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Why COP28 was a critical conference for small island states

Patricia Crifo
Patricia Crifo
Professor of Economics at École Polytechnique (IP Paris), Researcher at CREST (CNRS) and Associate Researcher at CIRANO
Stefano Dall’Aglio
Stefano Dall'Aglio
Masters student in "Economics of smart cities and climate policies" at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • At COP28, the discussions focused on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which are bearing the brunt of climate change.
  • These territories are particularly exposed to rising sea levels, multiple droughts and extreme weather events that affect their populations and economies.
  • According to the IPCC, in the scenario of a 2.5°C rise in temperature, sea levels are expected to rise by around 58 cm by 2100, impacting nearly 430 million people.
  • At the end of COP28, a monetary fund took shape, committing many countries to invest in the ecological transition and adaptation to climate change in order to mitigate its effects in developing countries.
  • The conference also devoted part of the negotiations to the adoption of a “strengthened transparency framework” for the climate strategies of developed countries.

The recent 28th Con­fer­ence of Par­ties (COP28) held in Dubai had a strong focus on Small Island Devel­op­ing States. These are many small sov­er­eign enti­ties, pre­dom­i­nant­ly locat­ed in the Caribbean and the Pacif­ic, who are cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing first-hand dra­mat­ic changes brought along by cli­mate change. The shift in focus to these regions has been sprung by ris­ing aware­ness towards the increas­ing fre­quen­cy of extra­or­di­nary cli­mate events that have hit many small island devel­op­ing states through­out the last decade.

In 2017 alone, 22 out of the 29 Caribbean Islands were affect­ed by Trop­i­cal Cyclone Maria, which caused con­sid­er­able dam­age to their soci­eties and economies. Ear­li­er this year, two cat­e­go­ry 4 cyclones hit Van­u­atu in less than 24 hours, caus­ing irre­me­di­a­ble dam­age1. The sit­u­a­tion is made even worse by the fact that these are par­tic­u­lar­ly frag­ile states as they are locat­ed in ter­ri­to­ries that under six metres above sea-lev­el and more than 50% of their infra­struc­ture con­cen­trat­ed in in the near prox­im­i­ty of the coast (less than 500 meters)2.

Over the two weeks ded­i­cat­ed to the event, the COP28 tack­led the issues of cli­mate adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion with­in these par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing zones, also ded­i­cat­ing part of the nego­ti­a­tions to the adop­tion of an enhanced trans­paren­cy frame­work for their cli­mate strategies.

Climate Adaptation

The threat of sea lev­el rise, togeth­er with the increas­ing fre­quen­cy of droughts and extreme weath­er events such as cyclones and typhoons, cause not only a reduc­tion in the ter­ri­to­ry avail­able to the pop­u­la­tion, but also in the ter­ri­to­ry suit­able for land cul­ti­va­tion. This ulti­mate­ly gen­er­ates both a prob­lem of cli­mate mobil­i­ty and dis­place­ment, where­by peo­ple are forced out of their homes because of the hos­til­i­ty of their ter­ri­to­ry, and a prob­lem of eco­nom­ic depen­dence on imports from devel­oped coun­tries. Fore­casts do not appear par­tic­u­lar­ly rosy. In fact, accord­ing to the 2022 IPCC report, under the sce­nario of a 2.5°C tem­per­a­ture increase, sea lev­el is expect­ed to increase by approx­i­mate­ly 58 cm by 2100, caus­ing a neg­a­tive impact on approx­i­mate­ly 430 mil­lion people. 

Poor­er coun­tries bear most of the loss and dam­age caused by cli­mate change – which is esti­mat­ed to exceed $150bn per year –, and they often do so through unsus­tain­able debt3. As a glob­al response to the claims for an increased account­abil­i­ty frame­work for high­ly emit­ting indus­tri­al strate­gies, the Loss and Dam­age Fund – whose name was harsh­ly opposed by the Unit­ed States at COP 284 – was agreed upon in 2022 but is now tak­ing form. Many coun­tries have agreed to con­tribute to it, name­ly France, Italy, and the UAE, hav­ing promised $100 mil­lion each, mak­ing the total amount pledged dur­ing the con­fer­ence rise to $770 mil­lion, of which around $115 mil­lion will be employed to set the fund up at the World Bank. The remain­der will be used to invest pri­mar­i­ly in cli­mate adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion in SIDS5.

