Scaffolding or scaffold?

OUR PLANET 9.3 - Climate Change

Scaffolding or scaffold?


argues that the Convention on Climate Change
remains an empty framework, imperilling the
survival of small island states


Climate change threatens the very life force of small island developing countries. They will be the first to face the full impact of global warming. They are the most vulnerable to climatic change, and its consequences would be particularly disastrous for them, though they emit little of the greenhouse gases themselves.

The impacts of sea-level rise pose the greatest threat to the small island nations. In some island groups, like Kiribati, Seychelles and Maldives, more than 80 per cent of the land area is less than a metre above present sea level. Such low-lying islands are particularly vulnerable, but high islands will also be badly affected by the likely impacts on their people, economic activity and infrastructural development as a whole.

The ocean exerts a strong influence on a small island, moderating and influencing its weather. In most cases, over half of the population resides within 2 kilometres of the coast, increasing vulnerability to sea-level rise. Economic activities are frequently dominated by specialist agriculture - such as sugar cultivation - and by tourism, both of which are strongly influenced by climatic factors.

Small island developing states already suffer disproportionately from extreme occurrences, as has been shown by the loss of life, agricultural losses and damage to property, infrastructure and utilities associated with recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, and similar events in the Pacific. They are likely to experience considerable economic, social and cultural dislocation should the frequency and/or intensity of these events increase.

Even a sea-level rise of 20 centimetres or less can have devastating impacts on many small islands. A rise of 50 centimetres or more would have even more severe implications. Low-lying atolls like Tokelau, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Maldives and Kiribati would be rendered uninhabitable. Major population displacements would be experienced in Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, French Polynesia, Cook Islands and Tonga, among others. Small islands with extensive coastal plains and little highland, such as Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas would also be highly vulnerable.

A case study of the likely impacts of an accelerated 1-metre rise in sea-level by 2100 on the Marshall Islands has shown that between 10 and 30 per cent of the shoreline would be eroded or forced back and 60 per cent of its arable land would be lost. There would be a significant increase in the frequency of severe floods and a reduction in the underground fresh water on which the Islands depend. The cost of protecting the coast is estimated to be four to six times the country's current gross domestic product.


Formidable complications

Climate change presents decision makers in small island states - who, of course, do not have the capacities and resources of developed countries - with a set of formidable complications. It exacerbates most of their other numerous environmental problems and many current social, cultural and economic concerns.

Extensive and significant impacts are also projected for coastal zones throughout the world. A 50-centimetre rise in sea level would lead, for example, to the loss of 17 per cent of Bangladesh, home to 6 million people, as well as inundating up to 80 per cent of Majuro Atoll, where a large part of the population of the Marshall Islands lives. A similar fate could befall the Nile Delta in Egypt, while some 23,000 square kilometres of Florida, Louisiana and other coastal areas of the United States would be flooded.

Coastal infrastructure worldwide, and hence the global property insurance industry, are especially vulnerable both to sea-level rise and to the more frequent severe storms expected with global warming. These would also erode shores and habitats and increase the salinity of estuaries and freshwater acquifers.

There will be severe economic dislocations, loss of life and livelihoods, and declines in productivity - placing an additional burden on developing countries and their most vulnerable people. Many millions will be displaced, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned, 'entire unique cultures may be obliterated'.

Ambitious targets

For small islands the issue is one of survival. Their common and shared vulnerability was a strong motive in establishing the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in 1990. This now numbers 42 members from Africa, the Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Pacific and South China Sea. AOSIS took early action in 1994 to propose a 20 per cent reduction from 1990 levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by developed countries by 2005. This remains, not surprisingly, the most ambitious target and timetable on the agenda for Kyoto.

AOSIS believes that the guiding objective of the protocol or other legal instrument to be finalized in Kyoto should be to ensure that the global average temperature does not exceed 2oC above the pre-industrial level, and that the resulting global mean sea-level rise does not exceed 20 centimetres above 1990 levels.

In the seven years since the first resolutions on global warming of the United Nations General Assembly, the international community has created an array of bodies dedicated, in whole or in part, to combating climate change. These enjoy the participation of the vast majority of the world's governments, which, at the highest level, have repeatedly recognized the urgent need for action. And yet the Framework Convention on Climate Change remains an empty scaffolding. Few governments can point with candour to a single significant shift in policy towards the Convention's objective, and global greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise unchecked.

