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Small Island States and the climate treaty

John Hay assesses the progress made at the climate negotiations from the perspective of small island states.

The author is Director of Professional Training at the International Global Change Institute at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. He is also an Honorary Research Professor in the School of Environmental and Marine Sciences, University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Coordinator of UNEP’s Network for Environmental Training at Tertiary Level in Asia and the Pacific.

He has recently coordinated an innovative Antarctic education project.

The December 1998 issue of Tiempofeatured two articles related to the deliberations at the then just-concluded Fourth Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-4) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It also summarized and commented on the ambitious Buenos Aires Plan of Action agreed to by the Conference of the Parties. In the March, 1999 issue, Pak Sum Low provided further information.

These articles show that COP-4 was something of a watershed for the Convention – even though negotiations were protracted and intense, with few Parties and blocs willing to soften their positions.

The United States signed the Kyoto Protocol, an instrument designed to give effect to the Convention’s goal to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize their atmospheric concentrations at “safe” levels. But the United States also reiterated its reluctance to ratify the Protocol – its principal precondition to doing so being the “meaningful participation” of key developing countries. Currently, the Protocol emissions targets are limited to just 38 developed countries. The G-77 and China (comprising over 100 developing countries) are resolutely opposed to limiting the greenhouse gas emissions of developing countries. While this stand-off persists, the conditions that must be met for the Protocol to enter into force are far from being fulfilled.

Some developed countries, impatient to demonstrate their commitment and achieve progress, pledged to meet their assigned targets regardless of the status of the Protocol. Controversially, Argentina and Kazakhstan broke ranks with other developing countries and announced their acceptance of voluntary targets for emissions reduction.

However, agreements were reached – but often despite, rather than because of, fundamental differences in opinion. The result was somewhat bland agreements reflecting attempts to reach a consensus. Such was the origin of the two year Buenos Aires Plan of Action – a diplomatic solution that deferred the hard decisions through an agreement to study rules and procedures in the hope that the Protocol can be fully functional when (or if) it enters into force.

Even agreement on the apparently innocuous Plan of Action came at a price. The G-77, China and other developing countries insisted that the work programme address the means by which they could benefit from the development and transfer of appropriate technologies. They also insisted that the Plan of Action elaborate the financial mechanisms to support their involvement in implementing the Protocol.

A semblance of common ground occurred in the form of the Kyoto Protocol Mechanisms, previously referred to as the “flexibility mechanisms.” The mechanisms – international emissions trading, joint implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism – are favoured by many industrialized countries since they represent a way to minimize the costs of their compliance with their greenhouse gas emission targets. On the other hand, most developing countries see the mechanisms as a means to accelerate their development, in a sustainable and environmentally-sound manner.

One could view the mechanisms as providing win-win outcomes – such an assessment would be consistent with the Protocol itself. A more cynical view is that the mechanisms, and especially the Clean Development Mechanism, are a roundabout way of ensuring developing country participation in emissions reductions – the stated aim of the United States and several other countries.

How far will this “pendulum” swing in terms of the competing interests and agendas of developed and developing countries – not to mention the world as a whole? For example, there are serious concerns that the mechanisms could be used to meet national targets of industrialized countries without substantive reductions in their domestic emissions. What are the real and meaningful benefits that will accrue to developing countries, and to Small Island States in particular?

It is clear that the differing national perspectives generate different agendas and contrasting assessments as to the extent of progress. On this spectrum of opinions, where are the Small Island States positioned?

The mitigation-adaptation dilemma

COP-4 saw increasing pressure on developing countries to commit collectively to the acceptance of targets for emission reductions. The Small Island States were especially unwelcoming recipients of this diplomatic pressure. Nationally and on a per capita basis they make, and likely will continue to make, insignificant contributions to the enhanced greenhouse effect. Moreover, diverse studies consistently agree that Small Island States are amongst the nations likely to be most adversely affected by climate change, while also being least able to respond. It is this last fact that is increasing the diplomatic pressure. The price being asked for access to significant funds to support adaptation and for acquisition of environmentally sound technologies is acceptance of “voluntary” emissions targets.

Recent information on greenhouse gas emissions by the Small Island States of the Pacific highlight the quandary these countries are in. The findings are the result of the first attempt to estimate carbon dioxide emissions by the energy sector in the Pacific islands region, using internally consistent and comparable data. They show the small contributions Pacific islanders make to global emissions, both individually and collectively.

The information has become available as a result of the diligent application of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories by the Pacific island countries currently preparing their first National Communications, part of their obligations under the Convention.

The available national data reveal a per capita equivalent emission of approximately 0.96 tonnes of CO2 per year. On this basis, the total Pacific island population of 7.1 million in 22 countries produce some 6.816 million tonnes (Mt) CO2 per year. In contrast, based on International Energy Agency data for 1996, global CO2 emissions arising from fossil fuel combustion only are 22620.46 Mt of CO2 per year, or 4.02 tonnes of CO2 per capita per year.

