The High Stakes for Small Islands
Hon. Tom Roper, Climate Institute Project Director, Global Sustainable Energy Islands Initiative
Global warming and climate change are accelerating. The grave conclusions of the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (IPCC) are being overtaken by events. Emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, grew at a rate of 3.5 percent per year between 2000 and 2007, up from 1.1 percent between 1990 and 1999. Temperatures are increasing. Sea levels are rising some 3.1 mm per year.
Nowhere is the urgency of climate change more visible and immediate than in Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Already, many Pacific countries report regular flooding, and in Papua New Guinea, the world’s first climate refugees are being evacuated. They are unlikely to be the last. John Church, one of the lead authors of the most recent IPCC Report’s chapter on sea level, predicts a 21st century sea level rise of at least 1 metre. NASA’s James Hansen predicts 2 metres. Even a sea level rise of half a metre would place SIDS like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and the Maldives in existential danger.
The Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting to demonstrate the urgency of sea level rise
The plight of Small Island States, which have been responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions to date, demands immediate and drastic action. But progress on a new international climate agreement has been slow, and even if major emitters were able to mobilize swiftly to reduce their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the CO2 that has already been emitted will remain in the atmosphere for centuries to come, continuing to warm the earth. At current rates of sea level rise, SIDS can not afford to wait for centuries. Reductions in emissions of short-lived greenhouse gases, especially black carbon, will be necessary to buy time for these most vulnerable members of the international community.
While rising sea levels may be the most obvious threat they face, SIDS will also be exposed to increasing extreme weather events. Higher temperatures will bring more heat waves, and higher sea levels will exacerbate flooding during storms and king tides. More frequent floods will bring salt water incursions, threatening islands’ meager water resources. Higher temperatures will also change sea water chemistry, endangering reefs and fisheries that sustain the islands’ environment and economy. Altered weather patterns will change the ranges of disease-carrying species, increasing islanders’ exposure to new illnesses.
Small Island States are already at the mercy of the elements. In 2008, the insurance company Munich Re reported that in Oceania, 50 natural catastrophes such as storms, cyclones, and flooding caused US $2.4 billion of damage, some half of which was in the Islands. In April 2004, Cyclone Sudal destroyed or damaged 90 percent of homes in Yap. Many scientists believe that higher water temperatures, which hit a record in June and July, make cyclones more powerful and multiply their threat to life and property.
The governments of Small Island States have been active in educating the world of the dangers, and they are increasingly setting an example by adopting ambitious targets for reducing their own dependence on fossil fuels. At the Alliance of Small Island States summit on September 21 of this year, the representatives of the SIDS declared, “While SIDS contribute the least to global emissions, and have limited human, financial, and technical resources, our nations continue to take significant actions towards the reduction of our own emissions.” As a symbolic gesture of the dangers to come, the President of the Maldives called an underwater meeting on October 17 for his cabinet, who wore scuba gear.
For the SIDS, most of whom generate 100 percent of their power from imported diesel, transitioning to renewable energy makes good economic sense. These small, largely resource-poor economies are as vulnerable to changes in the price of oil as the islands are to the changing climate. Higher diesel prices have had a huge impact on both national balances of payment and national economies. Some islands can barely afford for the tanker to call. Last year Kiribati fuel imports were 25 percent of GDP. Customers in the Cook and Solomon Islands are paying US $0.50 or more per kWh. Majuro residents were taking out light bulbs and turning off necessary appliances.
Renewable energy, including wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and even coconut oil, is now cost competitive with diesel. More and more, islands are turning to renewable energy to provide their residents with power. Individual systems are beginning to provide light to the 70 percent of Pacific Islanders with no access to the diesel-based grid, as countries like the Marshall Islands plan to “solarize” their outer atolls. The Global Sustainable Energy Islands Initiative (GSEII) has partnered with islands in the Pacific and Caribbean to develop sustainable energy plans, investigate renewable energy options, improve energy efficiency, and educate residents about the benefits of mitigation.
But GSEII and our island partners know that unless the major emitters can learn from the islands’ example and act soon to reduce heat-trapping emissions, the SIDS will have to spend all of their resources on adaptation to our changing climate. Currently, financing for adaptation and mitigation efforts on SIDS is inadequate. All too often donors are generous with emergency aid but miserly with funds to reduce future impacts. The SIDS are littered with too many failed energy projects with often inappropriate technology and lack of local training and ownership. On one Marshalls atoll, solar home units were installed but the donor didn’t even translate the ‘how to’ guide into English. Unsurprisingly, the batteries failed and the Marshalls Electric Company had to come in and renew almost the whole system.
The world must change its strategy on climate change. The ponderous process of negotiations on reducing carbon dioxide emissions must be injected with new urgency and augmented by measures like reducing black carbon that can buy time. Although their membership in the United Nations has given SIDS, many of whom acquired independence only recently, an opportunity to shape the global debate on addressing climate change, this platform can only amplify the Islands’ voices, not their actions. Large, developed countries must draw inspiration from the SIDS’ efforts to eliminate their contributions to climate change, and act swiftly to reduce this global threat.
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