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Alarm bells sound on small island states

close this book The Courier - N°160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga
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View the document Joint Assembly begins discussions on future ACP-EU relations
View the document Alarm bells sound on small island states

Climate change

A morning session of the ACP-EU Joint Assembly was devoted to a public hearing on the effects of climate change on small island states. It was appropriate that the issue should be brought to the attention of the Assembly by Maartje van Putten (PESNL). Representing a country much of which lies below sea-level. she is familiar with the devastating effects of sea flooding. At the hearing, which was very well attended, a panel of invited ACP-EU experts was on hand to enlighten the audience on the extent of the problem.

Although global warning has been on the international agenda for more than 10 years, the seriousness of the threat it poses to the survival of small island states is only now beginning to be taken seriously - and it might already be too late, if some of the most apocalyptic scientific predictions are to be believed.

There is now growing evidence that global warming is taking place. In recent years, we have experienced more extreme weather conditions - heatwaves, floods and increasingly destructive tropical storms - while there are signs that icecaps are melting and sea levels rising. The increasing incidence of malaria in Africa has been linked to these changes. And it is all happening because of the influence our style of living is having on the planet - in particular the huge emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, from our factories, vehicles and so on.

That the public hearing attracted a large audience was not only a reflection of the interest the problem is now commanding. It also symbolised the mounting international pressure for reductions in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and for the adoption of more realistic strategies of sustainable development.

The panel of experts comprised Dr Leonard Nurse, Manager of the Coastal Conservation Project in Barbados, Donald Stewart, Acting Director of the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP), Dr Robert Watson, Senior Scientific Adviser at the Environment Department of the World Bank and Chairman of the second Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Neroni Slade, Vice-Chairman of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and AOSIS Coordinator on Climate Change. A separate workshop on climate change was also organised on the same afternoon outside the formal Joint Assembly setting.

According to Dr Nurse, current estimates based on most reliable models, suggest sea level is rising at the rate of 5mm a year (the 'range of uncertainty' is between 2mm and 9mm). This is two to five times the rate experienced in the last 100 years. This rise is expected to continue beyond the year 2100 even if greenhouse gases are stabilised. The implications for small island states, particularly the low-lying ones, would be severe. 'Atolls such as Tokelau, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and the Maldives could possibly disappear', he said. 'Major population displacement would be experienced in Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands and Tonga.' Meanwhile, small islands with extensive coastal plains and limited upland areas such as Barbados, the Bahamas and Antigua, 'would be highly vulnerable to social and economic disruptions', as major cities, ports and tourist facilities, industries, freshwater sources, fertile agricultural lands and even coral reefs are destroyed by typhoons and cyclones, or washed away in floods. 'Given the limitations of climate models,' Dr Nurse said, 'it is not possible to state with certainty at this stage whether there will be a change in the behaviour of tropical storms and hurricanes. However, it is highly probable that an increase in the frequency and intensity of these phenomena could occur in a 'warmer world'. One study, he claims, predicts tropical storms would have a potential destructive force at least twice what they have today.

Dr Watson, similarly, struck a pessimistic note when he said that the potential for irreversible damage was great. He agreed with Dr Nurse that even if we took measures now to reduce CO2 emissions, stabilisation of the situation will take centuries. He pleaded for climate change to be taken into consideration 'in our everyday decisions.' Governments must not wait for cause and effect to be established before taking action. 'It is,' he said, 'economically feasible to reduce CO2' by introducing appropriate policy measures: looking at supply of and demand for energy, resorting to new and renewable energy sources, nuclear power, etc. and ensuring more efficient land management.

The question of 'burden-sharing' in the reduction of emissions between the industrialised world and the developing countries was debated at length. It was noted, for example, that small islands states are responsible for a very small proportion of the emissions, yet they bear the brunt of the consequences. There was a general consensus that burden-sharing should be based on equity and justice.

It should be noted that the Alliance of Small Island States (which was formed during the Second World Climate Conference in 1990) has called on the industrialised world to achieve a 20% reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2005 (The 'Toronto objective'). This, it hopes, would bring CO2 in the atmosphere down to 1990 levels. Whether this is realistic is debatable.

However, a number of strategy options are being closely examined by the European Commision and the Council with a view to adopting Community-wide measures to reduce emissions significantly by 2005-2010. Member States have made phasing-out proposals with targets of 5-10% by 2005, 15-20% by 2020 and 50% by 2030. This works out at an average reduction of 196 2% annually from the year 2000.

Several parliamentarians wanted to know what the Commission, in particular, had done and will do to help small ACP island states overcome the effects of climate change. It was soon discovered during the discussion that a number of African countries were equally concerned. A Commission representative referred the Assembly to the provisions in the Convention which covered global warming and the special problems of island states. Although there is no specific reference to climate change, the Commission had dealt and would continue to deal with the issue in the broader context of its environmental action. Studies, projects and programmes are being implemented in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean in particular. Furthermore, DG VIII has drawn up internal briefing papers aimed at making departments aware of the issues of climate change and the environment.