This mon­ey will, how­ev­er, be able to cov­er only 0.2% of the needs of small island devel­op­ing states, which range from the invest­ment in adap­ta­tion tech­nolo­gies (that need to be adopt­ed to pre­vent the phys­i­cal dis­ap­pear­ance of these ter­ri­to­ries) to the need to invest in their ener­gy tran­si­tion. The lat­ter is intend­ed both as a tool for them to con­tribute to the glob­al fos­sil fuel phase out and to detach them­selves from inter­na­tion­al ener­gy imports. 

Climate Mitigation

COP28 has also dealt with the prob­lem of cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion in SIDS. “Renew­ables is the gift that keeps on giv­ing,” men­tioned Anto­nio Gutier­res, Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al of the UN, at the begin­ning of the con­fer­ence to high­light the impor­tance of striv­ing once again for a green­er, more sus­tain­able future away from fos­sil fuels. Decem­ber 5th was the day ded­i­cat­ed to the top­ic of just tran­si­tion, i.e. the process of account­ing for the need to gen­er­ate decent work and qual­i­ty jobs in the grad­ual decar­bon­i­sa­tion of the econ­o­my, as stat­ed by the pre­am­ble of the Paris Agree­ment (2015)6. Among the many events, a con­fer­ence on the sus­tain­able ener­gy tran­si­tion of small island devel­op­ing states was held, which rep­re­sent­ed a plat­form for many SIDS’ glob­al lead­ers to share the expe­ri­ence of their countries. 

The suc­cess sto­ries of Bar­ba­dos and Sey­chelles are not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the broad­er sit­u­a­tion of SIDS.

Doc­tor Sen­a­tor Shan­tal Munro Knight, Min­is­ter in the Office of the Prime Min­is­ter of Bar­ba­dos, inter­vened to show­case the fore­run­ner role of her coun­try in the just tran­si­tion of SIDS. Bar­ba­dos is indeed striv­ing for a net zero tar­get by 2035, mak­ing it the first small island devel­op­ing state to be able to achieve this pro­ject­ed objec­tive. On the same wave­length is the state of Sey­chelles, where wind and solar pow­er rep­re­sent a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for a sus­tain­able ener­gy tran­si­tion. As Flavien Jou­bert, Min­is­ter of Agri­cul­ture, Cli­mate Change and Envi­ron­ment of Sey­chelles, announced, the coun­try has pro­duced around 22 MW of wind pow­er in the last decade, a thresh­old that has enabled it to achieve its 5% renew­able ener­gy tar­get by 2020. He also declared that the coun­try is now tar­get­ing a 100% renew­able ener­gy port­fo­lio by 2050, a goal whose rel­e­vance has been stat­ed by the IPCC for glob­al mean tem­per­a­tures to be con­tained with­in a 1.5°C rise. 

How­ev­er, the suc­cess sto­ries of Bar­ba­dos and Sey­chelles are not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the broad­er sit­u­a­tion of SIDS. Tran­si­tion­ing towards renew­able ener­gy sources calls for very large, almost pro­hib­i­tive, invest­ments. Vince Hen­der­son, min­is­ter of for­eign affairs, inter­na­tion­al busi­ness, trade and ener­gy of Domini­ca, report­ed that his coun­try is about to sign an agree­ment with Ormat Tech­nolo­gies for a project involv­ing the devel­op­ment of a geot­her­mal pow­er plant with an ini­tial pro­duc­tion capac­i­ty of 10 MW, with the ulti­mate goal of tran­si­tion­ing towards green hydro­gen7. He men­tioned that reach­ing the agree­ment was “a tremen­dous strug­gle” and accused devel­oped coun­tries of hav­ing pro­vid­ed insuf­fi­cient finan­cial mech­a­nisms to sup­port SIDS in pow­er pur­chase agree­ments and con­clud­ed his inter­ven­tion at the SIDS’ ener­gy tran­si­tion pan­el by say­ing: “We need to ask our­selves why us, the SIDS, show­ing more com­mit­ment than the oth­ers, haven’t been able to turn com­mit­ment into real action”. 

Invest­ments need not only to be flow­ing in, but they must com­ply with the spe­cif­ic equi­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty require­ments of the indi­vid­ual states: “It’s nec­es­sary to make sure that emer­gent tech­nolo­gies and finan­cial instru­ments are fit for the pur­pos­es of the spe­cif­ic islands,”  con­clud­ed sen­a­tor Shan­tal Munro Knight when dis­cussing the hard­ships that SIDS face in oper­a­tional­is­ing cap­i­tal that flows in. 

