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Small island developing states need a good deal on climate before it’s too late

Small island developing states need a good deal on climate before it’s too late
4 min read

In the year of COP26, government needs to show global climate leadership and deliver for vulnerable small island developing states.

After a year of public health restrictions and cancelled travel plans, it’s no secret that many of us would like to be away on an idyllic tropical island right now. But while dreaming of future holidays, it’s also time that we started to think seriously about the challenges facing small island states; it’s no exaggeration to say that in some cases their very survival is under threat.

The Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are 58 islands with a combined population of around 65 million people; they were recognised by the UN in 1992 as having unique social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities.

They range from economic powerhouses like Singapore, to tourist hotspots like the Maldives, to tiny remote islands rich in biodiversity. Many are vital hosts to rare species of plants, reptiles and mammals.

The Caribbean is home to approximately 1,500 species of fish and 10% of the world’s coral reefs, while islands in the Pacific region are host to 476 globally threatened species. Allowing this to be lost would be disastrous for a planet that has already seen a two-thirds decline in biodiversity since the 1970s.

But SIDS are facing catastrophic damage from climate change. Their small island status makes them especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events, and their blue economies are vulnerable to the impacts of overfishing, rising ocean temperatures and marine pollution.

I want to have an honest conversation about the threats faced by SIDS, and our moral responsibility to these nations

It can take years for an island to recover when it has been ripped apart by a tropical storm or hurricane. The cost of adapting to climate change, and of preparing for and rebuilding after natural disasters is immense – and simply beyond their means. Many SIDS are just above the OECD threshold for receiving Overseas Development Assistance, and established forms of climate finance are either grossly inadequate or difficult to access.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation. Economies that rely heavily on tourism have faced serious challenges as international travel has dried up, and given the global inequalities in access to vaccines, they may not be able to reopen to tourists any time soon.

Fortunately, this year there are a number of opportunities for the UK government to start pushing for global action. In June the G7 meets in Cornwall, with the Prime Minister having said he wants to use the UK’s Presidency to help the world to “build back better from coronavirus and create a greener, more prosperous future”. In October the Convention on Biological Diversity will be held in China, and in November the UK will host the crucial COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow. 

The importance of these summits for SIDS, and indeed the world, cannot be overstated. It is absolutely imperative that we secure ambitious agreements on climate mitigation, adaptation, and protecting our planet.

This is why I have chosen this year to establish a new APPG on Small Island Developing States. I want to use this new group to allow us to have an honest conversation about the threats faced by SIDS, and our moral responsibility to these nations.

I say moral responsibility, because it is the wealthiest nations which have historically been responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions and climate change. Yet the very worst consequences will be felt by nations which have had, in contrast, a minimal impact on our climate, such as the SIDS.

Many SIDS are also former colonies, and with that comes a legacy of slavery and exploitation which cannot be forgotten. Some of those that were British colonies remain members of our Commonwealth family and have close ties with the UK as a result.

The government has spoken a lot in recent months about its plans for ‘Global Britain’. But now it has a unique chance to prove this is more than just rhetoric and act on our moral responsibility to the most vulnerable. 

This year’s summits will be the first major test of this new direction, and it is vital that the government delivers, both for the SIDS and for the planet.


Kerry McCarthy MP is Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Small Island Developing States.

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