Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary
The World's Fragile Islands
About the Cyberlibrary
The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary was developed by Mick Kelly and Sarah Granich on behalf of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development, with sponsorship from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
While every effort is made to ensure that information on this site, and on other sites that are referenced here, is accurate, no liability for loss or damage resulting from use of this information can be accepted.
Some 600 idyllic islands in the South Pacific make up Micronesia; perhaps not so idyllic any more, as in recent years half of the 150,000 inhabitants have had their houses damaged or destroyed by storms more frequent and violent than before. Sea levels rose in the region through the second half of the 20th century, and this, linked with exceptionally high tides and unpredictable rain, exacerbated the intensity of the storms. As coastal erosion increases, salt creeps into the water table and ruins plantations, while rising temperatures nurture parasites that attack copra plants.
Joseph Komo, a member of the official Micronesian delegation to the Ninth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Milan, Italy, December 2003, says: We are the first people to die as a direct result of climate change. He went to Milan to plead with the international community to speed up the release of promised funds for vulnerable countries to protect themselves from the effects of global warming.
The demands of the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) are clear: urgent action to safeguard food resources, build desalination plants and dykes and develop solar energy. Since its creation in 1994, Aosis has been a highly active lobby of 43 tiny island nations from the Caribbean to the Pacific via the Mediterranean and the South China Seas. All are on the front line because of the consequences of climate change.
The Maldives are preparing for the worst. Work has begun on an artificial island: Hulhumale is being built two metres above sea level, 20 minutes from the archipelagos overcrowded capital, Malé; it should eventually be home to 100,000 people. It is surrounded by coral reefs, bathed in the warm currents that flow around the islands. But the reefs are under serious threat from rising sea levels, surface water temperatures and violent storms, as successive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have confirmed.
The islanders demands are seconded by another vulnerable group: the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents 155,000 Inuits from Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia. Its president, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, used the Milan conference to announce Inuit Circumpolar Conference plans to bring a legal action before the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Conference accuses countries that have refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol - United States, Russia and Australia - of violating human rights by imperilling the ancestral ways of life of the North Poles aboriginal people.
Today, the earth is changing under our feet, says Watt-Cloutier. Canadian climatologists are predicting the unthinkable: 50 years from now, the northwest passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Northern Canadian islands will be completely ice-free in summer.
The inhabitants of the frozen north are in the same boat as the Micronesians of the tropics, a reminder that climate disturbances affect the entire global system. The experts warn that, after thermal expansion, the melting of glaciers and ice caps is likely to be one of the main causes of rises in sea level in the 21st century. From the poles to the Maldives, every area of our biosphere is linked, along with all the creatures that live in it. But the areas most vulnerable to climate change are on the fringes of the industrialized world, an injustice worsened by the fact that these regions contribution to global warming is minimal, while that of the Northern industrialized countries is massive.
From a logical mathematical perspective, each individual should be entitled to an equal share in our ecosystem. As the biosphere can recycle three gigatonnes of carbon a year, the sustainable average is estimated at half a tonne of greenhouse gas a year for each person worldwide. The average resident of Burkina Faso could increase his or her production of greenhouse gases fivefold from a current 100 kg. A citizen of the United States ought to pollute ten times less than the current average of 5,000 kg a year.
Clearly, the polluting countries are already too heavily industrialized to have any hope of meeting a target of equal pollution around the globe even without taking past emissions into account. And emissions from large, rapidly developing countries such as India, China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia will increase substantially over the next few years. It is predicted that their emissions will equal those of the industrialized countries by 2050. Their development may reduce the discrepancy between the rich and poor world, but it defies environmental concerns. If some of the IPCC's more alarming predictions are accurate, there would be a meteorological catastrophe in the name of equality.
Yet countries such as China and India do not want to consider emission reductions until the industrialized countries reduce their own pollution. At the 2002 Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Delhi, the Indian environment minister, T R Balu, provoked a row by refusing to talk of reductions targets that might apply to countries like India. The small island states felt betrayed by this intransigence.
The disparity between North and South is exacerbated by disagreements between Southern countries. The Group of 77 represents diverse interests often diametrically opposed over environmental concerns. The great deforesters, China and Brazil, and the Opec member states, generally oppose regulation. The Opec states even demand financial compensation for potential losses in oil revenue in the event of a reduction in fossil fuel use. On the other side are the most vulnerable countries, such as Mozambique, which suffered severe flooding in 2000, and the Pacific micro-states, which have acquired political weight by turning themselves into symbols.