Dur­ing a con­fer­ence held on Decem­ber 4th at the U.S. pavil­ion on the top­ic of cli­mate finance strate­gies for SIDS (U.S. Depart­ment of State, 2023), Mia Mot­t­ley, the Prime Min­is­ter of Bar­ba­dos, explained how the finan­cial under pro­vi­sion that SIDS are fac­ing goes hand in hand with the ris­ing cli­mat­ic uncer­tain­ty that they are wit­ness­ing, which increas­es the risk coef­fi­cients of any type of invest­ment. She insist­ed that in the like­ly event of a wors­en­ing of cli­mate con­di­tions, the tip­ping point for SIDS would be to become “com­plete­ly unin­sur­able and un-investible”. This would gen­er­ate a finan­cial insuf­fi­cien­cy loop that would endan­ger the eco­nom­ic and ener­getic auton­o­my of these states.

“Small island devel­op­ing states: a just and equi­table ener­gy tran­si­tion towards a cli­mate-resilient future” (Al-Wahi The­atre, 5th Decem­ber 2024).

With­in the goal of sup­port­ing the just tran­si­tion of SIDS and de-risk­ing cli­mate finance, it is impor­tant to high­light the com­mit­ment of IRENA (Inter­na­tion­al Renew­able Ener­gy Agency), that has launched the SIDS Light­house Ini­tia­tive in 2014, a com­pre­hen­sive action frame­work aimed at gen­er­at­ing finan­cial sup­port from more than 80 part­ners. The LHI has also estab­lished the ETAF (Ener­gy Tran­si­tion Accel­er­at­ing Finance Plat­form) a financ­ing plat­form which has reached a pledge of $1bn already, still how­ev­er falling short of the esti­mat­ed $200bn need­ed to cov­er the cli­mate needs of these devel­op­ing coun­tries by 20258. In the eyes of Francesco La Cam­era, Direc­tor Gen­er­al of the agency, hon­oured with the open­ing remarks to the pan­el dis­cus­sion of Decem­ber 5th, it is vital that more investors and small island states join the part­ner­ship, to cre­ate a net­work of mutu­al trust and account­abil­i­ty that reduces risks for investors and makes the coun­tries a safer and more reli­able invest­ment target. 

Enhanced Transparency Framework

SIDS are to be con­sid­ered an exam­ple in lead­ing towards a green­er ener­gy econ­o­my. Under arti­cle 13, the Paris Agree­ment over­saw the deci­sion of adopt­ing an Enhanced Trans­paren­cy Frame­work for track­ing and report­ing nation­al green­house gas emis­sions and have a clos­er look at Nation­al­ly Deter­mined Con­tri­bu­tions9. While the report­ing tools have been pro­duced and test­ed, but not yet oper­a­tionalised. Indeed, they are pre­dict­ed to become oper­a­tional by June 2024. Many devel­op­ing coun­tries have already begun review­ing their trans­paren­cy frame­work under the assis­tance of the Ini­tia­tive for Cli­mate Action Trans­paren­cy (ICAT) and the Green­house Gas Man­age­ment Insti­tute (GHGMI).

With­in its mis­sion, the ICAT has sup­port­ed many SIDS (such as Mal­dives, Fiji or Trinidad and Toba­go) in build­ing sec­toral (or econ­o­my-wise) mea­sure­ment frame­works, and tools to devel­op emis­sion fore­casts and pro­jec­tions and track cli­mate finance. Dur­ing a con­fer­ence held on Decem­ber 1st and host­ed by the UNFCCC and ICAT, some of the expe­ri­ences of SIDS were shared (ICAT, 2023). Aaliyah Tuitt, the Tech­ni­cal Data Offi­cer from Antigua and Bar­bu­da’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­ment, out­lined the nation’s strat­e­gy of trans­paren­cy to bol­ster cli­mate ini­tia­tives in trans­porta­tion. This approach – heav­i­ly rely­ing on the col­lec­tion of data from mobil­i­ty users – will prove piv­otal in facil­i­tat­ing a smooth shift towards elec­tric vehi­cles, whose sale is expect­ed to reach 100% of mar­ket sales by 2030. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, Deep­i­ti­ka Chand from Fiji’s Cli­mate Change Divi­sion in the Prime Minister’s office illus­trat­ed how the nation uti­lized trans­paren­cy frame­works to assess the influ­ence of agri­cul­ture on green­house gas emis­sions. By doing so, the nation­al admin­is­tra­tion gained deep­er insights into its emis­sion pat­terns and the spe­cif­ic require­ments of the agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor, paving the way for tar­get­ed pol­i­cy deci­sions which will be able to guar­an­tee food secu­ri­ty, enhance pro­duc­tion qual­i­ty, and fos­ter resilient, gen­der-inclu­sive food systems.

