International forum and national projects: Island states, SDGs and climate
Since the late 1990s, island nations have been sounding the alarm bells regarding the environmental changes associated with climate change, including the progressive degradation of vital resources like fresh water and the incidence of devastating extreme weather events such as cyclones. These environmental impacts have raised questions regarding their viability over a time horizon of a few decades (Nurse et al., 2014). At the United Nations (UN), Island nations are challenging the major countries on their historical responsibility for climate change, and sometimes actions are undertaken. However, an analysis of the actual amounts of international funding (Buchner et al., 2013)
directed towards SIDS and other developing countries shows that this challenge is being largely unheeded. In fact, many major countries promise to donate funds but then frequently fail to deliver on these promises, on top of which they are slow to take the necessary drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Faced with this situation, SIDS are resorting to other, increasingly subtle, avenues of influence. One such example of this new approach was the organization of the UN's Third International Conference on SIDS (1-4 September 2014, Apia, Samoa).
Three decades of effort
As early as in 1989, the UN adopted a specific resolution on the potentially negative effects of rising sea levels on islands and coastal areas, thus officially recognizing that these territories had a high vulnerability to climate change. However, it was mainly the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that brought the special case of small islands to international attention. For the first time, SIDS were recognized as a specific type of country, which called for a dedicated type of negotiation process.
Thus, the first UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of SIDS was held in Barbados in 1994. It adopted a specific action programme on different themes for SIDS (the Barbados Programme of Action). These themes included climate change and rising sea levels, natural and environmental disasters, waste management, coastal and marine resources, freshwater resources, land resources, energy resources and biodiversity. In 2005, the Second Global Conference (held in Mauritius) aimed to evaluate a decade of efforts and was concluded with the adoption of the Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action. In 2014, another decade later, it was the turn of the Pacific region to host the event.
While in 2012, the final document of the Rio+20 Conference, entitled 'The Future We Want', reaffirmed that SIDS are a special case in terms of sustainable development because of their vulnerability (small size, isolation, lack of resources, etc.).
The Samoa Conference
Unlike its predecessors, the aim of the Samoa Conference was not the negotiation of new sustainable development goals, but rather their implementation via 'genuine and durable partnerships', to use the official terms. Action rather than negotiation was the intention, which we can at least say is an original objective for a UN conference.
The Island states therefore arrived at the Samoa Conference with a final declaration that had already been drafted and adopted. This text was written on the basis of regional preparatory meetings in 2013 (in Jamaica for the Caribbean; the Seychelles for the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South China Sea; and in Fiji for the Pacific). In July 2014 it was finalized and adopted by the Preparatory Committee of the Conference at the UN headquarters in New York. This final text, entitled 'SIDS Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA) Pathway', placed particular emphasis on the importance of recognizing that the implementation of sustainable development requires Island states to have their own specific tools, and that differentiated partnerships should be developed. An example of a partnership that was discussed at the conference is the International Renewable Energy Agency's 'SIDS Lighthouses Initiative', which aims to increase the use of renewable energy in SIDS. Another initiative that was well received at Samoa included a proposal for public-private partnerships on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IISD, 2014).
In this way, by focusing on the achievement of past commitments rather than on the negotiation of new political agreements, which could have been time consuming, SIDS decided to focus the conference on the creation of new partnerships. Thus, the Heads of State and Government of the 39 SIDS have called upon the international community to 'speed up (...) the worldwide effort to ensure the sustainable development of SIDS through concrete programmes, that are targeted and geared towards the future and to action'. Somehow freed from traditional negotiation constraints, discussions successfully brought together various stakeholders (local authorities, civil society and NGOs, foundations, private sector and international financial institutions) to focus on six areas critical to the sustainability of island development: climate change and disaster risk management; social development, health and non-communicable diseases; sustainable energy; oceans, seas and biodiversity; water and sanitation; food safety and waste management.
