Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary

The World's Fragile Islands


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Agnès Sinaï

Agnès Sinaï argues that, from the low-lying point of view of Pacific islanders or circumpolar-dwelling Inuit, the Kyoto Protocol seems an exploitative deal.

The author is a freelance journalist. She is co-author, with Yves Cochet, of Sauver la Terre (Fayard, Paris 2003).

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.

Low-lying coral atolls

Low-lying coral atolls, such as this one in the Maldives, are at serious risk due to sea-level rise

© Martin Ferm

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:

  • in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is helping to build 2,000 electric minivans for public transport, and setting up solar powered plants in more isolated areas of Bangladesh;
  • a project in South Africa provides both insulation and solar-powered water heaters to homes in a deprived area of Cape Town;
  • in Brazil, it generates biodiesel out of a Rio rubbish dump; and,
  • in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, it replaces old buses with new ones that run on clean fuel.

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.

Further information
Agnès Sinaï, 107 rue Championnet, 75018 Paris, France. Email: asinai@wanadoo.fr.

On the Web
A list of small island theme sites is available. The latest assessment of the climate negotiations can be found at Linkages. For weekly news and more on the climate negotiations, related issues and weather events worldwide, visit Tiempo Climate Newswatch.

This article was originally published in Le Monde diplomatique and was translated from the French by Gulliver Cragg. It is reproduced by permission of the author.

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Updated: May 15th 2015