Climate Change Diplomacy and Small Island Developing States

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Article
  • 2011•12•08

    Obijiofor Aginam

    The ultimate objective of this Convention… is to achieve… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. — Art. 2, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992

    The architecture that we build to tackle climate change must be equitable. — Shyam Saran, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of India for Climate Change

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    While multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognize the enormous global challenges posed by climatic changes, these agreements often fall short on pragmatic financial and other mechanisms to assist the most vulnerable countries in addressing these challenges. Contemporary climate change diplomacy mirrors this phenomenon, as science and global politics interact and converge to confront the vulnerabilities of small island developing States (SIDS) where sustainable livelihoods are threatened by climate change-induced food, water, health and other insecurities.

    Science (climate scientists) and politics (diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials) may not always speak the same language, but climate change diplomacy (inter-governmental negotiations on climate change issues) inevitably brings them together into a “marriage of convenience”. In order to address the special needs of vulnerable countries like SIDS, there is consensus between science and politics that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” offers the best paradigm and institutional framework to understand and confront the asymmetries in the international system.

    Paradoxically, within this consensus lies deep-rooted disagreements as to the best ways to finance mitigation and adaptation programs in SIDS — including, among other issues, how to diffuse the emerging climate-friendly technologies as widely and as fairly as possible. To effectively address these issues, the peculiar developmental and technological challenges facing SIDS must be assessed in the context of the gaps, failures and limitations of present and past global environmental funding facilities such as the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

    “Common but differentiated responsibilities”

    The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” recognizes the asymmetries of the international system, especially the differential levels of technological, financial, economic and human capacities between industrialized/developed and developing countries in international environmental negotiations. Despite these asymmetries, every nation has an obligation to participate in joint efforts to tackle shared global environmental problems according to each nation’s capacity and level of development. However, industrialized countries have an obligation to bear a greater burden of these shared problems.

    As internationally acclaimed Professor of Environmental Law, Daniel Esty, stated: “Simply put, in a world of ecological interdependence, there can be no free riders. Of course, poorer countries can and should expect, as a matter of equity, that richer ones will shoulder a larger share of the cost burden.”

    Multilateral environmental agreements (at least since the decade of the 1970s) have recognized this principle as an accepted norm in global environmental governance. For example, Principle 9 of the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (held in 1972) calls for “the transfer of substantial quantities of financial and technological assistance as a supplement to the domestic effort of the developing countries”.

    Principle 20 of the Stockholm Declaration states that “the free flow of up-to-date scientific information and transfer of experience must be supported and assisted” and “environmental technologies should be made available to developing countries on terms which would encourage their wide dissemination without constituting an economic burden on the developing countries”. Similarly, twenty years after Stockholm, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) reaffirmed “common but differentiated responsibilities” in Principles 7 and 9.

    On climate change specifically, Article 3(1) of the UNFCCC, provides that “the parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities. Accordingly, the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

    Article 3(2) states that “the specific needs and special circumstances of developing country parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change… should be given full consideration”.

    The repeated and unambiguous codification of this principle in many MEAs is evidence that it is now widely accepted by the international community as a fundamental principle in climate change diplomacy. The principle, according to the Shyam Saran, the Indian Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, is “based on the acknowledgment of historical responsibility; that is, climate change is taking place as a result of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that have been accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere as a result of over two centuries of fossil fuel-based industrial activity in developed countries”.

    This is not to suggest that the obligation to mitigate climate change should be borne exclusively and solely by developed countries. Rather, developed countries must show leadership.

    Saran also stated that “developing countries also have an obligation, and that is to pursue a path of ecologically sustainable development consistent with their goals of economic and social development and poverty eradication…. There is the concept of respective capabilities; that is, a recognition of the diverse levels of economic development and incomes among the parties, and, hence, a differentiated contribution to the global effort”.

    “Common but differentiated responsibilities” thus raises very complex questions of obligation, equity, technological capacity, fairness and the universal participation of “all nations” in climate change negotiations.

    Does science drive climate change diplomacy?

