Science and technology, Health | The Pacific

9 April 2021

Small island states, particularly those in the Pacific, are playing a crucial role in advocating for a sustainable recovery from COVID-19, Athaulla A Rasheed writes.

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the existential threat of climate change for small island developing states (SIDS) remains. This has made SIDS step up in climate meetings to promote a green COVID-19 recovery agenda to ensure climate action remains at the forefront of international policymaking.

Historically, international climate action has often been challenged by larger players’ interests and preferences despite what has been prescribed in climate conventions. However, for decades SIDS have collectively influenced international decisions, notably through the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

In November 1989, 14 SIDS representatives met at the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise in Malé, the capital city of the Maldives, to discuss their common climate concerns. The outcome of the Malé conference led to the creation of AOSIS, a grouping that had extraordinary success in pursuing SIDS’ common voice in the United Nations (UN) negotiations leading up to the 1994 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

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Through this ad hoc coalition, small island states have highlighted their unique vulnerabilities and the need for international collective action to curb climate change.

In the early 1990s, after persistent collective action, the UNFCCC incorporated AOSIS’s key objectives around the recognition of SIDS’ unique vulnerabilities, the need for international cooperation, and the provision of international meetings, including the Conference of Parties (COP), to ensure continuity of climate negotiations.

AOSIS continued lobbying for climate action in subsequent COPs, including the 1997 Kyoto, 2009 Copenhagen, and 2015 Paris negotiations.

Despite reservations from larger players in the Kyoto process, AOSIS was able to generate momentum for collective action to respond to the special circumstances facing SIDS.

In Copenhagen, there were intense differences between the United States and large developing states in the G77 and China group, particularly around emissions reduction targets and state responsibilities. Although this meeting’s outcome did not satisfy everyone equally, AOSIS saw it as a platform for establishing a countervailing narrative on the climate change vulnerability of SIDS.

In Paris, AOSIS presented SIDS’ collective interests on setting 1.5 degrees Celcius as the emissions reduction target. Although the Paris Agreement did not set 1.5 degrees Celcius as a formal emissions reduction target, the mere mention of it in the Agreement was nevertheless perceived as a success. AOSIS’s engagement in climate negotiations has helped to gain recognition of SIDS’ concerns in the COP process during this period. AOSIS members want to keep this momentum and diplomatic success alive in driving their climate agenda during COVID-19 and beyond.

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As the pandemic has progressed, AOSIS members have continued their international advocacy to focus on climate action whilst also tying it closer with COVID-19 recovery planning.

AOSIS convened the Placencia Ambition Forum in April 2020 to maintain SIDS’ climate dialogue through COVID-19. This meeting brought together progressive climate negotiators including UN Secretary-General António Guterres, high-level climate champions Gonzalo Muñoz from Chile and Nigel Topping from the United Kingdom, Director of Health and Climate Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum from the World Health Organization, incoming COP 26 President Alok Sharma from the UK, as well as civil society representatives.

AOSIS’s main aim was to build agreement among negotiators around further strengthening climate action as governments embarked on the COVID-19 agendas of stimulus and recovery. The AOSIS chair declared that the health and climate crises revealed ‘our collective vulnerabilities to systemic shocks’, and that international cooperation was required to tackle the dual crises.

The forum also emphasised the important role Pacific SIDS continue to play in pushing for climate action. Pacific states have used collective diplomacy since the 1970s via the South Pacific Forum – later renamed the Pacific Islands Forum – to advocate for and advance their interests. Consistent with views held among the wider AOSIS membership, Pacific Island countries argue that COVID-19 has created an opportunity to build a ‘bluer Pacific’.

Representing 12 Pacific SIDS at the Placencia Ambition Forum, Ambassador Satyendra Prasad from Fiji argued that COVID-19 had had a significant impact on their capacity to tackle development and climate challenges, and that there was a need for broader efforts at international level to address a climate-based COVID-19 recovery.

The ‘green recovery’ idea is evident not only in SIDS’ policy advocacy. In the Placencia Ambition Forum, UN Secretary-General Guterres urged the international community to ‘[commit] now to building back better from the pandemic, [so] we can use the recovery from the effects of COVID-19 to secure a more sustainable and resilient future’.

These ideas have had significant cut through and are present in COVID-19 stimulus packages around the world. Examples of this include Japan’s ‘Platform for Redesign 2020’, aimed at supporting sustainable and resilient recovery from COVID-19, and Germany’s stimulus package, which includes a US$45 billion ‘Package for the Future’ supporting measures for a ‘green’ transition. Others include Nigeria’s COVID-19 stimulus package, which includes spending US$619 million on solar home projects, and South Korea’s ‘New Deal’, which aims to generate US$48 billion in ‘green’ funding – 16 per cent of the total stimulus.

With such efforts underway, it was not difficult for AOSIS members to further encourage debate on green responses to the dual crises at the COP meetings. Speaking at the forum, Sharma also recognised the need for keeping a clear focus on climate action. He urged forum participants to support collective action on ‘a green and resilient [COVID-19] recovery’ based on ‘a credible and ambitious NDC (nationally determined contribution)’ under the Paris Agreement. Multiple speakers further emphasised that follow through on all parties’ NDCs, which are the national climate reduction targets set by each signatory to the COP, are crucial to serious action on climate change.

The subsequent Petersberg Climate Dialogue, co-hosted by Germany and the United Kingdom, was held back-to-back with the Placencia Ambition Forum in April 2020. It focused on ‘designing [COVID-19] stimulus programmes that will facilitate a more committed climate policy in future’.

More than 30 climate ministers and high-level climate negotiators at the dialogue recognised the success of AOSIS’s forum in driving climate discourse, despite the challenges facing COVID-19 recovery efforts. Notably, the dialogue focused on enhanced nationally determined contributions, in the words of Chile’s Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, as ‘the blueprints for designing recovery strategies’.

Studies have shown the challenges caused by the dual crises of COVID-19 and climate change can be combatted by updating NDCs in the context of recovery, ultimately pulling international collective action on both in the same direction.

Importantly, the momentum for a sustainable and inclusive COVID-19 recovery begun by AOSIS has been established among major emitters. In their November 2020 Summit, G20 Leaders declared their support for an environmentally sustainable economic recovery.

Before the pandemic hit, AOSIS had influenced international collective action on climate action. Now in the midst of the pandemic, AOSIS members have successfully influenced international thinking about a green COVID-19 recovery, particularly towards creating common policy discourse for the upcoming COP 26 this year.

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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