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Small states: no time for a blame game

Sunday, September 7, 2014
Outside Track

Last week, 52 Small Island Developing States (Sids) met on the Pacific island of Samoa. Small islands, big issues; 2014 is the UN International Year of the Sids. We are 20 years on from the Barbados conference, which kicked this roadshow onto the circuit. The Sids are an odd bunch. The happy band includes Guyana, Suriname and Guinea Bissau, which are not islands. It includes Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which,  with more than ten million people, are not specially small. 

The band includes Singapore, which has developed so fast that it is no longer a “developing country.” It includes Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and French New Caledonia. The big Sids issue is climate change. Poster boys are the Maldives, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, low-lying coral islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans which will be devastated by even a small sea-level rise. 

“Climate change threats facing many Sids,” says a UN Web site,  “are by and large not of their own making.” Only up to a point. People on small islands are not powerless victims. Some are big carbon emitters. The Sids group also includes T&T and Bahrain. This country comes second to Qatar in the world carbon-emissions table. Bahrain is number eight.

Here, we subsidise gas, diesel and electricity like crazy. The IMF warned only last Wednesday that these subsidies “disproportionately benefit the well-off,” and lead to “efficiency-killing traffic jams and environmental costs.” There’s a long-term carbon cost too—which will be felt worldwide. People in the Dominican Republic use energy pretty much like their counterparts in Colombia or Costa Rica. Living on (two-thirds of) an island does not make them all cuddly. 

People in Sids, like the others, will have to make lifestyle changes. Some small islands are justified in asking for help. So are some which are not so small. Haiti, yes. But Singapore? It’s not all about victimhood. Small islands need expertise. With just over 50,000 people, St Kitts-Nevis has great resources for renewable energy—geothermal, solar and more. They have only a few high-powered engineers and financial planners. They need outside talent.

Targeted technical assistance can launch schemes which will be financially self-supporting. Some islands depend on marine resources: fish, coral reefs and tourist beaches. Those are threatened by sea-level rise, and by the sea’s increasing dissolved carbon, which raises its acidity. Other marine threats are local, not worldwide. They lie within the islands’ power to control. To their enormous credit, Barbadians have invested in sewerage systems and beach protection. Some others have not.

In our case, the main marine resources are oil and gas. So, plenty cash, not much threat to the resource from changing climate—and a responsibility for the environment. There’s a knottier problem. Islands necessarily depend on air and sea transport—which release four per cent of world carbon emissions. The Maldives earn their money from long-haul tourists—more than a million each year, two-thirds of them from Europe or the Americas. 

If we count in the aircraft emissions from tourist travel, the Maldives are a high-carbon economy. Add the international tourist flights to the Maldives’ own carbon emissions, and their per capita total is higher than Britain’s. If carbon emissions go on increasing, uncontrolled climate change will drown the Maldives. If emissions are cut back, they will have to rethink their tourist-based economy.

“There aren’t many environmentally-friendly development models for small islands. Air travel is not a sustainable model,” says David Hughes of Rutgers University, who is now completing a book on T&T energy and climate politics. Caribbean nations complain about Britain’s air passenger duty, which aims to cut carbon emissions. They were right to say it was initially unfair in structure. Caribbean flights were charged more than those to North America. That has now been put right.

But cuts on carbon-emitting air and sea travel will stay on the worldwide agenda. And these won’t all come from increased engine efficiency. How they will affect tourism-dependent Sids is anyone’s guess. But it won’t be easy. Then there are natural hazards. Some, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, have zilch to do with climate change. 

Hazards hit small islands hard. An entire economy may be knocked out. After a Hurricane Ivan or a Haiti quake, help can’t be trucked in overland; ports and airports may be devastated. Some islands think ahead; others don’t. The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility this year offered excess rainfall insurance. Eight of its 16 members bought in. The Turks and Caicos did not. Two weeks ago, they were flooded by Tropical Storm Cristobal, with up to 300 millimetres of rain.

The Bahamas has long used the ultra-strict South Florida Building Code. In this country, a National Building Code Committee was appointed two years ago. Dr Richard Robertson of the UWI Seismic Research Centre said in June that funds for its work were yet to be released. But some things at least are prepared comfortably in advance. A 32-page “outcomes” document from last week’s Samoa conference has been knocking about since July.


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