Not a moment to waste: Small island states must defend themselves 

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

Call me a cynic, but years of participation in negotiations between developed and developing countries have schooled me to be cautious about grand announcements and promises. The devil is usually in the detail. Experience has taught me to remain hopeful, but to be vigilant in ensuring the commitments, pledges and promises are kept.

That experience has been garnered in negotiations in the Commonwealth, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Financial Action Task Force and in direct bargaining between European Union countries and the Caribbean. In each of these fora, the countries of the developed North have sought advantage over the underdeveloped countries of the South. By various stratagems, the developed countries have got their way, including by making commitments at major occasions such as COP27 which concluded on November 20.

In the words of Barbados’ prime minister, Mia Mottley, at the opening of COP27, “This world looks, still, too much like when it was part of an imperialistic empire”.

Therefore, while the leaders of small island states, including Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, who, for years, as the chair of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) has been advancing the argument for a fund to pay for loss and damage caused by Climate Change, are to be applauded for gaining acceptance by developed nations that such a fund should be created, the game is not yet over.

The negotiated text has recognized the need for financial support from a variety of sources, but no decisions have been reached on who should pay into the fund, where the money will come from, and which countries will benefit.

When COP27 had to be extended into the weekend of 19 and 20 November to address the loss and damage issue, ministerial negotiators for many small island states had already departed Egypt. It was left to Antigua and Barbuda’s environment minister, Sir Molwyn Joseph, and the environment minister of the Maldives, Shauna Aminath, with their technical teams, to ensure that the concerns of small island states were adequately met.

Much work remains to ensure that the loss and damage fund is established and adequately resourced. Further, it has to be clear that new money will finance the Fund, and not a shifting of monies already pledged for other purposes which, regrettably, happens far too often.

It should be recalled that wealthy nations still have not fulfilled an outstanding pledge to provide $100 billion to help vulnerable countries adapt to the impact of Climate Change that they have been suffering for decades.

It is critically important for small island states and other developing countries to monitor, and participate actively in, the work of the ‘transitional committee’ which was established at COP27. That committee is tasked with “making recommendations” on how to operationalize the loss and damage Fund, including new funding arrangements to resource it. That committee is expected to meet before the end of March 2023, but its “recommendations” won’t be considered until COP28 in Dubai in November-December 2023. Note the committee will make “recommendations”.

We can be quite certain that the bargaining within the ‘transitional committee’ will be intense and that many developed nations will seek to avoid or minimize their obligations.

So, while praise must be given to the leaders of small island and other developing states for finally getting ‘loss and damage’ on the COP agenda, there are still hurdles to be jumped before they can realistically say that the problem has been functionally and effectively addressed.

A credible Fund will require sufficient money. Adapting to the impact of Climate Change will require a comprehensive approach, including building sea walls and creating drought-resistant crops. This could cost developing countries anywhere from US$160-US$340 billion annually by 2030. The number could rise to US$565 billion by 2050 if Climate Change accelerates. That’s the estimate of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its 2022 Adaptation Gap Report.

These numbers have been made convincing by the fact that not enough was done at COP27, or by any of the previous COPs, to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the climate crisis. The final agreement mentioned “the urgent need for deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions” to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

However, a UNEP report, released just before COP27, painted a worrying picture for small island states and low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh. The report was clear “there is no credible pathway to a 1.5°C future”. What is more, the report points out that “for each fraction of a degree that temperatures rise, storms, droughts and other extreme weather events become more severe”.

This is why, as prime minister Gaston Browne, pointed out at COP27, the worst emitters, including China and India, must begin to act beyond their own interest to include the interests of the world. The development of a few countries should not happen at the expense of many others.

It is more than likely that both the initiative by Vanuatu to seek an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice on the rights to be protected from climate change, and the establishment by Antigua and Barbuda, Tuvalu, Palau and Niue of a Commission of Small Island States (COSIS), backed by 17 international legal experts, to seek a similar opinion from the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, sufficiently worried major developed countries to encourage them to consider a loss and damage fund at COP27. They can influence the latter, while cases before international courts are beyond their control. It was a case of better the devil you know.

In the fight against the present damage and clear danger to their existence, all Caribbean Island States should join in using the international legal system to preserve their rights against the world’s major emitters of greenhouse gases. All small island states should actively back the Vanuatu initiative and join COSIS.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that emissions must decline by 45 percent to limit global warming to 1.5°C if the already ravaged world is to be saved. There isn’t a moment to waste.

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