Letters & Opinion

Leaders of smaller islands stand up amid climate destruction and unkept promises

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By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)

COP26 in Glasgow offered no hope to small island states which continue to face destruction and extinction.

COP26 was always going to be nothing but a theatrical performance, well-choreographed by the world’s industrialized nations that want to give the impression that they are actually taking strong and enforceable action to curb Climate Change.

As I write the formal meeting is not ended. The fanfare is completed, principal actors have made obligatory presentations and left the stage to the negotiators. But the script is already written. All that was going to be offered has been put on the table and it amounts to more promises without binding and enforceable commitments, and no money that could make a difference.

Representatives of small and developing states attended with little hope and even less expectations. Yet, they were determined to raise their voices again, hoping that, at last, they might be heard. Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley was impressive when, at the opening ceremony, she declared that a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature would be a “death sentence” for island and coastal communities. The President of Palau,  Surangel S. Whipps, Jr, was equally strident, saying “you might as well bomb our islands instead of making us suffer only to witness our slow and fateful demise.”

But, in truth, the leaders of industrialized nations who attended came with their positions already taken. The strategy was clearly to make more promises to ward off criticism, even though previous promises remain unfulfilled. Among the earlier promises were that they would pay a $100 billion annually into a global fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature.

The other broken pledge was that they would ensure that the global temperatures were kept to 1.5 °Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  The world is on track now for a minimum of 1.9 °Celsius if major polluting countries honour the commitments they have made. At that point, small islands and low-lying coastlands will be in calamitous conditions.

All that the industrialized nations have done is to extend the pledges for meeting commitments to 2050 and 2070, while maintaining or increasing their greenhouse gas emissions in the short to medium term.  This means that over the next two decades, small island states and countries with low-lying coastlands will suffer significant erosion and other extreme weather conditions that will hurt their economies, displace people from their habitats and cause civil disruption as employment is reduced and poverty increases.

There were three major commitments arising from the conference.  “The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use” is not transparent, it has no binding obligations for financing and no enforceable date has been set. Deforestation is already a global environmental and humanitarian crisis. Action should be taken now, or the absorption rate of CO2 by forests will continue to decrease significantly, thus accelerating the pace of Climate Change.

A pledge to cut methane emissions is also not transparent and not enforceable. In any event, China, India and Russia are major methane emitters and they have made no commitments, even though methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide.

On coal production – one of the greatest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions – while 40 countries agreed to phase it out, no such commitment was made by the major coal producing countries – China, India, Australia and the US.

Given those realties, however much COP26 may be hailed – as were past COP meetings – it delivered little for small island states except an initiative by a few countries, including Australia, India and the UK to help them build climate resilient infrastructure.  Enough details are not yet available to determine the efficacy of this initiative which has limited participation by rich countries.

The most significant event for small states surrounding COP26 was one which two of them took to establish a Commission of Small Island Developing States on Climate Change and International Law. The two countries, Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu have since been joined formally by Palau while other small states are settling internal procedures to join the collective action.

In announcing the establishment of the Commission on the first day of COP26, Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, explained that all efforts to get polluting countries to address the loss and damage that they have inflicted on small states, have been ignored. “We are pursuing the matter in the international legal system on the basis that he who damages must provide restitution. In other words, the polluter must pay.”

Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation and international lawyer, Dr Anne Gallagher, hailed the commission’s establishment as a “wonderful, welcome and overdue development” since “the existing rules of international law have not been utilized to their full extent to hold countries to account for actions that they know are causing damage and continue to cause damage”.

The first act of the Commission, which is supported by a team of experienced international lawyers, will be “to request advisory opinions from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on the legal responsibility of States for carbon emissions, marine pollution, and rising sea levels”.

Kausea Natano,  the Prime Minister of Tuvalu whose island is facing extinction summed up the objective of forming the Commission.  He said, “For us, climate justice is a matter of survival. It is time to put words into action, to save small island states, and to save the world from impending disaster.”

There are, of course, sceptics of this bold move by small countries, but the initiating leaders have nothing to lose by standing-up for justice for their nations. The alternative is to sit by while their countries suffer interminable damage and losses to the detriment of their people – and that’s the very least of it.

So, hail the leaders of Antigua and Barbuda, Tuvalu and Palau for their courage, resolve and leadership at a time when all three qualities are needed.

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