Tuvalu and SIDS – Recurring Themes at COP26

One of the plenary floors at COP26 at the SEC Centre in Glasgow, Scotland.

As pressure mounts each year at COP for developed nations to contribute more ambitious NDCs, global climate financing, and further decarbonization efforts, the world has seen a wide spectrum of rhetoric and resulting action (or perhaps, inaction). As parties still debate how to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement rule book, developed countries remain at the center of these debates. However, the efforts of developing nations, particularly those with far less global power and influence, still play a crucial and consequential role in these debates. While their impact on atmospheric carbon is comparatively small, their advocacy and resulting pressure on developed nations has become a hallmark of the Conference of Parties. And, among these nations, a particular negotiating group – the smallest – remain among the most passionate, forward-thinking, and outspoken.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS), according to the United Nations, are “…a distinct group of 38 UN Member States and 20 non-UN Members/Associate Members of United Nations regional commissions that face unique social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities”[1]. Geographically, these nations are found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, as well as the Caribbean and South China Seas. First noted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1992) and the later Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of SIDS (1994), climate change poses a particular threat for this group of countries. In addition to sea level rise, SIDS face a number of sustainability challenges due to their remoteness and access to a limited resource base[2]: limited ability to recover from disasters, disproportionate economic stresses by share of GDP, decline of fishery-based exports and tourism industries, and many others.

The story of developing nations at COP each year remains a familiar refrain: countries responsible for the smallest amount of carbon emissions bear the greatest potential for climate-related impacts from the emissions of developed nations. Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs for SIDS is beyond inequitable. Combined, these nations comprise a population of about 65 million people and account for less than 1% of global carbon emissions when compared to any other group of UN member states[3]. Though comparatively minuscule by numbers, SIDS still routinely set some of the most ambitious NDCs when compared to other UN bargaining groups. Nevertheless, they do so using climate funding they do not have reliable access to while attempting to mitigate the effects of their aforementioned sustainability challenges.

In short, those that are doing the most to mitigate climate change remain the most impacted by the lack of progress made by those doing the least.

While this reality is discouraging and angering to many, it is a refrain sadly long established on the Conference of Parties. As an undergraduate sophomore in December of 2009, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark with a student delegation from Ithaca College to attend COP15 (my first and only other COP experience). While there, the school’s delegation (in partnership with Dickinson College) ran a survey of delegates regarding their impressions and opinions of the conference and its potential successes and/or failures. In addition, we attended side events and networking meetings and took part in youth climate action demonstrations. Being quite young, I remember being both overwhelmed and captivated by it all, especially meeting such figures as Bill McKibben and attending a rally in the December cold at which Desmond Tutu spoke. It was an inspiring foray into environmental policy on a global stage. Unbeknownst to us at the time, however, there was far more in store in the near future at COP15.

Being in attendance during the first week, none of us might have predicted the ensuing unrest and contentious fallout in Copenhagen after we departed. Though the Copenhagen Accord was drafted (declaring climate change a global threat and acknowledging the 2oC warming threshold), the agreement was not legally binding for ratifying parties. Additionally, the conference itself slowly dismantled and collapsed as the world watched on, surrounded by days of protesting due to issues of climate injustice, delegate access and representation, and the inability of the conference venue to adequately house the 40,000-100,000 conference attendees. At COP15, there were a lack of restrictions for how many delegates were allowed to attend, resulting in enormous crowds, aggressive demonstrations, and palpable tensions. The disarray on display in Copenhagen in 2009 became a defining moment for international environmental policy efforts, holding many repercussions and impacts for future UN climate conferences and delegations alike.

However, during the first week of the conference, a starkly defining moment became an enduring legacy of sorts for COP15. On the plenary floor, Dr. Ian Fry, Professor and Ambassador for Climate Change and Environment for the Government of Tuvalu, shared emotional, gripping remarks during an intervention to the conference presidency. After criticizing the U.S. Congress for stalling on climate decisions, describing the climate-related impacts that Tuvalu faces, and noting that Tuvalu’s proposals have been waiting on the table for six full months, his tearful closing words still echo loudly in my ears to this day:

“I woke this morning, and I was crying… which is not easy for a grown man to admit. The fate of my country rests in your hands.”

Dr. Ian Frye’s intervention at COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009, on behalf of Tuvalu.

It was a striking moment that garnered national attention and left our student delegation stunned as we watched on. At COP15, Tuvalu entered the global stage of climate negotiations, especially as their proposal (the “Tuvalu Protocol”, as so called by the media) – which called for deeper emission cuts and legally binding decision-making – was taken up by many other small island nations in Oceania. This move by the delegation caused a stall in deliberations and garnered unwavering support by delegates and protestors in attendance. Given this noteworthy role that Tuvalu had played at COP in the past, I was beyond eager to hear what the nation’s delegation would have to say at COP26.

At COP26, similar events and words echoed the past. Small island nations delivered urgent, heartfelt remarks in public meetings, mentioning aggressive, updated NDCs and scathingly criticizing the inaction of developed nations. Before the conference, Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe delivered a prerecorded address to delegates in attendance while standing in knee-deep water on Tuvalu’s shoreline, remarking that, “…we are sinking, but so is everyone else.” At a stocktaking plenary session which our student delegation was present for, I watched Foreign Minister Seve Paeniu expectantly as Tuvalu was given the floor. He called for stronger language regarding climate funding and remarking that the “passion and optimism” of the World Leader’s Summit was not translating to the decisions currently before the parties. Later, on the final day of the conference, he shared a final emotional plea, holding up a picture of his three grandchildren (similar to what a representative of the United Nations had done during an address the previous day), saying that a promise for action at Glasgow would be, “…the best Christmas present I could give them.”

Tuvalu’s foreign minister Seve Paeniu delivering closing remarks at COP26.

In the midst of an uncertain climate future, it is clear that the voices of small island states will remain among the loudest, most passionate, and most progressive. With perhaps the most to lose, SIDS have shown a resiliency and an unwillingness to take pressure off the laissez-faire climate commitments of developed nations. As COP delegations continue, their influence will undoubtedly play a major role as the machine of climate negotiations continues to move forward.

Though never adopted, it seems the unratified intents of “Tuvalu Protocol” speak just as loudly in 2021 as they did in 2009.

[1] United Nations – Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. (2021). “About Small Island Developing States”. [https://www.un.org/ohrlls/content/about-small-island-developing-states]

[2] United Nations – Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. (2015). Small Island Developing States – In Numbers. Climate Change Edition 2015.

[3] Leila Mean. (2021). Small Island, Large Oceans: Voices on the Frontlines of Climate Change. International Institute for Sustainable Development. [https://www.iisd.org/articles/small-islands-large-oceans-voices-frontlines-climate-change]

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