SPECIAL COP23: With SIDS’ preminent role, adaptation challenges take center stage

Despite being hosted in Germany, COP23 is the first UNFCCC summit to be presided over by a Small Island Developing State the Republic of Fiji, and many are therefore calling it “the Pacific COP”. Pacific states’ climate-related problems, however, concern a wider range of small island countries worldwide.

Small islands and low-lying coastal areas share similar development challenges: isolation, lack of natural resources, dependence on foreign markets, overarching energy and transportation costs, growing population, lack of scale economies in public management. More, they share environmental concerns in terms of vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change: coastal erosion, sea level rise, floods, and extreme atmospheric events. Notably, AOSIS – the Association of Small Island States, a lobby group inside the UNFCCC fora – played a great role in shaping the 1.5 degrees aspirational goal during COP21 as Small Island countries are already damaged by such adverse effects (and already adapting to the new status quo) and did not consider the proposed 2 degrees goal as adequate. They pushed for a more ambitious target, and now ask for compelling answers in terms of climate finance and capacity transfers to better tackle their adaptation needs.

Although no official criteria have been established to determine a globally recognized list of SIDS, UNCTAD published an unofficial list including 28 States. On the other hand, UNDESA recognized as SIDS 57 countries and territories and grouped them into three headings: the Caribbean (23 countries and territories), the Pacific area (20), and a mixed Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea area (9). Those countries and territories, despite sharing common concerns, deeply vary in terms of development, financial resources, and degree of independence. Tuvalu and Sao Tome and Principe (among the world’s Least Developed Countries), for instance, present different needs and vulnerability dimensions than Singapore, or Bahrain, albeit being part to the same group.

Their main common denominator is a high degree of vulnerability to climate change impacts, together with an almost-zero level of greenhouse gas emission: according to UN data, all SIDS from the UNDESA list indeed emit, collectively, only 0.54 percent of global climate-altering emissions. Singapore and Bahrain alone contribute with 0.22 percent , meaning the net contribution of all other small islands developing states together represents only 0.35 percent of global emissions.

SIDS therefore focus their climate efforts on adaptation and disaster risk management rather than on emission mitigation. Their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the countries’ list of climate actions and targets to be pursued under the Paris Agreement, reflect this view. The Fijian NDC, for instance, enumerates a detailed list of actions related to current adaptation needs, with short-, medium- and long-term perspectives. Attention is given to the necessity of a climate-integrated policy approach, cyclone-resistant building techniques, post-disaster rehabilitation plans to ensure buildings’ resilience, and to the necessity of treating climate change investments as a usual budgetary issue. In NDCs issued by SIDS, the financial weight of adaptation actions is generally at least double compared to mitigation (the opposite of the provisions issued by developed countries). A 2015 study highlighted the necessity to also finance capacity building and climate-cultural initiatives to overcome some internal (local) factors leading to a poor understanding of perspective risks and not only direct adaptation actions. According to recent researches, local policymakers’ political necessities (in terms of investing in economic development rather than in environmental actions) and the lack of synergy between them and international donors are already negatively influencing the general output, as many SIDS are considered not on track in terms of developing energy sustainability paths.

As for many NDCs issued by developing countries, mitigation and adaptation actions foreseen by SIDS are partially or totally conditional on foreign financing. This conditionality could lead to negative outcomes (insufficient transfers, poor or no action) in cases where it is difficult to identify the demands. In the case of Jamaica, for example, it is questionable how financial transfer mechanisms and institutions can support a very general NDC with almost no quantitatively identified adaptation actions – Jamaica’s NDC refers to the 2009 “Vision 2030 Jamaica” national development plan, in which only 8 pages out of almost 400 are dedicated to climate change and adaptation. Three targets are however identified in the plan: to reduce the cost of damage caused by natural disasters from 2007’s 3.3 per cent of GDP to less than 1 per cent by 2030; to reduce GHG emissions from 2007’s 5Mt per year to 3.5Mt per year by 2030; and to keep the number of loss of lives due to disasters stable below 10 per year. No mention to adaptation actions, or costs, emerge from the analysis of the NDC issued by the vulnerable island state of Palau, yet only referring to the country’s 2015 Palau Climate Change Policy plan. Tonga, on the other hand, issued a very detailed contribution in which the government also made a self-evaluation of the extent to which current legislation, policies and plans are aligned with the national adaptation strategy, called “Resilient Tonga”. Despite some financial figures are given for mitigation, adaptation measures rely only on a list of qualitative indicators.

According to Maplecroft’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2017, the Republic of Haiti ranks as the most vulnerable country to climate change among SIDS, and third on a global level. In the Haitian NDC, as in many others issued by developing countries, conditionality of mitigation and adaptation actions on foreign financial support is clearly stated. According to the contribution, adaptation actions (including the integrated management of water resources and water basins, coastal zones, infrastructure reconstruction, food security and climate education) will cost more than USD 16 billion by 2030. As well, Mauritius’ NDC calculated USD 4 billion to enact pledged innovative policies on rainwater harvesting, desalination and the development of climate-smart fisheries.

Water issues play a key role for many other SIDS. Cape Verde, for example, issued a very detailed action programme on water and sanitation management, promotion of the country’s blue economy and prevention of coastal degradation. In particular, the country pledged to guarantee – provided for foreign support – that every citizen will have safe access to a minimum of 40l potable water per day, that all urban households will be connected to the water supply network, a dissemination of more efficient small-scale irrigation techniques through the promotion of soil conservation schemes for farmers and rural producers, and that public sewage collection system and proper disposal will be extended to cover 90 percent for the main cities and 50 percent of rural areas. All those goals are set to be reached by 2030.

Coordinated international funding, the establishment of a climate-sensitive cultural environment at a local level and political commitment could therefore act as crucial variables to better address all SIDS’ vulnerability dimensions, i.e. to help those countries enter the next two decades in a safer manner. For them, COP23 represents a great occasion to highlight their challenges and needs and a key opportunity to tackle some of those major obstacles. Many SIDS’ NDCs need, however, to be updated or reviewed in the near future – including more detailed adaptation actions – to better address increasing adaptation needs.


(Image: Coastal erosion in a village in SouthEast Asia, 2017. Photo credit: Jacopo Bencini, CC BY-NC-SA)