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Honourable Cabinet Ministers;
Governors of Central Banks;
Representatives of the International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, and Japanese International Cooperation Agency;
Representatives from our development partner agencies;
Distinguished Delegates;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

This gathering is very timely, as the Fijian Government and Fijian people turn our focus to the enormous responsibility of leading the global negotiations on climate change at COP 23 in November.

Our COP Presidency will rally the international community to keep us on course for the full implementation of the Paris Agreement of 2015. It is a mission of vital importance to every Fijian, every Pacific islander and every person on earth. And as we call for all countries to honour their commitments under the agreement, we are also pressing for more radical action to build climate resilience in low-lying and vulnerable countries around the world.

As I told our Ambassadors yesterday at our Heads of Missions meeting, even if we limit global temperature rises to the ambitious target of one point five degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we will still endure stronger and more frequent storms, prolonged droughts, unprecedented sea rises and threats to our food security due to the effects of changing weather patterns on our agriculture.

While our adherence to the Paris Agreement will reduce the effects of climate change, its implementation alone will not undo all the damage that has already been done to our planet. We have already experienced some of the worst impacts of climate change and the experts tell us these events are likely to become worse.

The impact of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Cyclone Winston in Fiji last year have shown very clearly that the security of every man, woman and child who calls the Pacific home is already at-risk. For we Pacific islanders, climate change outstrips any other threat to our national security in its catastrophic potential, and adapting to this new reality is a matter of life or death. For some nations, it is a threat to their very existence, and it is undoubtedly the most serious impediment to progress and development in Fiji and in every low-lying and vulnerable area of the world.

For me, as incoming President of COP23, it has been sobering to take stock of just how little time we have left to adapt to our changing climate. But we cannot delay taking decisive action any longer. It is critical that the multi-lateral consensus on the reduction of carbon emissions agreed to in Paris is fully implemented. And at the same time, we must work together to ensure that those nations most vulnerable to climate change are given every opportunity to adapt to it and build their resilience.

This forum will explore how to best achieve resilience here in the Pacific in the face of the growing threat of climate change. Here we can draw on our experiences in dealing with natural disasters and the hard lessons we have learned as a result.

Coming together, as we are today, is an important first step. Because while we cannot change the fact that climate change will define our development in the years to come, we can certainly decide the most appropriate and affordable way to meet that challenge.

The three-day workshop which ended yesterday examined how to best entrench climate resilience in every aspect of our national development and I am sure this will be further discussed in today’s high level dialogue. Because if we are serious about improving the lives of our people, every policy we implement and every strategy we pursue must consider the impact of our changing climate.

The alternative is finding ourselves stuck in the cycle of rebuilding our nations and economies from one disaster after the next.

The cost of adapting our nations to withstand the increased frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters is immense and cannot be shouldered by us alone. We need access to climate finance through a system that is not bureaucratic and we ourselves, need to be highly sophisticated about how we mobilise our own financial resources to meet this challenge.

Tough decisions need to be made. We need to begin work now and we need to stay disciplined about how we plan our national development to adapt to our changing climate. The short-term costs of building resilient infrastructure may be high, but the costs of starting from scratch and rebuilding after extreme weather events are even higher. And the only way to keep our development sustainable is to invest in public sector infrastructure that meets tougher building codes and standards. We cannot tolerate Band-Aid solutions or short-term fixes.

In Fiji, we understand better than most the importance of sustainable and resilient development. As I mentioned, last year we were struck by the strongest cyclone to ever make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere, Tropical Cyclone Winston. The storm claimed the lives of 44 of our people and left us with a total damage bill of 1.4 billion US Dollars, or one third of our GDP. While the damage we sustained was immense, without proper planning, it could have been far worse.

Despite the cyclone, the Fijian economy rebounded to achieve its seventh consecutive year of economic growth, thanks to our previous efforts to diversify and broaden our economic base and also because it did not largely affect our tourism properties. Had Cyclone Winston struck Fiji in the 1990s, when that base was narrow, our economy may well have contracted by close to 10 per cent. Instead, it grew by 2 per cent last year and is projected to grow by another 3.6 per cent in 2017.
That said, we are a long way from putting the Cyclone behind us, and we are still working very hard to reclaim everything we lost to the storm.

The scale of the destruction required us to offer direct financial assistance to the tens of thousands of Fijians who were affected. Through our Help for Homes initiative we are giving households the materials and assistance they need to rebuild their homes, and through our social welfare schemes, we increased payments to help cover the basic needs of families in the affected zones.

The World Bank has said that 99 per cent of recipients used those funds for disaster relief purposes, and we are very proud that the World Bank backed my Government’s judgement that this would eventually prove to be the case.

When dealing with large-scale destruction from a cyclone, one of the most pressing concerns is to supply enough building materials to complete the rebuild. The cost of building materials also becomes an issue. This is especially challenging for an island economy like ours. And to address this, my Government provided temporary import duty and VAT exemptions on items donated from organisations, families and relatives living abroad. And we also reduced tariffs on building materials such as electric wiring and supplies, steel cables and timber.

A major priority for my Government has been to rehouse – in proper school buildings – all of our students who lost their schools. Something that compounded the trauma many suffered during the cyclone itself. We allocated $132 million in the 2016-2017 Budget and partnered with a number of professional associations, such as the Fiji Institution of Engineers, to ensure that schools and public buildings are rebuilt to a more resilient standard. And we are constructing many of these facilities to double up as evacuation centres to protect our people during future disasters.

So we’ve had some success. But we know we could have done much better had we had reliable frameworks for accessing climate finance in the first place. So this must be the imperative from now on, and I’m very pleased that this issue is what you are here to discuss. Because there is only so much any vulnerable developing nation can do to adapt to the ravages of climate change on their own.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve given you a broad overview of our recovery efforts and our Attorney-General and Minister for Economy will provide you with the specifics in our first session this morning. But I want to leave you with this thought as you begin your deliberations: building resilient infrastructure and a more robust economy, even in a small country like Fiji, will take a great deal of time and effort to achieve, along with vast financial resources. But it is an investment, working with our development partners, that is well-worth making.

In accessing the necessary resources, vulnerable nations need the assistance of the international community, development partners, the private sector and multilateral development banks. That assistance must be determined by the degree of vulnerability these nations face.

Fiji, as incoming COP President, sees its responsibility to strengthen access to climate adaptation funding for every vulnerable nation in the world. Indeed, we need to ensure an objective vulnerability and fragility index is developed to assist nations to access development finance in times of need.

An objective index does not necessarily mean more countries will be deemed to be vulnerable or fragile on a permanent basis but rather will only fall in the vulnerable category when necessitated. We also must recognise the fact that currently an overwhelming portion of climate funds are skewered towards mitigation measures as opposed to adaptation. We must change this permutation. We must also at the same time create new financial models to attract private sector and financial institution participation in adaptation measures.

We all have experiences to share, expertise to offer and strategies to add to this vital conversation. The clock is ticking, and the more urgency we give this discussion, the more countries and lives we will save. And I assure you, as incoming COP President, that I intend to give this issue the importance it deserves, as well as my primary task to advance the rulebook for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and hold the current multi-lateral consensus on the need for decisive action together.

Thank you for being here to contribute to such an important discussion and I now have great pleasure declare this forum officially open.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

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