Just six meters of sea level rise will drastically change coastal habitation and ecosystems. (photo courtesy of NASA)
Small islands are highly susceptible to the consequences of climate change. Rising sea levels will completely submerge certain inhabited islands, and warming temperatures will affect fisheries that such small islands depend on for sustenance and employment. Indeed, the small Pacific island of Kiribati is already negotiating to buy land on Fiji. The smaller, lower atolls of Kiribati are experiencing encroachment, and many villagers have been forced to abandon their homes. Kiribati’s president hopes to purchase 2000 hectares on Fiji so the 113,000 inhabitants of Kiribati can relocate when the sea overwhelms their land.
As climate change is already evident to the small island nations, a group of their political leaders came together in an attempt to secure the future of their people, and on May 8th signed the Barbados Declaration.
The declaration is a commitment to “providing all households with access to modern and affordable renewable energy services, while eradicating poverty, safeguarding the environment and providing new opportunities for sustainable development and economic growth.” The declaration also demonstrates the vulnerability of small island nations to climate change, including narrow resource bases, high dependency on imports, generally large national debts, vulnerability to energy and food price shocks, and remoteness. Additionally, the declaration emphasizes the importance of shifting to renewable energy sources. It states that there is an abundance of opportunities for wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean energy; however, the global community has struggled to make renewable energy cost-effective and efficient for the global poor.
A view of the solar voltaic panels for a renewable energy project in Fakaofo, Tokelau. (photoa courtesy of United Nations Photo via flickr)
Many of the small islands set truly ambitious goals: Tuvalu and the Cook Islands plan to use renewable energy to meet 100 percent of their electrical demand by 2020. Tokelau, an island off New Zealand, plans to be completely energy self-sufficient in 2012, relying on coconut biofuel and solar panels. Other islands will attempt to reduce firewood dependence, build wind turbines, reduce oil imports, and provide electricity to more inhabitants. Thus far, 19 countries have committed to the program voluntarily. Although these island nations show a commitment to renewable energy use and environmental initiatives, if the agreement fails to have enforcement mechanisms, countries may fail to meet their target. This would be disastrous not only for the climate, but even more so for the island nations, who stand to lose everything if they cannot reform their practices.
The Barbados Declaration is certainly a critical step toward encouraging the use of renewable energy and in combating climate change. Yet, it remains to be seen if the declaration will achieve its desired outcome. While the success of Rio +20 cannot be predicted, the declaration argues that Rio+20 this June must produce ambitious outcomes that accommodate the needs of small islands.