Meet the young climate official championing Fiji’s oceans
SUVA/LONDON - October 26, 2021: 11.22am (COMSEC): Kushaal Raj is the Acting Manager for Climate Change and the Ocean Specialist for the Ministry of Economy, Government of Fiji, where he develops ocean policy and provides technical expertise for international negotiations on ocean-related climate challenges. He is also responsible for updating Fiji’s progress on oceans within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – so is currently immersed in preparations for the global COP26 climate talks which take place next month. Here, Commonwealth Correspondent Chimaobi Omeye interviews Kushaal Raj during the busy lead up to COP26, about his journey as a Fijian climate official for one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, during the most critical time in history for climate action. What led you to become a climate change champion? I started my career as an academic at the University of the South Pacific with a focus on renewable energy, after studying biology and chemistry. My academic research group discovered the critical links between climate change and the renewable energy sector in Fiji. The University then championed further exploration of this link by developing the first programme in Fiji on Renewable Energy Management. The passion I developed for climate change began there and took me towards a change in my career pathway. I diversified my knowledge through training and began aspiring to join climate change and oceans advocacy movements. Kushaal Raj, Acting Manager for Climate Change and the Ocean Specialist for the Ministry of Economy, Government of Fiji Why and how is Fiji prone to climate change and ocean disasters? As a large ocean state and developing Island Nation, Fiji – like the rest of the Pacific – is not immune to climate change. We are vulnerable not only due to our small economies and inability to secure and adapt to climate-ready infrastructure, but the ‘doubled’ threat we face from multiple climate scenarios: sea level rise, coral bleaching, coastal inundation, intense and frequent cyclones, droughts, and others. Fiji alone does not have the financial resources nor the technical capacity to address climate challenges, yet it trail-blazes efforts towards ensuring and increasing climate resilience through innovative policy interventions, coupling adaptation and mitigation co-benefits through nature-based solutions and integrated disaster risk reduction systems. In what ways has Fiji been successful in rising above the challenges? Fiji has always led through implementation; whether it was on mitigation through our Low Emissions Development Strategy, adaptation through our National Adaptation Plan or more recently on oceans through the National Ocean Policy. Robust policy requires concise and effective implementation – which is what we are currently doing – through dialogue with mandated ministries and development partners, as well as the public through consultation on progress of actions within the ocean space. This helps create greater awareness on the threats of natural disasters and what communities can do to assist in mitigating damage. Climate policies Apart from those stated, other notable policies include: *Fiji’s Five year and 20-year National Development Plan *The Third National Communication *The Planned Relocation Guidelines *The National Climate Change Policy * The Displacement Guidelines * Fiji’s Updated Nationally Determined Contributions and Fiji has also complemented the Paris Agreement through its updated Nationally Determined Contribution, through which Fiji reaffirms its: *2030 target under Article 4.11 of the Paris Agreement *Commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050 *Commitment to enact its Climate Change Bill by 2021; and *To operationalise its National Adaptation Plan. The Climate Change Bill, once endorsed, will be the legislative force which will ensure the implementation of numerous climate projects assist in Fiji ambitions to become carbon neutral. In July 2019, Fiji successfully compiled its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) and presented it at the High-Level Political Forum in New York. Fiji has learnt from its first progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is now undertaking preparatory works for the compilation of its second VNR for presentation in 2022. Fiji is also working jointly with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in strengthening advocacy, awareness and institutional readiness for the implementation of the SDGs across all sectors. Ocean action How does your work influence the attainment of SDG 14: Life Below Water? Our work consists of collating information and reporting on ocean actions and activities within Fiji to Government, development partners and the international community. As the oceans unit, our work automatically creates synergies with SDG14: Life Below Water, however our work is holistic and spreads across multiple Ministries, such as Fisheries, Foreign Affairs and Environment, due to the diverse nature of the ocean. Fiji has already taken steps to expedite work within the area of SDG 14 specifically through the SDG unit of the Climate Change and International Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Economy, which will report on all SDGs and initiate a streamlined and directed approach towards collecting data on SDG 14, among others. How do you work with communities? Earlier this year we held a creek clean-up in Nabukalou. This was done in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and numerous civil-society organisations and was the first of many clean-up campaigns and events organised to raise awareness of pollution management, while we continue to improve other means of waste collection to protect the marine space. The turnout was quite significant for the creek clean-up, particularly from young people – more than 100 people attended from registered community groups, faith-based organisations and the public. Businesses have also taken initiatives to decrease their plastic pollution, which has been further assisted by the ban on single-use plastic bags in Fiji, which came into force on 01 January 2020. Challenges How has Covid-19 and cyclone Ana impacted your work? I believe the paradigm shift to virtual meetings due to COVID-19 has been the biggest change. Although avoiding the long transits to attend meetings has been a respite, the lack of first-person contact has been a hurdle for many to counter, especially during negotiations and high-level meetings. We were fortunate that the cyclone did not cause as much damage to the capital city of Suva (our place of business) as it did in the northern areas of Fiji and as a result, much of our work was unaffected. However, there have been numerous challenges posed on our economy and climate aspirations, which is constant with frequent cyclones in Fiji. An area we are currently lacking in is advocacy, but although our work is updated and regularly reported on the international and global stage, we have only recently started campaigning more widely on climate change issues domestically. Our hope is to align our work with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). The team is in the process of operationalising the National Ocean Policy, as although the Policy is robust, its implementation will require multi-stakeholder input. Similarly, as Fiji was devastated by the recent tropical cyclones Yasa and Ana, a pilot project called the Savusavu Blue Town Model is being developed to assist in rehabilitation in the northern division and as a foundation to improve economic resilience through investment in ecological resilience. Advice for young people Climate ambition without climate action is ineffective. Your passion about climate change should not end at advocacy, but if you have the capacity, should also diversify into assisting the community in curbing climate and oceans issues. This could be done through clean up and community-led programmes, pilot projects on innovative climate solutions and advocacy of these issues within communities – this will also help the drive towards resilience. Do you believe young people are given opportunities in Fiji and globally? Youth participation has always been key for climate action in Fiji and the world. Greta Thunberg is an excellent example of how youths can make a difference. For Fiji, Timoci Naulusala is a similar figure in the context of climate change and international youth leadership, who at the age of 12 gave the opening speech of COP23 in Bonn, Germany. He captivated world leaders on the impacts of climate change and remarked that the ‘blaming and waiting game’ was over and it’s now time for action. Together for change A national climate youth summit with a focus on climate change was recently organised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports in partnership with non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and the Climate Change Division of the Ministry of Economy, to inform youths on the importance of their roles in society as first responders and advocates for climate action. They were also consulted on Fiji’s upcoming Climate Change Bill. It is an avenue to renew commitment towards youth-led community activities that address climate change and enable youth to better communicate and network on this issue with government ministries and development partners. This youth leadership and collaboration is critical in addressing climate change. We must all work together for real change.... PACNEWS You can learn more about the Government of Fiji's climate change work on its Ministry of Economy website. This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the second in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action.