    Climate scientists, activists and climate change negotiators often refer to the “overwhelming” scientific evidence of the impact of GHG emissions: extreme climatic events (floods, shorter and warmer growing seasons), sea-level rise (causing erosion and salinity in coastal areas), melting of glaciers (causing water scarcity) and many other phenomena. While all of these are shared global problems, their impact will be much more severe in SIDS.

    Focusing on the impact of climate change on small islands, the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in its 2007 Synthesis Report that by mid-century, “climate change is expected to reduce water resources in many small islands, e.g., in the Caribbean and Pacific, to the point where they become insufficient to meet demand during low-rainfall periods”. Further, global sea-level rise is “expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities,” and “erosion of beaches and coral bleaching is expected to affect local resources”. The report also found that with higher temperatures, “increased invasion of non-native species is expected to occur, particularly on mid- and high-latitude islands”.

    Corroborating most of these findings, the UNFCC Secretariat, in the 2008 Climate Change: Impacts, Vulnerabilities and Adaptation in Developing Countries, identified that “all Caribbean, Indian Ocean and North and South Pacific small island states will experience warming”. Moreover, summer rainfall in the Caribbean will decrease, whilst annual rainfall elsewhere (equatorial Pacific, northern Indian Ocean, Seychelles and Maldives) will increase, along with the “increasing intensity of tropical cyclones, storm surge, coral bleaching and land inundation”.

    “The impact [of extreme climatic events] is much more severe in the world’s tropical zones — the Least Developed Countries and the Small Island Developing States.” – Shyam Saran

    Addressing the vulnerabilities of SIDS to climate change

    To be sustainable and efficient in the context of the SIDS, as elsewhere in most of the developing world, climate change adaptation and mitigation require enormous financial resources, technology transfer and, most importantly, effective national, regional and global policy and governance frameworks. In order to develop and strengthen the coping capacities of the most vulnerable, adaptation and mitigation measures must be targeted, with the SIDS having clear “ownership” of these measures.

    Financing/funding proposals have led to establishment of the Adaptation Fund under the UNFCCC, which currently receives a small percentage (around 2 per cent) of proceeds from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Climate change negotiators, especially those from developing countries, have called for an increase in the capitalization of the Adaptation Fund. While “funding/donor fatigue” is always a serious problem in global environmental funding/financing facilities, the Adaptation Fund, as presently capitalized, will not be sufficient to fund all the necessary adaptation projects in SIDS.

    Most negotiators have commended the governance structure of the Adaptation Fund under the UNFCCC for its fair and equal representation of both developed and developing countries. The same can hardly be said of the proposed “climate” or “green” fund as proposed by Mexico, India and other developing countries. If and when such fund is agreed upon in the negotiations, its governance structure should be patterned after the structure of the Adaptation Fund.

    For SIDS, it remains to be seen how far contemporary climate change governance architecture will go in codifying core responsibilities and obligations to be borne by the “international community”, especially the worst emitters, towards addressing their peculiar vulnerabilities. How can SIDS be empowered to effectively negotiate this deal, given the asymmetries in the international system? In all of this, technology transfer remains critically important.

    “India and other developing countries have put forward the view that 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent of the GDP of developed countries should be earmarked for a climate fund under the UNFCCC.” – Shyam Saran.

    Will green technology be for the rich?

    Numerous proposals have been made in climate change negotiations for mechanisms aimed at diffusing green technology between developed and developing countries. Most of the proposals emphasize a form of “public-private partnership”. Because acquiring the necessary licenses to such technologies would inevitably implicate intellectual property “rights”, making such technologies available as public goods in SIDS and most developing countries would prove exceedingly difficult and raises questions of “who owns the knowledge economy”?

    To address this technology conundrum, India has proposed “a global network of innovation centres that could promote local and regional action both on mitigation and adaptation, taking into account local circumstances and particularities”.

    To achieve this, says Saran, “we need to create a global platform for such collaboration on certain key technologies,  for example, solar energy generation and storage, biomass energy, and a whole series of clean coal technologies…. This must be a publicly funded and government-led effort, but it can certainly draw upon public-private partnerships.”

