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Children hanging from a tree overhanging a tropical beach as the surf breaks.
Children playing on a beach in Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific Ocean. Melnais/Stockimo/Alamy Stock Photo

How COP28 failed the world’s small islands

As the gavel came down on the latest round of climate talks in Dubai, there were declarations of “we united, we acted, we delivered” from the COP28 presidency. This was met by a sense of déjà vu among delegates of the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis), an intergovernmental organisation representing the nations most vulnerable to climate change.

In her post-summit statement, Aosis lead negotiator Anne Rasmussen expressed confusion that the UAE Consensus, COP28’s final agreement, was approved when representatives from small-island developing states (or Sids were not in the room.

While some delegates hailed the consensus as “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era, Aosis countered that the document contained a “litany of loopholes” which did little to advance the key actions needed to stave off climate breakdown and deliver justice to islands and low-lying states facing the gravest consequences of the climate crisis.

Aosis member states came to COP28 to build on the momentum of their victory in the final moments of COP27 a year earlier in Egypt, when delegates agreed to establish a loss and damage fund which would pay developing nations for the unavoidable and extreme consequences of climate change. The group had fought over 30 years in climate negotiations for this fund.

Additionally, Aosis identified fundamental areas required to save Sids from impacts such as sea-level rise, desertification and climate migration. The principal – and most contentious – is “a phase-out” of fossil fuels, the main driver of the climate crisis.

Scientific evidence is clear: rapidly eliminating coal, oil and gas is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as enshrined in the Paris agreement. Even at this limit, many small islands will face a drastic increase in coastal flooding from sea-level rise, and other effects which could render these countries uninhabitable.

“We will not sign our death certificate. We cannot sign on to text that does not have strong commitments on phasing out fossil fuels,” said Cedric Schuster of Samoa, the Aosis chair at the negotiations.

A man surrounded by cameras and microphones.
Cedric Schuster, Samoa environment minister, speaking to the media at the Dubai summit. AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel

In addition to keeping the 1.5°C goal alive, Aosis members emphasised the need to double the financing which helps states to pursue measures to adapt to climate change (such as building seawalls to protect from stronger storm surges) and to mitigate their emissions. Sids, including the Caribbean Community (Caricom), a political and economic union to which Aosis’ Caribbean Sids belong, had consistently raised these priorities ahead of COP28.

Shared problems

This unified approach is remarkable considering the diverse nature of the group of 39 low-lying Sids, scattered across the Caribbean, the Pacific and Indian Ocean and South China Sea. This bond is also necessary, as Sids comprise a mere 1% of the world’s population, and often, the influence of national delegations is diminished by financial and logistical constraints, such as access to visas. Such shared impediments arise because of the common history of colonialism and resource extraction which has bequeathed unique challenges to small-island states.

Despite this past, and their relative tininess, Sids remain among the most biodiverse places on Earth. The ocean under their control is, on average, 28 times each country’s land mass, and much of the natural wealth for Sids lies in their ocean.

But the toll of climate change is mounting on these states. Pacific islands such as Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu have seen atolls sinking. Caribbean islands such as Antigua and Barbuda, the Commonwealth of Dominica and the Bahamas have experienced devastating hurricanes. In the case of Barbuda, the upheaval caused by more violent storms has precipitated an attempt to transfer land from the island community to the goverment and transnational companies, threatening to disrupt more than 400 years of farming and fishing traditions.

A street of houses in ruin.
The aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, 2019. Anya Douglas/Shutterstock

The costs of failure

The UAE Consensus text “calls on” countries to “transition away from fossil fuels” and towards renewable energy. Tellingly, this formulation met with the approval of fossil fuel producers.

Other agenda items important to Sids at COP28 were deferred another year, including how markets for trading carbon offset credits will be regulated. Even the hard-won victory of a loss and damage fund may prove hollow, as its lopsided set-up gives donor countries disproportionate influence through the World Bank’s interim role as host, and stacks the odds against recipients.

Estimates suggest that the combined total of US$700 million (£556 million) pledged so far by wealthy, high-emitting nations to compensate the poorest and least culpable countries for climate impacts amounts to 0.2% of the annual cost of climate destruction.

And, despite the vastness of ocean space under the control of Sids and the increasingly recognised role of the ocean in sequestering carbon, much of the funding for ecosystem solutions to climate change has been funnelled into forests.

What lies ahead?

While there were encouraging moments at COP28, the outcome failed to provide a scientifically grounded and equitable blueprint for keeping the Paris agreement’s goal alive. For Sids, the delivery of this mandate was a red line for the 2023 climate negotiations. However, Sids have not put their eggs solely in the basket of the UN climate negotiations.

Pacific islands proposed a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty in 2015, as an international mechanism for managing a phase-out between nations. This year, Colombia, a country dependent on coal, oil and gas for half its exports, endorsed the idea.

Elsewhere, Aosis members including Antigua & Barbuda and Vanuatu are seeking advice on the legal obligations of states to prevent and remedy harm as a result of the climate emergency under the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and the International Court of Justice. African Sids have published a draft report outlining similar questions.

In the run up to COP29 in Azerbaijan, Aosis members will need to continue to explore other routes to compel wealthy nations to recognise the needs and circumstances of the world’s most vulnerable states.

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