COP28 revealed an oper­a­tional delay dis­played by most devel­oped coun­tries, who have failed to achieve a suf­fi­cient­ly green ener­gy portfolio.

Mol­ly White, senior direc­tor at the GHGMI, praised the pan­el­lists for the impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions of their coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly high­light­ing their open­ness to this inno­v­a­tive track­ing strat­e­gy. She also empha­sized the impor­tance of the learn­ing process derived from this enhanced trans­paren­cy mode of oper­a­tion: she men­tioned the dif­fi­cul­ty of inte­grat­ing sec­toral plan­ning into econ­o­my-wide cli­mate tar­get set­ting, to be able to have a clos­er look at the macro­eco­nom­ic per­for­mance of a coun­try in rela­tion to its cli­mate strat­e­gy. When, asked how devel­oped coun­tries could learn the les­son of devel­op­ing ones, she men­tioned that this would rep­re­sent the great­est chal­lenge for the future, giv­en that sig­nif­i­cant hur­dles would be encoun­tered in scal­ing up this inte­grat­ed eco­nom­ic frame­work of analy­sis, due to the track­a­bil­i­ty issues and the broad­er set of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties that devel­oped coun­tries are involved in.

To sum up

By the end of the two weeks ded­i­cat­ed to the event, the out­comes of the first glob­al stock­take at COP28 revealed an oper­a­tional delay dis­played by most devel­oped coun­tries, who have failed to ful­fil their NDCs and achieve a suf­fi­cient­ly green ener­gy port­fo­lio to remain in line with a 1.5°C mean tem­per­a­ture rise goal. The pledges made to the Loss and Dam­age Fund by many high­ly emit­ting coun­tries reflect the pub­lic aware­ness of the imbal­ance in emis­sions observed among dif­fer­ent states. This, despite lay­ing the foun­da­tions for a more inten­sive invest­ment in both cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion in SIDS, does not delay the need of devel­oped coun­tries to speed up fos­sil phase out in an attempt to pre­vent small island states from disappearing. 

The estab­lish­ment of the enhanced trans­paren­cy frame­work will con­tribute to guar­an­tee high­er clar­i­ty on the decar­bon­i­sa­tion strate­gies of many of the most emit­ting coun­tries, who are now more than ever required to take effec­tive action. “Although we are not respon­si­ble, we are fac­ing coun­try-wise destruc­tion”: these were the clos­ing remarks to the Decem­ber 5th con­fer­ence of Kon­ris May­nard, min­is­ter of pub­lic infra­struc­ture in St. Kitts and Nevis, a small Caribbean insu­lar state where elec­tric­i­ty can­not be pro­vid­ed 24 hours a day. “We are look­ing for part­ner­ship, not sym­pa­thy,” he added. 

As we now approach COP29 in Baku, sig­nif­i­cant atten­tion will be focused on the oper­a­tional­iza­tion of funds and the com­mit­ment of promi­nent states to sup­port Small Island Devel­op­ing States in their fight for sur­vival. The top­ics of dis­cus­sion will also reflect the out­come of the 4th Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence on Small Island Devel­op­ing States, which will be held in Antigua and Bar­bu­da in May 2024, and will devel­op a 10-year action pro­gram for SIDS, with con­crete tar­gets required to sup­port them in their sus­tain­able devel­op­ment objec­tives10.

