Island nations will suffer first shocks of sea changes

Climate change poses the greatest threats to the development of small island nations, a new U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) report out today finds.

From damage to the world's coral reef cover -- expected to cost the global economy $11.9 trillion and devastate the Caribbean -- to sea-level rise, which is hitting island nations like the Federated States of Micronesia at four times the global average rate, the report highlights the most worrisome environmental threats to the world's 52 island nations. It also calls for an "immediate shift" toward clean energy investment and new policies to improve the ocean management of natural resources.

"These are pretty serious problems," said Patricia Beneke, UNEP's regional director for North America. "First and foremost, the impacts of climate change are a serious threat to these small island developing states. They are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to the fact that they are relatively small landmasses. They have a high dependence on coastal ecosystems for food, for livelihood and also for protection against extreme events."

The report is being unveiled in Sarasota, Fla., as part of World Environment Day. But it also comes as nations meet in Bonn, Germany, for a round of negotiations toward a possible global agreement in 2015.

Island nations have taken a leading role in the talks and, citing recent findings from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the unique threats their countries face, led the charge for a ministerial-level discussion that begins today on how countries can cut more emissions before the new agreement goes into effect in 2020.

Budgets 'remain inadequate'

"In light of the latest science and the worsening climate impacts unfolding before our eyes, including sea level rise, intensifying droughts and floods, as well as threats to our public health and food and water resources, it is apparent that immediate action immediate action is absolutely critical to island nations," Nauru Ambassador Marlene Moses said in a statement.


The UNEP report touches on a wide range of environmental threats, including overfishing, invasive species and the impacts from chemicals and waste. But, the authors noted, "climate change and sea level rise are undoubtedly the most pressing threat to the environment and sustainable development" of small island developing states. And, they said, while some countries are making progress in adapting to threats, "measures and responses as well as available budgets remain inadequate in most cases."

It cites the International Emergency Disasters Database, which shows a "clear increase" in the number of natural disasters occurring in island nations between 1970 and 2010. It notes that more than 100 disasters affected the Pacific region, while 187 hit the Caribbean between 2000 and 2011. Meanwhile, of the 15 countries identified by a recent World Risk Index as global disaster risk "hotspots," eight are small island nations -- with Vanuatu and Tonga topping the list.

At the same time, the report calls for helping islands, which are now about 90 percent dependent on imported oil, develop more renewable energy. About 70 percent of people living in the Pacific Islands have no access to electricity at all.

Renewable energy begins to help

There already are some significant initiatives at work. The report notes that Mauritius now gets about 17 percent of its energy from sugar cane and the fiber remaining after the juices are extracted. In Fiji, national energy policies promoting the production of biofuels through planting on degraded lands have resulted in about 65 percent of the country's electricity being met by renewables. And earlier last week, the World Bank announced a $14.4 million grant to the Federated States of Micronesia to increase the efficiency of four state power utilities.

The project is expected to reduce the country's reliance on imported fuels and increase renewable energy to 30 percent by 2020.

The UNEP report does not mention the Green Climate Fund, which leaders hope will be capitalized with $15 billion by the end of this year, working up to about $100 billion annually. But it does call for the international community to both step up efforts to reduce emissions and provide financial support to help island nations adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Beneke said, "Much of this adaptation and mitigation effort takes substantial resources, and these small island developing states don't have the resources to press ahead with that themselves."

Twitter: @LFFriedman | Email: lfriedman@eenews.net