This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
“Smallness is a state of mind,” said Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, climate envoy from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, at a press briefing yesterday morning, citing Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa. “That’s really applicable to the ways in which islanders, who despite being small in land mass, have been holding the line at these negotiations,” she added.
Island nations, which include 47 countries, representing a population of 730 million and 5.3 percent of the globe’s land mass, are among those that have contributed the least to climate change and global greenhouse gas emissions yet are disproportionately suffering their impacts. These effects include sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought, and salinization of soil and water wells, each of which impacts food supplies.
The annual UN climate negotiations try to achieve two things: to establish commitments for greenhouse gas emissions (ghg) reductions and for funding. Islands have called on developed nations to reduce ghg emissions by 45–55 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, as called for by the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, and to pay all the promised funds of $100 billion per year starting in 2020 and through 2025.
At previous COP conferences, island nations and the UN groups that represent them, such as the Alliance of Small Island States and the Small Island Developing States, have consistently called on the developing world to increase ambitions with regard to both ghg emissions reductions and funding. In this regard, this year is no different.
COP26 opened with a focus on islands, as the powerful words of Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, quickly went viral. “In the words of that Caribbean icon, Eddy Grant: Will they mourn us on the front line? When will we as leaders across the world address the pressing issues that are truly causing our people angst and worry, whether it is vaccines or climate crisis? Simply put: When will leaders lead? Our people are watching and our people are taking note. Are we really going to leave Scotland without the commitment to ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet? Or are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity? Today, we need a correct mix of voices, ambition and action.”
Mottley drew attention to three gaps: (1) on mitigation, (2) on funding, and (3) on adaptation. Let me unpack. Mitigation refers to how cuts to ghg emissions will be achieved. For example, it could happen via an energy transition, a move to renewables, or a shift in the transportation industry.
But energy transitions take money. That’s where the funding from developed to developing nations comes in. And here, Mottley highlights a second gap. In 2009, developed nations agreed to pay $100 billion per year to developing nations, starting in 2020 and through 2025. That money has yet to be paid in full for 2020 and 2021. As Mottley said in her opening address, “We are $20 billion short of the $100 billion.”
Money, however, is not lacking. Mottley highlighted that major central banks have engaged in $25 trillion of quantitative easing in the past 13 years, including $9 trillion in the past 18 months to fight the pandemic. Some of those funds, she underscored, could have been allocated to finance the energy transition or a transition in transportation.
When funding does arrive, it is supposed to be split 50-50 between mitigation and adaptation, referring to measures taken to respond to the impacts of the climate crisis, such as managed retreat. But in actuality, as Mottley mentioned, only about 25 percent of the funds currently go to adaptation. Islands are, however, already really impacted by the effects of the climate crisis. That’s why they need the money now for adaptation.
As Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner put it in a recent interview: “For years, we have been focused on mitigation, on getting the rest of the nations to lower their emissions. But we’re now at a critical turning point, where it’s gotten more serious, and we’re looking inwards and are trying to protect ourselves first.”
At the press briefing yesterday morning, focused on “Partnerships for Island Resilience: Sharing Solutions in the Great Ocean States,” Jetnil-Kijiner said, “The thing I was most concerned about coming into this COP was increasing funds for adaptation specifically. For the Marshall Islands, we are looking at several billions of dollars for implementing our National Adaptation Plan for elevating land, for reclaiming land and for internal migration.” She refers to them as extreme adaptation measures.
The Republic of Marshall Islands rests less than two meters (six and a half feet) above sea level in the Pacific Ocean. The islands are completely flat and have no mountains. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Marshall Islands have contributed a mere .00005 percent to global CO2 emissions versus China’s 28 percent and the United States’ 15 percent.
At the press briefing, Simon Stiell, Minister of Climate Resilience of Grenada, added: “Mitigation is a marathon and adaptation is a sprint.” President Obama, who was also on the island resilience panel, repeated this sentence. It means that ghg emissions reductions will not happen overnight. But adaptation has to happen now, and for that, action on funding is needed.
At the COP26 President’s Informal Stocktaking meeting yesterday, the Alliance of Small Island States insisted on ambitious reduction targets with concrete implementation plans and for updating to be more systematic. AOSIS further called for the committed $100 billion to be paid. AOSIS also asked that adaptation financing be doubled immediately, so that it is on par with mitigation funding.
It remains unclear whether these demands will be met coming out of COP26, and specifically whether developing nations will pay all the promised adaptation funding. A draft of the final document leaked yesterday showed a placeholder for the “Global Goal on Adaptation.”
One thing is sure: Islands will keep the pressure on. The motto of Pacific Islander climate activists is, “We are not drowning! We are fighting!”