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Island Nations Unable to Attend UN Climate Talks May Vanish

Island nations in the Pacific often play a major role at UN climate conferences. The speeches and coalition-building of leaders from nations that will soon vanish beneath rising sea levels act as a powerful reminder of the real stakes . For obvious reasons, these leaders also tend to push hard for ambitious climate deals that will protect the most vulnerable countries.Last week, it emerged that a third of Pacific small island states and territories do not have any government figures attending COP26, largely due to the quarantine periods they would face on their return to mostly Covid-free nations. This week, Reuters reported that just four leaders from these islands—Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, and Palau—will attend COP26. Low-lying Pacific Islands are being battered by the climate crisis—not just from rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, but more urgently as rising sea levels threaten to submerge whole countries.COP26 is seen as a particularly high stakes event because it marks the deadline for the second round of national climate pledges, which are made every five years. It is thus a crucial moment for ramping up climate goals. Current climate commitments put the world on track for a 2.7C rise in temperature this century, the UN says, well above the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement, which will already be catastrophic for many Pacific Island nations.Pacific Islands will still have representatives at the conference, but the absence of those higher up in government is important. And they are not the only people who will be missing from COP26. Covid-19 restrictions, long visa processes, soaring hotel prices, and changing quarantine policies are keeping many would-be delegates at home. As a result, COP president Alok Sharma's plans for the conference to be “an inclusive summit where all voices are heard” are starting to look more than a little bleak.Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, notes that most of the countries previously on the UK’s travel “red list” were the poorest developing countries. While the UK has now lifted the red list category for most nations, which has certainly helped many more attend the conference, “many will still not make it,” he says.The UK’s muddled decisions with regard to its red list have made things even more difficult for some. In response to pressure from civil society groups, the UK offered to cover the costs of the five-day quarantine in full (it had already reduced the required hotel stay from 10 to 5 days for COP26 delegates). But Alejandro Aleman, coordinator of the Latin America branch of the influential nonprofit network Climate International Network (CAN), says that when the UK then removed 47 countries from the red list in early October, many who had already bought plane tickets were faced with paying for five extra days of accommodation to replace the quarantine period.“At least four organizations from CAN Latin America that I know canceled their participation because they couldn't afford additional days,” Aleman says. He estimates that around two-thirds of civil society organization members in Latin America that would usually participate in UN climate talks are not participating in COP26.