THE Fiji Government, in its efforts to become a global champion of environmental stewardship, was the first to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change in February 2016, followed by signing the Agreement’s Instrument of Ratification, at the United Nations in April last year.

Previous governments have also demonstrated their commitment to addressing climate change, signing and ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. Like the Paris Agreement last year, Fiji was the first country to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to the Climate Change Convention in 1998.

Toward the end of this year, the Fiji Government will “host” and preside over the 23rd Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC in Bonn, Germany. In June, Fiji, along with Sweden, will host the UN Oceans Conference in New York.

Gap between words and action

Yet there still seems to be a gap between what Fiji is seen to be doing and saying on the international stage and asking for financial support for and what is being done locally.

Even though there has been much said about a green growth framework over the past few years, we are yet to see a tangible link between the economic developments promoted by the Government with environmental concerns it espouses internationally and any real shift from unsustainable development to environment-oriented and ethically sustainable development.

In less than six months, Fiji co-hosts the UN Oceans Conference. Yet there has not been any tangible support for sustainable sea transport, which, given that we are a maritime nation, is a matter of some significance.

The Ecumenical Deliberative Forum on Rethinking and Reclaiming the Commons for Our Common Homes, held in Lami last year, which included 60 leaders and representatives of Fijian faith communities, vulnerable communities, civil society, non-governmental organisations, academics, government, inter-governmental and regional organisations concluded with a call for inclusion of all sectors of the community in these existing frameworks to increase the sharing of crucial information and participation in decision-making to ensure that all voices from the community are heard and that sustainable and practical responses to climate change can take place.

The forum affirmed the Suva Declaration’s call “for greater involvement of communities, civil society (including women, youth, and persons with disabilities) and the private sector”, as equal partners in climate change responses and initiatives and, seek the meaningful participation of faith communities as the largest interest groups in our nation.

The above are, of course, about the implementation of government programs, projects, activities and initiatives to which have been commitments have been made.

But there is another level that the issue of the care of the environment needs to go. Some may see it as going a level down. I see it as going a level deeper.

What does our social commitment to the stewardship of the environment and protection of the ocean look like?

What are we the people of Fiji doing?

What practical contributions are we making to strengthening environmental stewardship, caring for the ocean and reducing our own carbon footprint by reducing carbon emissions?

Are we planting more trees to replace the ones being cut down to clear land for development and extraction of natural resources as well as offsetting the carbon footprint of government officials and ordinary citizens flying across the seas for meetings or holidays? Unfortunately not.

What can we go without to help make these islands and this planet, safer, healthier and a better place to live in?

The Ecumenical Deliberative Forum last year suggested a number of practical responses that ordinary people and communities could make. One was to stop the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags, bottles and products and to promote the use of eco-bags and traditional bags.

Single-use plastic shopping bags, commonly made from high-density polyethene (HDPE) plastic, have traditionally been given free to customers by stores when purchasing goods.

It is estimated worldwide that 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed and discarded worldwide each year.

Plastic manufacturing is estimated to use 8 per cent of yearly global oil production. Less than 1 per cent of bags is recycled because it costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one.

The single-use plastic bags we get at almost every shop, regardless of the size of the product we buy, may be promoted as degradable, but are not biodegradable. Unlike items that naturally biodegrade, plastic bags are made from polyethene; a thermoplastic made from oil. Plast­ic bags photodegrade, meaning over ti­me, plastic breaks down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers. These contaminants poison our soil and water and then enter our food chain.

The buildup of plastic in our oceans is a greater cause of ecosystem disruption. An estimated 100,000 marine animals die each year from suffocating on or ingesting bags. Many animals confuse the plastic littering the oceans for food, including sea turtles. One in three leatherback sea turtles has plastic in their stomach, most often a plastic bag, based on a study of over 370 autopsies.

All this plastic is toxic and may be affecting our food supply. One of the main toxins is dioxin, an endocrine disruptor, or so-called gender-bender pollutant.

Once in these animals bodies the plastic bio-accumulates, and the chemicals can cause excess estrogen to be produced, which has led to discoveries of male fish with female sex organs. For sea turtles, the plastic blocks their digestive tract and the food that is trapped releases gases that render them buoyant, and unable to dive for food.

So can Fiji give up using plastic bags?

Other countries have, Bangladesh being the first in 2002. Across the world bans, partial bans, and fees charged for plastic bags at shops have been imposed at national and local levels. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state in the US to ban grocery stores from distributing plastic bags.

The Red Sea (Hurghada) is the first plastic bag free governorate in Egypt having introduced a ban in 2009. The ban has also created employment opportunities for women who have been charged with creating cloth bags in the place of plastic bags.

Even China has banned free plastic bags, lowering its fossil fuel consumption by 37million barrels of oil each year.

Israel, Canada, western India, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Taiwan, and Singapore have also banned or are moving toward banning the plastic bag.

Perhaps our Government as its own contribution to locally addressing the issues it does on the global level can ban the plastic bag. Or it can take a leaf out of what Ireland did — taxing plastic bags in 2002, leading to a reduction of plastic bag consumption by 90 per cent.

While we wait on the Government, we do not need to sit on our hands. We can act. We can begin to make a difference.

We often look at problems and say: “What can I do? Even if I give up using plastic bags, what impact will I have?”

If we trade out our plastic bags for reusable bags, the average person can save at least six bags a week, possibly more.

That translates into at least 22,176 bags in the average lifetime.

If just one out of five people in Fiji did this we would save at least 3,991,680,000 bags over our life!

This is something we can all do to show our care for our vanua, our nation, our ocean and our planet. It goes a long way to show that the Fiji Government is not just acting out of some plan to raise its profile, but actually moving in line with its citizens who are showing care for creation.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.”

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. This article was published in the Fiji Times Online on Wednesday, January 18, 2017. To view this, Click here!!