SIDS and the Climate Crisis

SIDS and the Climate Crisis
Sea wall, Tuvalu” by UNDP Climate is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In 2023, the world’s hottest year on record, the latest global climate summit – COP28 – took place in the United Arab Emirates. Again, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) seemed to be omitted from crucial conversations surrounding global emissions. This article examines the previous Conference of Parties, COP27, which aimed to place SIDS in the spotlight. It evaluates the significance of the deal agreed by participating parties following the conclusion of COP27 in Egypt and assesses the implications for SIDS around the world. While historic breakthroughs were made, especially in terms of funding the repairs for damages caused by climate disasters, the agreement seems to do little to combat the root causes of climate change, which must be addressed in order to achieve long-term security for SIDS.

The climate crisis facing SIDS

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – the coalition of 39 UN Member States that seek to raise awareness of their shared social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities – are disproportionately affected by climate change; they face some of its most severe consequences whilst being among the world’s lowest emitters. Since the turn of the millennium, these states have experienced a doubling in the annual number of natural disasters from 10 to 20, a phenomenon which has been linked directly to warming temperatures caused by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Low-lying coastal states have also faced serious consequences such as rising sea levels, which have risen almost 0.3 metres since 1990, causing land submersion, freshwater salinisation, and subsequent crop failure. Sentiments of alarm are common among several political actors, from Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, Simon Kofe to US President Joe Biden, all of whom have declared that climate-related issues such as these are an existential threat to communities and territories in their respective states.

In her address to the delegates of COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, described a two degree warming scenario as a “death sentence”. Indeed, for SIDS, vulnerability is two-fold. First, low-lying SIDS are geographically vulnerable due to their small size and low elevation, making them highly susceptible to saltwater incursion (the intrusion of seawater into highly permeable fresh groundwater sources) and storm surges. These events can decimate staple crops and force the relocation of entire communities, leaving residents reliant on costly food imports and vulnerable to price shocks. Although such imports can provide a varied diet, the options in many SIDS are limited due to their geographic isolation, meaning they typically consist of shelf-stable, often highly processed and unhealthy foodstuffs. As a consequence, suboptimal nutritional options can pose a threat to the population’s health. This increasing reliance on imported nutrient-deficient foods likely contributes to rising malnutrition and prevalence of non-communicable diseases. 

This is compounded by economic challenges. SIDS typically have narrow resource bases, are remote from other markets, and are largely unable to benefit from economies of scale. These factors inhibit the large-scale international export of goods and services, which are predominantly in the areas of tourism, fish and agricultural exports, all of which are highly susceptible to the sea level rise and ocean acidification experienced by small island states. 

What COP27 has delivered for SIDS

The key output of COP27 for SIDS comes in the form of a “loss and damage fund”, whereby developed countries have agreed to transfer funds to nations hit hardest by the effects of climate change to help the latter cope with climate-related disasters. This fund was a major breakthrough for the SIDS alliance, who have been calling for global financial mechanisms to address the climate-related damages they incur. 

While the details of the fund are yet to be finalised, the importance of it for SIDS is nevertheless clear. It would allow, for example, the resources to repair climate damage and increase funding for other projects that facilitate economic development by boosting the resilience of communities, livelihoods and ecosystems against future climatic events.

Despite the historic agreement to establish a loss and damage fund, there remains much uncertainty. It was announced by geographer Laurie Parsons that hundreds of millions of dollars had been committed to loss and damage via various schemes, but at least $2.5 trillion will be required by 2030. Concern over this goal is not unfounded as developed states have already failed to adhere to their 2009 pledge to spend $100 billion a year on climate aid projects. This year, at COP28, $700mn was pledged to the fund – “less than 0.2% of the irreversible economic and non-economic losses developing countries are facing from global heating every year”, according to The Guardian.

COP27 and the ‘Root’ of Climate Change

While COP27 finally moved to address and provide the financial mechanisms that SIDS have been pushing for for years, it also suffered from a critical shortfall. It did little to address the root cause of the issue of climate change: the excessive greenhouse gas emissions. COP27 failed to include a sufficient mitigation strategy; the commitments to 1.5C indicated no progress on COP26 goals, with language surrounding ‘phasing out’ coal usage, as opposed to elimination of its usage, remaining weak. The Conference also fell short in its ‘phase down’ failing to include oil and gas, the extraction and burning of which accounts for 40 per cent of all annual greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, several governments, like China and India, challenged the 1.5C limit to global heating and re-emphasised the 2 degrees celsius limit in the Paris Accord.

In the context of lacklustre progress on emissions reductions, a still undeveloped loss and damage fund will do little to address the underlying issues. Funding alone will neither save Tuvalu from being submerged by the end of the century, nor spare several Caribbean islands from increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes


In the short-term, these states hope for developed nations to commit sufficient funds to finance the new initiative. The allocation of funding remains unclear, as do the providers of said funding. However, it has been stated by the UN Environmental Programme that a broadened donor base and innovative finance tools will both be required to raise the $300USD billion per year funding believed to be required to address the damage suffered by developing states. 

The long-term international approach to SIDS seems to be increasingly focused on adaptive measures after the fact, as opposed to tackling the underlying cause.

Lack of a strong mitigative international climate policy threatens major long-term risks to SIDS. It is not only the physical health of citizens that may be in jeopardy – the very statehood of SIDS is also placed at a heightened risk as sea levels continue to rise. Threats like these faced by SIDS may mean that, without an ambitious mitigative global climate strategy, Mia Mottley’s characterisation of climate change as a ‘death sentence’ for SIDS may not be much of an exaggeration.

The failure so far to implement a rigid and functioning funding mechanism for mitigative purposes may catalyse these risks. This is due to the inability of these small states – with narrow economic bases – to cope with the rising cost of more frequent natural disasters and climate stresses. It remains to be seen whether the loss and damage fund agreed upon at COP27 will have the positive impact that it promises. Indeed, states such as Tuvalu, when left with so few choices, may continue to seek self preservation through digitisation in the metaverse – a testament to the innovative ways in which affected communities can draw attention to such challenges.

Categories: Environment, International

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