Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste to the United Nations
Remarks by H.E. President José Ramos-Horta
President of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
United Nations High-Level Event on Climate Change
New York, 22 September 2009
As a small island developing state, Timor-Leste faces a severe threat from climate change. It is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and other weather anomalies associated with droughts. Our country is prone to floods, landslides and soil erosion resulting from the combination of heavy monsoon rain, steep topography, widespread destruction of forests and unstable agricultural practices like ‘slash-and-burn’
Our weather is becoming increasingly strange and unpredictable. There seems to be more downpours, landslides and record floods - than in living memory. Experience from our farmers suggest that there is increasing variability of climate and traditional practices and planting cycles no longer fit with the changing weather patterns. Seasons are no longer clear for our farmers and they are confused about it. Mountain communities report that temperatures have been rising. Rivers are filling up with slit washed down from higher ground as the hillsides erode, causing water to breach the banks. Landslides destroy roads in the wet season, causing havoc for rural residents. Rising sea levels also pose a dire problem for coastal areas, including our capital, Dili, which is only a few meters above sea level. As for bio-diversity, a number of communities say some native trees are already gone. We fear saltwater intrusion in our water supplies and warmer ocean temperatures may damage biologically diverse coral reefs and disrupt fishing patterns. And…warmer temperatures are likely to increase the incidence of diseases such as Malaria and Dengue Fever.
Here, I would like to pause and highlight the impact of climate change on our neighbors in the Pacific island nations. While most nations, such as ours, will ultimately suffer from the adverse impacts of climate change, some Pacific island nations are already grappling with dire and immediate impacts today. I am deeply distressed when listening on how people might have to resettle elsewhere as their islands submerge in the next decades, in our life time! Islanders and indigenous peoples are deeply attached to the land more than any other community. Lets us visualize the profound sadness, trauma, emotional distress of those who will be forced to leave their ancestral land because their island is sinking – disappearing under the rising sea.
For the Timorse, climate change is a critical development challenge with enormous implications for the entire range of our development concerns: poverty, livelihoods, food security, and social cohesion, just to name a few. The most important is food security and health. The vast majority of our population depends on subsistence agriculture and already faces food insecurity that will be exacerbated by an increase in extreme weather events.
The million dollar question is: how are we going to deal with this?
In a way, it presents us with a unique opportunity. Emissions of carbon dioxide in Timor-Leste are 0.2tonnes per capita and 0.1kg per $GDP, both of which are negligible when compared to the world average of 4.22tonnes per capita and 0.75Kg per $GDP. Under any proposed international agreement, Timor-Leste could significantly increase its carbon dioxide emissions. However, we are looking at ways of maintaining – and not increasing – our emissions of carbon dioxide – looking at the opportunity to integrate climate change risks into development planning at all levels and do it right at the outset.
We do not believe in a ‘grow first, clean up later’ approach – though, it is no easy task for a country as young as ours. In this, I am quite proud of my country’s foresight in mainstreaming environment into policy development and national planning, at such an early stage of our development.
It is our desire to be forward-looking and to focus on climate change responses as an integral element for environmentally sustainable growth and poverty reduction. We are also making sure environmental considerations are reflected in relevant legislation and regulations. Timor-Leste has ratified Conventions on Climate Change, Desertification and Bio-Diversity and, recently the Kyoto Protocol. We have also adopted a National Adaptation Programmed of Action, aimed at improving our knowledge and understanding of how climate change is impacting on our territory.
With regard to mitigation, an example I would like to highlight is our pioneer work regarding forests. There is a common perception of forests as an abundant/common resource, thus their conversation to farmland is often unquestionable. We realize that the sustainable management of forest resources is important for Timor-Leste’s continued economic and social development. I would like to note the creation of Timor-Leste’s first national park to protect 123,000 hectares of biologically rich forest and marine areas. I particularly welcome recent international proposals, whereby developing countries would receive compensation for preventing deforestation; this could have great potential approached thoroughly to contribute to sustainable forest management in countries such as mine.
When it comes to adaptation whilst there are some specific measures to be adopted, I strongly believe that, at present, the greatest factor in adapting to climate change, is continued economic and social development, including infrastructure, institutional capacity, the economy, and most importantly poverty reduction efforts. Poverty is the main driver of environmental degradation in Timor-Leste and also a major contributing factor to vulnerability to climate change, and must be addressed in order to improve livelihoods, increase reliance and protect the country’s biodiversity.
Though, we are a modest oil and gas producing country with revenues totaling no more than US$100 million per month - more fields are being found that will double our country’s petroleum revenues in the next few years. But significant steps, which will be driven by this wealth, will be directed towards implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
I believe we are on the right track. Not bad for a country that attained full sovereignty only seven years ago and had very little infrastructure to begin with.
Potential exists for Timor-Leste to address climate change as part its development strategy; however, this will require a great deal of international support. Even though, we cannot complain of lack of generous international donor assistance, the increasing challenge is convincing the international community that additional money is needed to deal with disaster preparedness, mitigation and adaptation on top of current funding for development projects. The irony is that some adaptation measures can be cost-effective; benefits of many adaptation measures such as investments in coastal zones, for example building sea walls, and in agricultural sector – drought/heat resistant crops – far exceed their costs
So-far I have offered you a ‘somehow’ optimistic picture of what a small country can do to mitigate and adapt to climate change. I believe we can do small things - actually big things - with our own hands and resources to save our countries.
This is however a drop of water on the ocean; no one nation can address it alone! It has to be complemented with international action. Countries cannot meet this challenge alone. Solving this problem will require all of us to work together.
Though, hopes are higher than ever for a breakthrough deal at Copenhagen later in the year, I am not at all convinced that world leaders will sign a global comprehensive and meaningful treaty, - one that would bind- unequivocally- for the first time bound wealthy and some developing countries to specific cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
I have no illusions that in Copenhagen we will witness imaginative and swift diplomacy to commit developed and developing nations to save our planet. Sure, there will be a political agreement, one that everyone will applaud and walk away declaring victory.
However, will such a treaty be meaningful? I have no illusions that it will not be! The signs are that no-one is really ready to make meaningful compromises; developed and developing nations are still deeply divided over who bears the responsibility for footing the bill and for concrete commitments.
Furthermore, we still have little in place to monitor and consequently oblige countries to implement their commitments - either to slash emissions, or to follow on their pledges to help developing countries to deal with the impact of climate change.
Finally, there is too much focus on the realization of the treaty for its own sake, rather than what our nations must do both individually and collectively to address the issue of climate change.
I believe the core of the global effort to cut emissions should not come from a single global treaty; but it will have to be built from the bottom up – through national policies and creative international cooperation focused on assistance and specific opportunities to cut emissions.
However, the future of human civilization is at risk. We must use opportunity to recommit ourselves to save our planet. It is not about pointing the finger, but about every nation, developing or developed, assuming the mantle of leadership and woe to address the challenge of climate change. It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. If we do succeed, it will be one of the great achievements in our history.
Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high, the consequences, too serious.
I promise you this: Timor-Leste is willing and ready to join the cause of combating climate change.