After the conference, Wu Hongbo, the UN's Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and the Secretary-General of the conference, noted that the call for concrete action had never before been so well integrated into a UN conference, saying that it was 'the model of the future'.
The way forward?
Some feared that the absence of high-stakes discussions in Samoa would harm the success of this meeting. Yet, it is precisely this 'atypical' characteristic compared to the traditional UN negotiation process which has helped create a peaceful and conducive atmosphere for a more positive and constructive vision of development, an atmosphere that was essential to encourage discussions on pragmatic partnerships.
The fact that SIDS have initiated this 'atypical' process is particularly interesting. First, because it demonstrates that they are neither insignificant nor passive in the face of exogenous threats. It shows that SIDS can have a definite impact on the mobilization of international public opinion, especially on the issue of climate change. By shifting the focus away from the general objectives of sustainable development negotiations and onto the practical aspects of achieving such goals, SIDS could play an integral role in the establishment of a pragmatic approach and a more constructive future, something that is sorely lacking today. Finally, the SIDS approach could be at the origin of an evolution in the model of international climate negotiations. Indeed, what if annual Conferences of the Parties, by sidelining some of the negotiations to interim meetings, could leave more space for discussions on the modalities of action, on examples of success and failure, etc.?
Evidently, this is only a hypothesis because in the real world, things are not so simple, especially in international climate negotiations. Nevertheless, through innovation in the way of conducting multilateral discussions (negotiating before, then meeting to discuss practical implementation), SIDS have contributed to a change in their status from that of climate change victim (being both the least responsible and extremely vulnerable) to a force for proposing action. This development began in 2009, under the leadership of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Kiribati, with the creation of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF). The CVF is a small coalition of island and continental states that are recognized by the UN as 'the most vulnerable to climate change'. By coming together, these countries are showing that, despite geographical and cultural differences, they face many similar issues, which strengthens their overall impact, including on the issue of adaptation financing. The CVF provides a way for SIDS to escape from their status as tiny and isolated territories and enables them to have a greater impact in negotiations. In addition, several countries within the CVF, led by the Maldives, have declared an intention to become the world's first 'carbon neutral' country, particularly through the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. In so doing, SIDS are taking up a position on the mitigation aspect of the negotiations - normally dominated by the major emitters such as the United States and China - and are attempting a coup: the idea is to highlight the unsatisfactory efforts of the major emitters in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, while subtly putting the emphasis onto the need to increase the financing for adaptation in lower emitting countries. It remains to be seen whether this attempt will pay off.
In any event, this posture change is very interesting, particularly since through the Samoa Conference it has reached a highly operational dimension. If other countries, or even the entire climate negotiations process, were to follow this movement then it could engender a constructive vision of the future. It could provide a way out of the current overly constrained situation in which there is too little space for 'political courage', which leads to national commitments that are insufficient for the +2°C objective, let alone the scientific reality of climate change.
Pioneers of adaptation?
SIDS face a number of problems inherent to their small size and their geographical isolation (for example, they cannot take advantage of many economies of scale effects, which affects their competitiveness, education systems, etc.). These states are also highly vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, primarily because their structural make-up and certain intrinsic characteristics (for example, a high dependence on environmental components like coral reefs) quickly lead to the generation of impact sequences that are not dissipated in space and time as they would be in a continental context (Duvat et al., 2012). SIDS are therefore highly reactive territorial systems, which paradoxically and under certain conditions can be a benefit: relatively little action and resources are needed for the rapid implementation of effective responses. They could therefore become pioneers of adaptation.
In Samoa, SIDS reaffirmed that they belong to a distinct category of developing countries that require special attention. Given the modalities of the negotiations, they could also assert a leadership role in the international community, which will meet throughout 2015 at three major events: the Third UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai (Japan); the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia); and the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris (COP 21, France).
In this busy international agenda, the results and dynamics of the Samoa conference should be a source of inspiration, positioning SIDS as examples of a desirable future.
The state of development in Small Islands
Climate risks for Small Islands