    Because SIDS are mostly under-developed, least-developed or developing countries, they are “technologically and economically challenged” in terms of (i) the scientific sophistication to innovate new technologies, and (ii) the financial resources to access them in fair and equitable terms. As such, pooling scientific and technological capabilities across the globe to generate transformational technologies should be anchored pragmatically on the time-hallowed principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

    Climate change and SIDS: The way forward

    In a workshop organized by the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) on “climate change diplomacy and small island states”, in partnership with the Universidad Catolica de Santo Domingo (Catholic University of Santo Domingo) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on 14 and 15 July 2011, participants — mostly from the Caribbean region — explored the way forward for SIDS in climate change negotiations.

    In his keynote address, Carlos Fuller, Deputy Director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize, posed the question: “Why should small island developing States be concerned about climate change?” In responding to this question, Fuller argued that although “SIDS have been very effective climate change negotiators since 1990 and have maintained this stature for the past 21 years, they have not reaped the benefits of their endeavors”.

    “How many adaptation projects have been supported by the financial mechanism of the Convention, the Global Environmental Facility? Relatively few, given the acknowledged vulnerability of small island States,” he said.

    Furthermore, Fuller explained that there are many reasons why SIDS have not attracted the interventions required to combat the adverse impacts of climate change: First, many of the officials involved in addressing climate change have other duties and responsibilities in their home countries. (Climate change is usually another task that was appended to their jobs). Second, climate change interventions are usually in sectors over which the climate change focal point has very little or no influence (e.g., diversification in the agricultural sector requires the active involvement of the Ministry of Agriculture), and relevant authorities may not always heed the warnings of the local climate change experts.

    This raises the need for capacity building and policy coherence in SIDS. Related to this is the capacity of SIDS, because of their “smallness”, to negotiate climate deals effectively in global forums.

    As Fuller observed, “when SIDS delegates attend the climate change negotiations, they could easily be overwhelmed. The annual sessions of the Conference of the Parties now attract between 10,000 and 15,000 participants, and this exploded to over 40,000 in Copenhagen two years ago. It is easy for small island delegations consisting of one or two persons to wander around from plenary sessions to side events to booths, and be presented with a series of decisions at the end of two weeks which they had no input in developing and whose very language seems irrelevant to their concerns”.

    The creation of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has enhanced the negotiating capacity of SIDS. AOSIS is a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries that share similar development challenges and concerns about the environment, especially their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climate change. The alliance functions primarily as an ad hoc lobby and negotiating voice for SIDS within the United Nations system. AOSIS has a membership of 42 States and observers, drawn from all regions of the world: Africa, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Pacific and South China Sea. Thirty-seven are members of the United Nations, close to 28 per cent of developing countries and 20 per cent of the UN′s total membership. Together, SIDS communities constitute some 5 per cent of the global population.

    In conclusion, in order to be sustainable, climate change diplomacy must address the technological, financial and policy needs of SIDS in pragmatic ways. This is not a matter of “charity” or “aid”. It is an obligation owed to them by the international community as a whole.

    While global resources are never in short supply to achieve this, only a fair, equitable and distributive multilateral governance facility stands to protect and promote their needs and meet their expectations as vulnerable societies in a global village characterized by asymmetries and socio-economic inequalities between nation-States.

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    This article is based on an ongoing research project funded by the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) entitled “Climate Change Diplomacy: ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibility’ — Past Lessons, Challenges, and Future Directions for Small Island Developing States”. The first project workshop, on the theme “Climate Change Diplomacy and Small Island Developing States”, hosted by the Catholic University of Santo Domingo in July 2011, was attended by researchers and policymakers from Belize, Guyana, Dominican Republic, Timor-Leste, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and Suriname. The workshop was coordinated by Obijiofor Aginam, Academic Officer and Head of International Cooperation and Development at UNU-ISP in Tokyo, and William Onzivu, Lecturer, School of Law, Bradford University, Bradford, UK.


  • Nwaforpeter

    “This is not a matter of “charity”  or “aid”.It is an obligation owed to them by the international community”. I cannot agree more to this assertion. The small island developing states seem to be helpless in terms of dealing with this huge impending climatic challenges caused by almost the uncontrolled actions of the heavily industrialised rich nations. In any case, a clear and purposive diplomatic road map must be designed deviod of any capitalist tendencies in repect of technological innovations and other forms of expertise so as to help these struggling poor island nations.