1Al Jazeera (2023) State of emer­gency declared as two cyclones hit Van­u­atu in 24 Hrs, Al Jazeera. Avail­able at: https://​www​.aljazeera​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​2​0​2​3​/​3​/​4​/​s​t​a​t​e​-​o​f​-​e​m​e​r​g​e​n​c​y​-​d​e​c​l​a​r​e​d​-​i​n​-​v​a​n​u​a​t​u​-​a​s​-​s​e​c​o​n​d​-​c​y​c​l​o​n​e​-hits.
2IPCC report, 2022. Chap­ter 15: Small islands (2023) IPCC. Avail­able at: https://​www​.ipcc​.ch/​r​e​p​o​r​t​/​a​r​6​/​w​g​2​/​c​h​a​p​t​e​r​/​c​h​a​p​t​e​r-15/ .
3’Stand­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with those on the front lines of the cli­mate cri­sis: A loss and dam­age pack­age for COP 28.’ (2023) UUSC (Uni­tar­i­an Uni­ver­sal­ist Ser­vice Com­mit­tee) [Preprint]. Avail­able at: https://assets-global.website-files.com/605869242b205050a0579e87/655b50e163c953059360564d_L%26DC_L%26D_Package_for_COP28_20112023_1227.pdf.
4Igoe, M. (2023) What’s in a name? US seeks to rebrand cli­mate ‘loss and Dam­age’ Fund, Devex News. Avail­able at: https://​www​.devex​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​w​h​a​t​-​s​-​i​n​-​a​-​n​a​m​e​-​u​s​-​s​e​e​k​s​-​t​o​-​r​e​b​r​a​n​d​-​c​l​i​m​a​t​e​-​l​o​s​s​-​a​n​d​-​d​a​m​a​g​e​-​f​u​n​d​-​1​06758.
5Car­bon Brief (2023) COP28: Key out­comes agreed at the UN Cli­mate Talks in Dubai, Car­bon Brief. Avail­able at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/cop28-key-outcomes-agreed-at-the-un-climate-talks-in-dubai/#:~:text=Nearly%20every%20country%20in%20the,years%20of%20international%20climate%20negotiations .
6Small island devel­op­ing states just ener­gy tran­si­tion – COP28 UAE (2023) COP28 UAE. Avail­able at: https://​www​.cop28​.com/​e​n​/​s​c​h​e​d​u​l​e​/​s​m​a​l​l​-​i​s​l​a​n​d​-​d​e​v​e​l​o​p​i​n​g​-​s​t​a​t​e​s​-​a​-​j​u​s​t​-​a​n​d​-​e​q​u​i​t​a​b​l​e​-​e​n​e​r​g​y​-​t​r​a​n​s​i​t​i​o​n​-​t​o​w​a​r​d​s​-​a​-​c​l​i​m​a​t​e​-​r​e​s​i​lient.
7Domini­ca offi­cial­ly signs Geot­her­mal Pow­er Plant Deal | CS Glob­al Part­ners Lim­it­ed. (2023). CS Glob­al Part­ners Lim­it­ed. https://​csglob​al​part​ners​.com/​n​e​w​s​-​d​o​m​i​n​i​c​a​-​o​f​f​i​c​i​a​l​l​y​-​s​i​g​n​s​-​g​e​o​t​h​e​r​m​a​l​-​p​o​w​e​r​-​p​l​a​n​t​-​deal/
8Island Nations Launch New Dec­la­ra­tion at AOSIS Lead­ers Meet­ing – AOSIS. (2023). AOSIS – Alliance of Small Island Stateshttps://​www​.aosis​.org/​i​s​l​a​n​d​-​n​a​t​i​o​n​s​-​l​a​u​n​c​h​-​n​e​w​-​d​e​c​l​a​r​a​t​i​o​n​-​a​t​-​a​o​s​i​s​-​l​e​a​d​e​r​s​-​m​e​e​ting/
9COP28 Agree­ment Sig­nals “Begin­ning of the End” of the Fos­sil Fuel Era (2023) UNFCCC. Avail­able at: https://​unfc​cc​.int/​n​e​w​s​/​c​o​p​2​8​-​a​g​r​e​e​m​e​n​t​-​s​i​g​n​a​l​s​-​b​e​g​i​n​n​i​n​g​-​o​f​-​t​h​e​-​e​n​d​-​o​f​-​t​h​e​-​f​o​s​s​i​l​-​f​u​e​l-era .
104th Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence on Small Island Devel­op­ing States (SIDS4) (2023) IOE. Avail­able at: https://www.ioe-emp.org/events/event/4th-international-conference-on-small-island-developing-states-sids4#:~:text=IOE%20members%20from%20Small%20Island,the%20Course%20Toward%20Resilient%20Prosperity%22 .

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