Small Island States and the Paris Agreement

Islands predominated in the Paris COP negotiations.[1] From metaphor to moral compass to declarations of kinship—like President Obama’s— the small island developing states’ vulnerability, dignity, and ambitions served as a rudder.

I’m an island boy” — President Barack Obama

Among other significant provisions discussed below, the response of the Agreement and the decision text—the latter a supporting though not legally binding document—and to demands for capacity building and efficient, simplified procedures for accessing financial resources directly addressed small islands’ concerns. And so the closing movements of the meetings offered congratulatory and hortatory words from island representatives, including a spontaneous, harmonized chorus of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds stressing the refrain, “Every little thing is gonna be alright.”[2]

Small island states representatives are, however, clear-eyed about the potential of the Paris Agreement and understand that it is but a foothold in a much, much steeper journey. In Paris they were represented primarily by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) negotiating bloc, 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. AOSIS, with 44 members and observers from all regions of the world, works as a negotiating voice for small island developing states (SIDS).

The small islands representatives demanded a number of elements, including a long-term temperature goal of “well below 1.5 degrees” Celsius above pre-industrial levels, an indicative pathway to achieve it, an international mechanism on Loss and Damage due to climate-related events, and scaled-up, reliable financial resources above the $100 billion per year by 2020 already promised by developed countries to developing nations, particularly the most vulnerable.[3]

1.5˚C to stay alive

Beginning with the 2009 COP15 meetings in Copenhagen, SIDS and particularly the atoll nations noted the existential threat of a 2˚C ceiling on temperature rise. The calls for 1.5 to stay alive were, however, largely relegated to the tense hallways of Copenhagen’s Bella Center six years ago. The 2015 final decision text and Paris Agreement, in contrast, emphasize the urgent need to hold increased global average temperature to “well below 2˚ C above pre-industrial levels” and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5˚ C.

This is palpable progress, meeting in part a demand of island states, but is not supported by the remainder of the text. While the Agreement calls for global peaking of emissions “as soon as possible,” it does not require complete decarbonization of global economies, opting instead for a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks. The absence of the decarbonization mandate makes the 1.5˚ C goal almost entirely illusory. Settling on and supporting a1.5˚C ceiling will be a critical next step in future decision-making. More

 

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