The apparent lack of political readiness to react to the scientific evidence and to what is clearly happening to the global climate gives cause for concern. Reports of change in the world's climate have been with us for some 15 or 20 years. New record-setting weather extremes now seem to be commonplace.

The 10 hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 1980. The World Meteorological Organization identified 1996 as the 18th consecutive year with positive global temperature anomalies. And in its Second Assessment Report, in 1995, the IPCC announced that the Earth had entered a period of climatic instability likely to cause 'widespread economic, social and environmental destruction over the next century'.

The IPCC continues to tell us that it is imprudent to gamble with the future. The reductions implied by the AOSIS target are in the order of what must be aimed at in the short to medium term to avoid imposing draconian measures at some future date. Experts agree that such reductions are feasible and achievable with existing technologies and measures. Conservation and improved management practices alone can increase energy efficiency by 10 to 30 per cent over the next two or three decades, while using the most efficient current technologies could bring gains of 50 to 60 per cent. At worst, the costs of these steps will be very modest, and they could well provide positive economic benefits.

The future scenario that unfolds from the IPCC's findings may not register as a priority in the short-term mind-sets of most diplomats and policy makers. The lag-time in the planet's ecological systems will undoubtedly delay essential decisions. And the political and economic powers that depend upon the production and use of fossil fuel are among the most deeply vested interests civilization has ever known.

The international negotiations, moreover, must somehow accommodate interests as diverse as those of Saudi Arabia and Samoa, and provide solutions that will not just gain acceptance amongst diplomatic representatives but convince legislatures, industry, consumers and producers.

But sectoral interests must be balanced against those of the planet and of humankind as a whole. The Convention places a common responsibility on all countries, developed and developing, to 'protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations'.

Science has confirmed that the main responsibility for the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere lies with those countries that have grown rich on the extraction and use of fossil fuels. Developing countries feel that, with this wealth, industrialized countries have also built the technological and financial capacity to take effective action to combat climate change - while they themselves require time and space to develop their own economies.

Industrialized countries see matters differently, pointing out that because many developing countries are growing rapidly, their emissions will significantly exceed those of the industrialized nations within 25 years unless effective action is taken.


Ready for change

We all need to make essential adjustments. The call on developed countries to change their unsustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns is the more often heard. But so must developing countries, whose economic development is following the same unsustainable and polluting paths. And so must countries like mine which, like it or not, are already beginning to bear the impacts of climate-related disasters in the form of storms which devastate livelihoods and infrastructure and retard sustainable development.

Many of these changes must be made swiftly, since it is now clear that even if greenhouse gases were stabilized tomorrow, temperatures may still increase by 0.5oC, committing us to several centimetres of sea-level rise. Yet the argument is often heard that it is best to delay actions since this might reduce the overall costs of mitigation because of potential technological advances - the 'wait and see and then sprint' approach.

This disregards the fact that a whole range of options and technologies for limiting emissions already exists, and that the longer action is delayed the more impacts can be expected within a compressed time frame, allowing less time to adapt.

The evidence from the IPCC is that immediate and substantial cuts are needed if the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is to be stabilized by the end of the next century. If emissions are to be held at twice pre-industrial levels, they will eventually have to be less than half what they now are. The IPCC has also shown that it is possible to reduce emissions with little or no negative impact on economies.

The industrialized market economies - which possess the economic and technical capabilities - should act together to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and demonstrate the potential of the so-called 'no-regrets' opportunities. This could include the reduction or elimination of subsidies amounting to $250 to $300 million per annum worldwide which encourage higher greenhouse-gas emissions. Their removal would send a powerful market signal to spur research and development of alternative renewable energy sources.

Early action by industrialized economies would provide opportunities for the developing countries to gain timely and efficient access to any advances achieved and to avoid mistakes made, or difficulties encountered, through a process of technological 'leap-frogging'.

Small island states cannot contemplate failure to take immediate action which the IPCC has repeatedly described as technologically feasible and economically beneficial. For us the precautionary principle is an ecological and moral imperative. Our very strong contention is that there is a clear and demonstrated need to take immediate action.

H.E. Tuiloma Neroni Slade is Ambassador of Samoa to the United Nations and Chairman of AOSIS.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Small Islands 1999
Neroni Slade: The size of the problem (Small Islands) 1999
Carlston Boucher: No island is an island (Tourism) 1999
Elizabeth Khaka: Small islands Big problems (Freshwater) 1998
Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson: Water is everything (Water) 1996

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