Small Island Developing States: Shaping the Sustainable Development Agenda in a Terrestrially-Focused World

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By Delia Paul, Thematic Expert for Poverty Reduction, Rights and Governance, IISD Reporting Services, International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Six hours from Sydney, or four hours from Auckland: the final leg of a long journey from Europe, Africa, Asia or the Americas. Before even a word was spoken at the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), host country Samoa had impressed on delegates the particularities of many SIDS as remote locations surrounded by acres of ocean, all too vulnerable to cyclones, storms and the rising tides.

The conference, organised as a result of the June 2012 Rio+20 outcome, sought to reinforce international recognition of SIDS as a special case for development. SIDS are on the front line of global stress in experiencing the effects of climate change, and in having limited financial resources and capacity to cope with those impacts, which are not only physical, but also social and economic. The conference advanced the idea of SIDS’ vulnerability as an outcome of global warming, and therefore a problem that is jointly owned by the international community.

So the conference, while focusing on the situation of SIDS, also aimed to set an agenda for other international processes. SIDS sounded the call for much stronger action on mitigation, expressing “profound alarm” at the continuing rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in the conference outcome document, the SAMOA Pathway. The conference saw the launch of the Coalition of Atoll Nations on Climate Change, a political grouping led by Kiribati, which is poised to influence the forthcoming climate discussions. For such countries, the loss of landmass due to sea-level rise is a threat to their very existence, and, in the view of many, places climate firmly in the realm of security issues for the global community. The conference anticipated the potential of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit on 23 September in New York for securing climate commitments, as well as of the December 2014 Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima, Peru, to lay the groundwork for a strong agreement at the 21st session of the COP in Paris, France, in 2015.

On the potential for SIDS to lead the way, one conference delegate noted, “We might be not SIDS, but GODS – Great Ocean Developing States!

On the sidelines of the conference, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) agreed to the Apia Declaration, which calls for urgent global action to reduce emissions to well below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, going beyond the current international level of ambition, the 2-degree limit agreed in 2010. The Declaration also calls for long-term stabilisation of atmospheric GHG concentrations at well below 350 parts per million CO2-equivalent levels.

While the climate agenda was a strong focus throughout the conference, the biodiversity agenda also received attention. To understand SIDS as early victims of a jointly owned problem (climate change) is to also recognise their role as stewards of a global resource (oceans): two sides of the same coin. The SAMOA Pathway conference outcome document recognises the extraordinary marine and terrestrial biological diversity of SIDS, and acknowledges the role of access and benefit-sharing in relation to genetic resources in contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, poverty eradication and sustainable development. The conference promoted SIDS as the custodians of oceans and drew attention to efforts such as the Coral Triangle Initiative, Kiribati’s gazetting of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the largest marine conservation area in the Pacific, and SIDS’ partnerships with UNEP and others on action to address the growing problem of marine litter. In a light-hearted take on the potential for SIDS to lead the way, one conference delegate noted, “We might be not SIDS, but GODS – Great Ocean Developing States!”
Many partnership announcements at the conference focused on reducing vulnerability and promoting the resilience of SIDS through avenues such as sustainable tourism, food security and nutrition, water and sanitation, and waste management – all facets of sustainable development. Disaster risk reduction was an important focus of discussions, looking ahead to the 3rd World Conference on DRR conference in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015, which will build a post-2015 framework to follow the Hyogo Framework for Action. Caribbean countries in particular stressed that achieving middle-income status does not reduce vulnerability, as their susceptibility to disasters – low-lying landmass, extensive coastlines and remote locations – remains the same.

Through coalition building, SIDS may now be the ones who leverage their small size to swing an ambitious climate agreement in 2015.

Both the SAMOA Pathway and the Apia Declaration emphasise the need for SIDS to be active in shaping the international agenda in the coming months. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) specifically calls for the urgent operationalistion of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with climate impacts, and for a permanent seat on the Mechanism’s Executive Committee to be allocated to SIDS.

In recognising SIDS as a special case for development – and they are the only country group to have had a UN Year of their own (2014) – the international community reaffirms our common future.

The many partnerships that were announced during the conference highlighted that by virtue of their small size and resource scarcity, SIDS themselves can model the prospects for sustainable development to be undertaken on a much larger scale. Renewable energy was a particular focus in this regard, including through the opening of the SIDS Dock treaty on cooperation among SIDS for accessing clean energy finance and technology.

Moreover, the wide-ranging agenda for the partnership dialogues in Samoa, which included health, social development and gender issues, illustrated the need to address sustainable development on multiple fronts – a practical accompaniment to ongoing discussions of the post-2015 development agenda. This aspect of the SIDS conference has already fed into the planning of the Climate Summit: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office announced the creation of two additional Ministerial sessions at the Summit, which he said are inspired by the focus on partnerships just seen in Samoa.

In a terrestrially focused world, SIDS are often said to be the canary in the coal mine, bearing early witness to the impacts of climate change. The Samoa conference suggested that SIDS could also become bellwethers for sustainable development, modelling whole-of-society approaches to renewable energy, waste management and other aspects of sustainability, and acting as stewards of the oceans on behalf of all humanity.

Swedish diplomat Bo Kjellén, who chaired some of the Working Group discussions leading up to the first Rio summit in 1992, noted that a small group of Latin American countries influenced the content of the CBD, when it was negotiated, and that, similarly, the Convention to Combat Desertification would likely not have taken shape without the actions of some African countries. Could SIDS, located at the confluence of security and environment policies, be the moving force that brings the global community closer to sustainable development? Some participants in Samoa suggested that, through coalition building, SIDS may now be the ones who leverage their small size to swing an ambitious climate agreement in 2015.

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The International Institute for Sustainable Development is a Canadian-based, international public policy research institute for sustainable development.