Raising Awareness on Climate Priorities for Small Island Developing States

By Alana Malinde S. N. Lancaster and Senia Febrica

The Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4) under the overarching theme of “Charting the Course toward Resilient Prosperity” was held on 27 – 30 May 2024 in St John’s, Antigua and Barbuda. This blog post highlights key points from the Written Statement submitted on behalf of One Ocean Hub and the Environmental Law, Ocean Governance and Climate Justice Unit, in the University of the West Indies’ Faculty of Law, in response to a Call for Written Inputs from Accredited NGOs and other stakeholder organisations.[1] The Written Statement was led by Hub Researcher Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster (University of the West Indies, Barbados) in collaboration with Britney G. Nurse (Renew TT, Trinidad & Tobago), Hub Deputy Director, Philile Mbatha (University of Strathclyde, UK) and Researcher Mitchell Lennan (University of Aberdeen, UK).

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) comprise a group of 37 UN member nations and 20 associate members of regional commissions, which are united by remote economies, prone to natural disasters, and uniquely and unfortunately positioned at the forefront of multiple global crises, particularly climate change (SIDS 4, 2024). SIDS were formally recognised as a special case both for their environment and development at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Occupying less than 0.5 per cent of the global surface area, these nations are spread across three key regions: the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South China Sea (AIS). 

Overwhelmingly, SIDS are experiencing the hardest, longest, and most disproportionate impacts of the climate emergency, and as some of the most biodiverse regions globally, are at risk of widescale biodiversity loss. SIDS are also struggling with high levels per capita of pollution, including plastic pollution: the Caribbean SIDS, for example, are among the largest per capita plastic polluters in the world. While SIDS generally have been cast as small States, it is also important to recognise that (with few exceptions) they also are large ocean states (Frazão Santos, 2022; Hume et. al., 2021; Chan, 2018)as on average the ocean under their control is twenty-eight times their land mass (OHRLLS, n.d.).

Accordingly, while SIDS are in dire straits because of the impacts of climate change, they also have a critical link to the ‘ocean-climate nexus’ given the key role which the ocean plays in slowing climate change by absorption of excess heat, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and regulating the global climate (Lancaster, Nurse and Young Marshall, 2024 forthcoming; Morgera et. al., 2023). While the crucial role of the ocean and marine biodiversity to achieving international climate goals is still largely overlooked in international climate discussions, and was only fully acknowledged at CoP 26 in 2021 (Morgera and Lennan, 2023; Lennan and Morgera, 2022), SIDS have underscored this link in the recently adopted Antigua & Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS) – the outcome document of the SIDS 4 Conference – which specifically emphasises that the ocean is critical to promoting sustainable ocean-based economies [of SIDS] with the help of the international community (p. 4, para.21).

Despite the promise of the ocean-climate-biodiversity nexus, the UN reported that in the Caribbean alone the costs to adapt to climate change are projected to exceed US$22 billion per year by 2050, or approximately 10% of the current size of the Caribbean economy (UN, 2024). Within this context, our Joint Written Statement emphasised the following key points for States to consider:

  1. promote the need for systemic and evolutive interpretation of applicable international law instruments on the ocean and climate, as recently stated by the International Tribunal for the Law in Case No. 31 (May 21, 2024), which are supportive of human rights at the ocean-climate nexus;
  2. prioritise climate change mitigation approaches that avoid threats to SIDS’ right to self-determination;[1]
  3. assess potential transboundary environmental impacts and extraterritorial human rights impacts on SIDS of proposed climate change mitigation and adaptation measures;
  4. promote the inclusion of the precautionary principle and the ecosystem approach, as encapsulated in the ridge to reef (R2R) approach, thereby supporting the indivisibility of human rights and nature. The R2R approach requires the management of the land and sea areas of SIDS collectively as a single ecological unit (Lancaster, 2024 forthcoming), due to the unique characteristics of SIDS, including their ocean-rich nature, and the vast ocean under their control;
  5. prioritise international scientific and other forms of cooperation (notably country-driven funding, capacity building and technology co-development) towards nature-based solutions to climate change for integrated land-sea systems, with the genuine participation of Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant peoples and local communities, [climate] migrants, women and children, persons with disabilities and older persons;
  6. enhance coordination mechanisms between States and across regions on the most urgent threats to human rights at the ocean-climate nexus.

The above key points were derived from the Hub’s Statement to the International Tribunal to the Law of the Sea and reflect a range of views submitted to the Tribunal including:

  • Legal Note: the Request for An Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice on the Obligations of States in Respect of Climate Change (One Ocean Hub, 2024),
  • Joint Submission made by the Hub and Caribbean Environmental Law Unit (CELU) of the University of the West Indies, Renew TT, Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE) Caribbean Region and the International Law Association (ILA) Caribbean Branch in response to “The Request for an Advisory Opinion from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the Climate Emergency and Human Rights.
  • The Environmental Law, Ocean Governance & Climate Justice Unit & Renew TT also submittedComments on the Zero Draft of the Study on the Impact of Climate Change on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Africa.

[1] Non-governmental organisations, major groups and other relevant stakeholders who were accredited in accordance with General Assembly Resolution A/RES/77/245 as well as by A/CONF.223/2024.PC.L1., were invited to submit written statements/inputs to the Conference by 30 May 2024

[2] See A S Bordner, ‘Climate Migration & Self-Determination’ (2019) 51 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 183; N Jones, ‘Prospects for invoking the law of self‐determination in international climate litigation’ (2023) 32 Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law 250

Photo: Dustan Woodhouse (Unsplash)

Related SDGs:

  • Good health and well-being
  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Reduced inequality
  • Climate action
  • Life below water