Thus, on average, individual Pacific islanders are responsible for producing approximately one quarter of the CO2 emissions attributable to the average person worldwide. Expressed another way, the Pacific islands region as a whole accounts for some 0.03 per cent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel combustion despite having around 0.12 per cent of the world’s population.

By way of a further comparison, and relative to the global figures, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries are collectively responsible for nearly three times the per capita production of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels. In terms of total carbon dioxide emissions from fuel consumption, the 29 OECD countries account for just over 50 per cent of the global total. The OECD countries account for approximately 20 per cent of the world’s population.

The differences might be reduced somewhat if net emissions from biomass burning and land-use changes were also included, but such refinement is not possible due to the current lack of comparable data. But the foregoing information confirms that acceptance of voluntary reductions tied to national greenhouse gas emissions in a given base year would have inequitable consequences for Small Island States, including those of the Pacific.

Importantly, the resulting reduction in global emissions would do little to help meet the Kyoto Protocol’s target of 5.2 per cent reduction compared to 1990 levels, let alone the IPCC’s estimate of the 60 per cent cut required to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at roughly present levels. Participation of Small Island States in such emission reduction strategies would be largely symbolic internationally, but of great economic and social significance domestically.

The small populations of Small Island States and the current low per capita emissions suggest that a more equitable approach would be to define their targets in terms of per capita rather than national emissions. But this approach would not produce the desired global climate outcomes if it was also applied to those developing countries whose emissions are growing rapidly, such as China and India. While our ultimate interest is in the collective global good, we must not ignore inequitable consequences of international agreements.

Will Small Island States have any option but to accept inequitable emission targets in order to avail themselves of appropriate levels of funding for adaptation and for the transfer of environmentally-sound and sustainable technologies? As demonstrated above, newly acquired information produced for their National Communications goes a long way towards highlighting the dilemma. Their negotiators will have to use all their skills to ensure that past inequities do not continue to burden these countries.

Resolving the dilemma

Small Island States could, of course, continue with their rejection of “voluntary” emissions targets. Instead, they might choose to be willing parties in implementing the Kyoto Protocol Mechanisms. But it must be remembered that introduction of these mechanisms was motivated by the desire to reduce the compliance costs of the developed countries. Only after intense debate are they being modified to produce some parallel benefits for developing countries – though on balance the greater benefits will likely always accrue to the former. Significantly, there is increasing doubt regarding accumulated global benefits.

Another scenario would have Small Island States neither being bound by “voluntary” emission targets nor being a party in a Clean Development Mechanism agreement. Rather, through the Climate Convention, a Small Island State would seek funding to implement adaptation response measures. At a technical level, such a stance is consistent with the available evidence of Small Island States as minor greenhouse gas emitters (nationally and on a per capita basis) and as highly vulnerable nations with limited internal capacity to respond to climate change impacts.

But, morally and politically, Small Island States have demonstrated a commitment to sharing the global responsibility for the future of the planet and its inhabitants. Thus, they are likely to continue seeking ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at least to the extent that to do so makes sound economic as well as environmental sense.

Regardless of the negotiating position taken by the Small Island States, there will have to be some compromise between the substantive political and environmental imperatives represented by their collective minor contributions to global warming, their high vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change, and by their relative lack of the financial, technical and other resources required to combat these impacts. Thus, the outcomes of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action are of critical importance to the physical, economic and social futures of the Small Island States.

Capacity building and related considerations

COP-4 recognized the special needs of Small Island States when it requested the Convention Secretariat to prepare a plan for undertaking capacity building to facilitate their participation in Clean Development Mechanism project activities. A decision was also made to have the Global Environment Facility provide funding to implement adaptation measures, to support capacity building, raise public awareness and develop national climate change programmes. Countries eligible for such funding are those developing countries whose National Communications and related activities have led them to being identified as particularly vulnerable.

The COP-4 decision is especially helpful to Small Island States, including those ten Pacific island countries participating in the Pacific Island Climate Change Assistance Programme (PICCAP), a regional enabling activity implemented by the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme with support from the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. Through an integrated process of capacity building and technical and policy-related studies, these countries are very close to submitting their initial National Communications.

Capacity building activities have focused on enhancing in-country expertise, increasing public and political awareness of the issues and response options and strengthening the administrative and legislative systems. An example is the training course on vulnerability and adaptation assessment, initially developed, trialed and implemented by the International Global Change Institute of the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. Part of the responsibilities of the twenty participants from the ten PICCAP countries who completed the course in 1998 was to undertake and report on a national vulnerability and adaptation assessment for their country. The reports are a major input to the ten National Communications that are in the final stage of completion. Significantly, ownership of the assessment and reporting processes remain with the island countries. Further, local ownership of the capacity-building activity is being achieved through the transfer of the training course to the University of the South Pacific, a Fiji-based, regional university serving the island countries of the Pacific. The course is running again in 1999, adding further to endogenous expertise in the Pacific islands.