With multilateralism stalled, mostly because of United States isolationism, the fight against climate change begins to look like an international political sham. The Kyoto Protocol has been buried under casuistry from mostly Western experts. It has been said that these interminable talking shops keep the discussion process alive and that even a sham is better than nothing.
The Protocol is responsible for an important innovation: economic mechanisms that put a price on the tonne of carbon emissions. Thanks to these, the atmosphere is no longer free, but can be traded on the international market. Theoretically all we need to do is ensure that the rarity and fragility of this commodity is reflected in its price.
The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is the only tool of North/South cooperation proposed by the Kyoto Protocol. It allows for industrialized countries to get additional emissions rights by helping reduce pollution in Southern countries. Governments, businesses and other organizations in the North provide funding and expertise for projects in the South that aim to reduce pollution through the use of environmentally-friendly technology, such as solar and water power, cogeneration plants and cleaner fuels. The emissions they helped prevent abroad are then added to their own rights.
The 2003 Conference of the Parties in Milan made much of the advantages these CDM schemes might have for southern countries. Yet from a geopolitical perspective the idea is based on a view of these countries as passive recipients of a system designed to free emissions credits for industrialized countries - as many as their investors want. The only motivation for these investors is the value, traded in carbon dioxide equivalents, of the avoided emissions.
The CDM is unlikely to affect Micronesians or Inuit, since they pollute too little to be of any interest to investors looking for credits. But the big developing countries have much to gain from the scheme and it was the possibility of attracting investment through the CDM that ultimately persuaded China to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which it did in 2002. Canada has been its most active partner, financing carbon sequestration projects, solar and micro-hydraulic power and clean-up schemes for coal-fired power stations.
The value of avoided emissions is inherently hard to work out, the more so in countries such as China and Brazil, which are waiting for a special climate change fund to cover the costs of calculating their emissions. With a derisory budget of US$50m a year, this fund, managed by the Global Environmental Facility, may be active from 2005. Its primary objective is to assist the most threatened countries to adapt to climate change.
Micronesians and Inuit will just have to muddle through, unless they manage to get involved with the South South North Project, one of the most encouraging recent initiatives to have emerged from climate politics. This is a network of organizations, research institutions, lawyers and consultants from South Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Brazil, who have come together to promote an ecologically sustainable vision of development and put the Kyoto Protocols mechanisms to good use.
The South South North Project hopes to carry out CDM projects that will benefit local people by facilitating deserving ecological development ventures appropriate to their context, for example:
The plan is for projects like these all over the South, proving that poorer countries are capable of moving straight into no-regrets development with lasting, non-polluting equipment. Yet the CDM principle is as much a stumbling block as a help for such initiatives, as it favours the countries that pollute more. Since greenhouse gas emissions in Bangladesh are very low - less than one car for every 1,000 inhabitants - there is no pressure to reduce emissions and Bangladesh can't get credits from the reductions it does make.
The Kyoto Protocol is a prefabricated idea designed to benefit Northern industrialized countries and gas-guzzling Southern giants. If our biosphere is to survive, it could be up to the smaller Southern countries to find alternative systems for sustainable development.
On the Web
General Electric plans to cut solar installation costs by half
Project 90 by 2030 supports South African school children and managers reduce their carbon footprint through its Club programme
Bath & North East Somerset Council in the United Kingdom has installed smart LED carriageway lighting that automatically adjusts to light and traffic levels
The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the American Public Gardens Association are mounting an educational exhibit at Longwood Gardens showing the link between temperature and planting zones
The energy-efficient Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers hotel is powered by renewable and sustainable sources, including integrated solar photovoltaics and guest-powered bicycles
El Hierro, one of the Canary Islands, plans to generate 80 per cent of its energy from renewable sources
The green roof on the Remarkables Primary School in New Zealand reduces stormwater runoff, provides insulation and doubles as an outdoor classroom
The Weather Info for All project aims to roll out up to five thousand automatic weather observation stations throughout Africa
SolSource turns its own waste heat into electricity or stores it in thermal fabrics, harnessing the sun's energy for cooking and electricity for low-income families
The Wave House uses vegetation for its architectural and environmental qualities, and especially in terms of thermal insulation
The Mbale compost-processing plant in Uganda produces cheaper fertilizer and reduces greenhouse gas emissions
At Casa Grande, Frito-Lay has reduced energy consumption by nearly a fifth since 2006 by, amongst other things, installing a heat recovery system to preheat cooking oil