When the U.S and China ratified the Paris climate agreement at last week’s G20 summit in Hangzhou, the news generated headlines across the globe.
There was less fanfare when countries including Barbados, Saint Lucia and Samoa ratified back in April.
But for these countries and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), commitments to limit the rise in global temperature are particularly urgent.
SIDS are on the frontlines of climate change. The planet’s small island entities are also home to vibrant and distinct cultures, diversity and heritage but while they presently account for less than one percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they suffer the impacts of extreme weather disproportionately.
Just look at the devastation Cyclone Pam caused in Vanuatu last year. Trees snapped in half like twigs, corrugated iron roofs opened-up like tin cans, and thatched houses flattened like cardboard. The value of damage and loss to the country reached almost half a billion dollars - equivalent to more than 60% of Vanuatu’s annual Gross Domestic Product. Climate change is making extreme weather events like this even more frequent and even more deadly.
“SIDS are island countries so we are much closer to the environment than other countries,” explains Colin Beck, Solomon Islands' ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador to the United States. “Our livelihood, our survival and our economies depend on the health of our surroundings. The Solomon Islands in 2014 experienced flooding that cost us 9% of our GDP. That’s investments - which have been made over decades - just wiped out within a few hours. This is why vulnerability and action now is so important.”
SIDS are also known as ‘Large Ocean States’ and some of them face an existential threat from rising sea levels. As well as here-and-now dangers such as trade winds and monsoons - which damage homes, livelihoods and infrastructure, reversing hard-won development gains – SIDS are particularly vulnerable to the long-term of impacts of rising sea levels. Put simply, if they remain unchecked, certain SIDS could become uninhabitable.
This week’s report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) describes the scale of warming in the ocean as “truly staggering” and offers a stark vision of its implications: “Due to a domino effect, key human sectors are at threat, especially fisheries, aquaculture, coastal risk management, health and coastal tourism.”
These sectors are central to SIDS’ economies. For example, in the Pacific SIDS, the fishing industry contributes up to 10 percent of total GDP. The Caribbean SIDS base most of their livelihoods on tourism and around 12 percent of the total labor force work in the Caribbean tourist sector.
In 2005, the Caribbean region saw extremely warm sea temperatures which caused the largest bleaching of coral reefs in the region to date. This event wiped out as much as 70% of the reefs in some countries. Not only did this result in the loss of biodiversity, but also reduced the natural barriers to hurricanes and storm surges and led to significant loss of livelihoods of many fishing communities and entities.
As well as tourism, many SIDS depend heavily on farming and both of these industries are major consumers of freshwater and water stress or scarcity - be it through longer dry seasons, less annual rainfall or more intense storms – is already a challenge for many SIDS. Issues such as geography and capacity mean SIDS are already vulnerable and climate change is acting as a threat multiplier.
So for SIDS, the science underpinning climate change is particularly important. Bill Hare, CEO of the think-tank Climate Analytics, says what sounds like a small difference in temperature can make a big difference to countries: “The new science is showing that there is a very big reduction in risk if you limit warming to 1.5 versus 2 degrees. It has very practical implications. If you're much higher - 3 or 4 degrees - you have really catastrophic problems in this area.
“The science is getting clearer that the lower you can keep the warming, the less will be your risk. It's not a small improvement, it’s a large improvement, even for just a half degree reduction in warming.”
During his recent remarks to the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders, U.S President Barack Obama outlined how climate change is already impacting certain SIDS: “Crops are withering in the Marshall Islands. Kiribati bought land in another country because theirs may someday be submerged. High seas forced villagers from their homes in Fiji.”
While the scale and the pace of climate impacts on SIDS is striking, so too is the attention being paid and the work being done to help manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.
The Climate Investment Funds (CIF) is supporting national governments in integrating climate resilience and deploying renewable energy solutions in SIDS and beyond.
Through our $1.2 billion Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR), we are helping SIDS increase their understanding of climate change and its impacts, improve their capacity to adapt and develop high priority investments on adaptation. And regional programs in the Caribbean and the Pacific are being implemented to increase learning-by-doing and sharing of lessons on how to integrate adaptation and resilience objectives into development planning.
SIDS are also well-represented in the CIF’s $780 million Scaling Up Renewable Energy Program (SREP) with countries such as Maldives as well as Vanuatu and Solomon Islands (Pacific Region.) SREP supports scaled-up deployment of renewable energy solutions to increase energy access and economic opportunities in these countries.
SIDS are – as they say in Jamaica – “small but tallawah (strong.)” While they are on the frontline of climate change’s impacts, they can also be innovation hubs for resilience, energy access and sustainable development. Small islands, big ambition.
This is the first in a series of three CIF features on Small Island Developing States. Next month, we will look at the work of the CIF’s Pilot Program for Climate Resilience in SIDS. In November, we will look at the work of the CIF’s Scaling Up Renewable Energy Program in SIDS.