Pacific Island leaders have been staging to a rather reluctant global community since the rise in sea levels has begun to threaten many island nations.

At the recent 51st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) summit, held virtually last month in August, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic led the discussions as the biggest security issues to overcome for the people of the Pacific.

PIF’s success against the climate crisis is minimal, but one milestone achievement was the group’s adoption of the Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise and accompanying Aide-Memoire at the summit.

The Declaration takes its power and basis from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and proclaims at its heart that affected Pacific countries have the right to develop international laws to challenge threats to their livelihood posed by rising sea-levels.

Marape was equally firm at that meeting. He told the PIF summit:

It is important to remind ourselves that we must not allow others with economic, financial and military clout to make us – as a region or at the national level – appear subservient to their interests on the ocean’s agenda.

We must be treated with respect for our maritime zones entitlements and sovereign rights.

We, therefore, need to guard ourselves against strategic maneuvers that may try to strip away rights and entitlements UNCLOS provides to state parties. The Declaration is not only preserving but reinforcing these rights and entitlements flowing from UNCLOS that we already have.

The Declaration is the result of the PIF’s formal recognition of sea-level rises as an existential threat to Pacific peoples’ lives when it met in Tuvalu in 2019.

This year in Glasgow, when Marape and his fellow Pacific leaders meet again at COP26 and once more state their case, it will be interesting to observe if the world community finally heeds the Pacific’s urgent calls for intervention since the adoption of the Paris Agreement five years ago. Is anyone serious enough to assist PNG preserve its forests in this global fight to save Mother Earth?