Importantly, these countries are now developing sound technical and policy foundations on which to base further decisions and actions related to both adaptation and mitigation. The efficiencies and progress arising from this regional approach are worthy of note and of emulation.

Global Environment Facility funding will also be available for eligible Small Island States to identify and document prioritized technology needs to minimize the adverse effects of climate change. Developed countries and relevant international organizations were urged to assist Small Island States and other developing country Parties to meet their identified needs for environmentally-sound technologies. It is currently unclear as to the extent to which such funding will be made available outside the Kyoto Protocol Mechanisms.

Global Environment Facility funds may also be available to build capacity for systematic observation networks that will reduce scientific uncertainties relating to the causes, magnitude and timing of climate change.

The Global Environment Facility is committed to meeting the full costs of preparing subsequent National Communications. Appropriately, at COP-4 the Parties decided to remove the distinctions related to how the information in the National Communications of developing and developed countries is treated.

In order to derive equitable benefits from these collective decisions and initiatives, and in order to make meaningful contributions to their implementation, Small Island States require significant enhancement of their capacity to implement the Climate Convention. These countries have expressed a strong desire to complete their National Communications, and hence the technical and policy-related studies on which they are based, before proceeding with initiatives that arise from the Kyoto Protocol. Thus, their priority is to complete and reflect on the findings of their own greenhouse inventory, vulnerability and adaptation assessment, greenhouse gas abatement strategy and national implementation strategy.

The resulting understanding, priorities and plans provide an excellent basis for decision-making related to opportunities provided by the Clean Development Mechanism and other initiatives. But, in all cases, progress requires that the necessary humsan, technical and financial resources, the institutional structures and the technologies be in place and capable of producing the desired outcomes – economic, environmental and social.

The intention is for Small Island States and other developing countries to be assisted in achieving sustainable development while contributing to the ultimate objective of the Convention. Thus, the desire of a developed country to gain certified emissions reductions should not be a reason for deviating from these plans. Development, environmental and social goals and objectives will need to be clearly defined and robust. This in turn requires considerable technical and policy-related expertise, transparent and accountable decision-making systems, supportive institutional frameworks and strong legal systems. The challenge will always be to measure the benefits of hosting a Clean Development Mechanism project against any environmental, social and economic costs that might arise, either directly or indirectly. Once the costs and benefits are evaluated, the political system must be capable of making, justifying, implementing and enforcing a reasonable decision, in partnership with the private sector.

COP-4 acknowledged the need for developing country Parties to be proactive by agreeing that the Global Environment Facility provide funding to enable these countries to prioritize their technology needs. The setting of priorities for new technology (“new” in terms of the host country) may be somewhat problematic for Small Island States. Little difficulty will be experienced where the technologies relate to such measures as improving energy efficiency, exploiting renewable energy sources, enhancing sinks and preparing for adaptation to adverse effects of climate change. But where technology transfer is primarily for the purpose of modifying the long-term trends of climate change, as might well be the case under the Clean Development Mechanism, great care will need to be taken to assess the technology.

Given their low emissions, will Small Island States be able to provide significant certified emission reductions without unduly distorting their national priorities and plans for sustainable development?

An important task will be to determine if a proposed technology is capable of achieving desired climate outcomes, expressed as certified emission reductions, that are greater than would be achieved in the absence of the activity. This requires substantial technical information, including the additional benefits of the technology measured against accepted baselines.

The costs to achieve such reductions will also have to be assessed, and international bilateral agreements negotiated. The latter will involve both private and public sector parties and result in long term implications for the host country. Monitoring and verification of the emission reductions also requires significant technical input. Without exception, Small Island States need considerable assistance to build endogenous capacity to undertake such complex assessments and negotiations.

It would be inappropriate for them to have to rely on assessments and agreements made by those who lack local experience and insight, or by those who have allegiances to other stakeholders. Equally, it would be inappropriate for them to rely on non-nationals to undertake assessments and negotiations which may be contentious and of great financial significance.

It will also be necessary to assess the potential of the new technology to impact adversely on valued social and environmental systems. New technologies place demands on both the private and public sectors, and require community acceptance. All must be evaluated and judged against national needs and priorities.

Again, Small Island States will need considerable assistance to build endogenous capacity to undertake these demanding investigations.

Further information

John Hay, International Global Change Institute, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand. Fax: 64-7-8384289. Email: j.hay@waikato.ac.nz. Web: www.waikato.ac.nz/igci/.

On the Web

For further information about Small Island States, visit the SIDSnet site.

Comment on the climate negotiations and news of ongoing developments can be accessed via the Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary Newswatch service.

On the Web: the climate negotiations lists further links.

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