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Pacific Island Calls for Global Ban on New Coal Mines

Technology advances could give momentum to the move away from coal.

Pacific island leaders have called for a global discussion on halting new coal mine construction in an effort to highlight their nations’ plight in the face of climate change.

The Suva declaration on climate change, issued this month, demands “a new global dialogue on the implementation of an international moratorium on the development and expansion of fossil fuel extracting industries, particularly the construction of new coal mines” to cut carbon emissions and help curb global warming. It states that scientific evidence shows that carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for climate change, and that alternative innovative technologies exist that make coal power unnecessary.

However, the island states may struggle to influence other nations, say observers, even though the call does bring further attention to the threats islands face because of global warming.

The call to stop building coal mines was issued during the third meeting of the Pacific Islands Development Forum in Suva, Fiji, on 2-4 September. As part of the Suva declaration, island nations said they want to increase local research and innovation efforts to contribute their knowledge to the global transition to low-carbon technologies.

According to reports quoted by the environmental campaigning organisation Greenpeace, seven nations, including Kiribati in the Central Pacific, pushed for an immediate moratorium on coal mine construction at the Fiji meeting.

“We’ve got to make a lot of noise on this,” says Rimon Rimon, a spokesperson in the office of Kiribati’s president. “It’s not only for us but for the welfare of the planet,” he says, adding that he hopes the issue will be addressed at the UN’s December climate talks in Paris, France.

Rimon says there are positive signs coming from countries such as China and the United States, which last year jointly agreed to cut carbon emissions.

But the islands’ demands are unlikely to have a major impact due to their “limited political clout” in coal-dependent countries such as Australia, says Michael Dornan, a research fellow in public policy at the Australian National University. “We are a long way off from countries like India ending their reliance on coal,” he adds.

David Harter, a biogeography researcher at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, sounds an optimistic note. A global moratorium could be a realistic goal in the long term because it is about freezing the construction of new mines, rather than reducing overall coal use, he says.

Other observers say the declaration provides a useful wake-up call. Stopping the construction of coal mines “makes a lot of sense and is much more realistic than it would have seemed two or three years ago”, says Lauri Myllyvirta, a coal specialist at Greenpeace International.

Growth in coal demand has been falling globally and consumption dropped in China last year, while renewable energy sources and technologies have gained ground, she explains.

“The real world has moved away from coal a lot faster than politics,” says Myllyvirta. “What I hope is that we see some front-runner countries take this up so it becomes part of the political reality… There is no urgent need to be building coal mines.”

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