Can Fiji’s presidency of COP23 help keep small island states on the map?


“The reality for small islands is that a 2 degrees Celsius [average global temperature rise] is simply too high. Already we are seeing the effects of over 1°C, with horrendous results,” says Kerricia Hobson, who manages a pilot project investigating how small islands can build capacity for coastal ecosystem-based adaptation on the Caribbean island of Grenada.

“Therefore our message is that the very survival of Small Island Developing States [SIDS, a distinct group of developing countries facing a unique set of social, economic and environmental challenges] depends on a global temperature goal of below 1.5°C. The time for talking is long over, we need action now,” she tells Equal Times.

The situation facing SIDS globally is reaching crisis point, as demonstrated by the sheer number and scale of climate-related disasters that have taken place recently. In 2017 alone, there have been 16 hurricanes or tropical storms in the Atlantic basin. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have caused historic rainfall levels in the United States and catastrophic damage on Caribbean islands such as Barbuda, Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, Anguilla, Dominica, the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; numerous other islands were also badly damaged.

In the Pacific, Fiji is still recovering from 2016’s Cyclone Winston, one of the strongest storms to make landfall. Also last year, the Solomon Islands lost five islands to rising sea levels and erosion.

It is against this backdrop that climate activists from SIDS are hoping that the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23), taking place in Bonn, Germany from 6 to 17 November, could be a game changer.

At least 250 million people could be displaced

The presidency of this year’s COP is being hosted by Fiji, a Pacific state made up of over 300 islands. It knows first hand about the potentially devastating impact of climate change. According to the London School of Economics, 1.7 million people in the Pacific region – home to 10 million people in total – could be displaced due to climate change by 2050. In Fiji alone, the World Bank estimates that its 870,000 citizens are vulnerable to higher rates of disease and an increased number of extreme weather events, which could reduce the country’s GDP by about four per cent. Meanwhile, the UN predicts that globally at least 250 million people will be displaced by climate change in the 30 or so years.

However, as the first vulnerable island state to coordinate the COP, observers are optimistic that Fiji’s role won’t just be symbolic.

“I am ecstatic that a Small Island Developing State is hosting the COP,” Jamilla Sealy, the regional chairperson of Caribbean Youth Environmental Network (CYEN) tells Equal Times. “Hopefully the SIDS will join together to bring our plight to the forefront to create meaningful change,” she says.

Keeping temperatures below 1.5°C needs collective global action. In July, the Fijian COP Secretariat set out a clear road map to try and ensure that this happens. It called on all nations to ratify previous climate commitments, including the 2015 Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 that has since been ratified by over 55 per cent of countries and will come into effect on 4 November 2017. It also set out other priorities, such as an increase to funding for global adaptation and mitigation schemes, and the creation of insurance schemes for countries hit hardest by climate-driven disasters.

In addition, in 2015, as part of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), Fiji launched the Suva Declaration. It calls for firm climate commitments, particularly in the provision of grants for the countries worst-affected by climate change. PSIDS states also want ocean and sea protections established within international climate negotiations and climate change security regularly considered by the UN Security Council.

“Our coastal communities are being swept away”

Back in Grenada, Hobson’s pilot project – which focuses on coral reef rejuvenation - is an example of the kind of climate adaptation schemes that Fiji is calling on the international community to support.

The project, which is run by the Grenadian government, helps local communities restore coral reefs as a natural way to adapt to climate change. Coral reefs are sometimes known as the world’s “underwater rainforests” as they produce significant amounts of oxygen and support a wide biodiversity of marine life. Reefs also provide protection to low-lying islands but scientists predict that the world could lose up to 90 per cent of its coral reefs by 2050 due to warming seas and pollution.

Rising sea levels are another crucial problem across the Caribbean and beyond.

“Our coastal communities are literally being swept away,” says Kristin Marin, vice chair of the Caribbean Regional Youth Council, who is from Belize.

She says that awareness-raising is crucial in the fight against climate change and cites the example of CYEN’s educational programmes in her country. By learning about the importance of clean water and protecting it, Belizean children are also developing a climate consciousness that Marin hopes will ensure the expectation of accountability from their future political leaders.

This awareness-raising can lead to important victories too. “Through Oceana Belize, an organisation working to protect the world’s oceans, all communities in Belize stood up to offshore oil drilling due to the very real risks it poses to our natural resources,” she says.

After a campaign involving demonstrations and reef clean-ups, Belize voted in an unofficial referendum to have a permanent moratorium on drilling, announced 20 October 2017.

Currently the Caribbean is heavily reliant on imported oil, largely from Venezuela. But there is momentum to tap into the enormous renewable potential of the region. In the last few years, Jamaica has expanded further into wind farms. In Antigua and Barbuda, many schools have solar panels, while in Puerto Rico off-grid biomass to energy systems are providing power, after Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s energy infrastructure.

In the Pacific, the Ta’u island of American Samoa is also ditching diesel to generate power from solar using local micro-grids and Tesla batteries. Around the world, developing nations are committing to renewable transitions. At COP22 in Marrakesh, the 48 nations of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), which are all severely threatened, signed up to 100 per cent renewable targets by 2050.

But due to the unequal distribution of global emissions – where industrial nations currently contribute the most carbon emissions, as well as having the largest historical contributions – the SIDS hit worst by climate change cannot guarantee their own survival without global action.

Bringing the agreement to life

Closing the pre-COP23 summit on 18 October, the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama made it clear that COP23 needs to be judged on actions, not just promises.

“We must make a genuine connection between what has happened in this room and the lives of the people we represent,” he said.

Later that same day, Fiji demonstrated this commitment by announcing a green sovereign bond, a financial instrument to direct investment into renewable and green industries, becoming the third in the world after Poland and France to do so, and the first country from the Global South.

The day before Fiji also announced its new Rural Electrification Fund which will bring off-grid power to rural communities that currently rely on intermittent diesel electrical generation, which is not only a heavy carbon emitter, but also one that can be easily disrupted by cyclones.

However, immediate global action is required to stop rising temperatures, particularly in the form of legally binding limits on carbon emissions.

One important legal test case on this issue will coincide with the climate summit. On 13 November, Greenpeace Nordic and Norwegian Nature and Youth are taking the Norwegian government to court over Arctic drilling. The case argues that it contravenes Norway’s commitments to the Paris Agreement and threatens Norwegian’s constitutional rights to a safe and healthy environment.

With Fiji at the helm, COP23 has also created avenues to address climate change even if leaders will not make commitments. The Under-2 Coalition, consisting of non-state actors, will be able to attend COP23 and sign up to climate pledges. This includes California Governor Edmund Brown, who has been appointed Special Advisor for States and Regions and who leads the world’s sixth largest economy. Eight other US states have signed onto the coalition, despite the fact that US President Donald Trump has pulled out of the landmark climate deal. Many other regions from countries that have not ratified previous climate agreements will also be joining.

Fiji also aims to leave a lasting impression on climate change leadership. The government has called for dialogue in the spirit of talanoa, which means frank and honest discussions, without accusations or malice. In the entrance to the conference hall, national representatives will walk past a drua, an ocean going wind-powered Fijian canoe. For the Fijian leadership the drua is a metaphor: the world’s 7.5 billion people “are all in the same canoe together. And the sooner that idea takes root around the world, the sooner we can provide hope and security for our own children and succeeding generations.”