SIDS facing major economic and environmental setbacks without green reformation

Published as a news update for the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) .

“The renewable transition for all islands is really an opportunity for the islands to define and realize their own potential for a green economy, because without sustainable energy being a part of that they will become the canaries in the coal mine,” Justin Locke said.

Locke was part of a panel of esteemed representatives working in sustainable economic development in Small Island Developing States or SIDS. Master’s candidates from The John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Energy, Resources, and Environment Program, presented a year of research to the panel.

The students were part of a practicum course that allowed them to consult for a client organization aimed at addressing international environmental and energy policy issues. The client, SIDS DOCK, is an initiative among 31 member countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to provide mechanisms to assist in transforming national energy sectors and help generate financial resources to adapt to climate change.

“Islands are really at the forefront of climate change,” Celeste Connors, Associate Practitioner in Residence at SAIS, said. “They are particularly vulnerable to climate related issues including seal level rise, biodiversity loss, limited resources and catastrophic natural disasters, but at the same time, are laboratories for solutions.”

Students, Taylor Crompton, Madeleine Holland, David Pedigo and Erica Shifflett highlighted their policy recommendations to mobilize sustainable development investments in Small Island Developing States. These islands differ greatly in location, cultural diversity, history and governance. Creating a plan that fits all is very challenging, but the research presented took these disparities into account.

The main point the students wanted the audience to leave with were: an understanding that SIDS are well-positioned to turn their challenges into opportunities; long term vision for projects that generate electricity and programs that generate sustainable development are essential in a successful future; regional cooperation can scale up efforts to enable leaders and empower latecomers; and most importantly, that political will is necessary in achieving any goals.

One of the most startling components of their research was the illustration of the high dependency on fuel imports for electricity in most of these island states. In a comparison of 16 SIDS, the importation of fuel alone accounted for between 20 percent and 180 percent of total exports.

“This pattern makes profit from trade almost impossible when other imports such as food and manufactured goods are considered,” Pedigo said.

Energy sector reform, innovative financing mechanisms and long term resilience planning were the three solutions offered to combat the cycle of high electricity prices, high public debt and vulnerability to climate change.

“The challenges SIDS face are significant, but they are also very interrelated; they feed into one another to collectively impede economic development,” Holland said. “The solutions to these challenges require holistic and innovative action.”

The Seychelles is engaged in a Debt-for-Nature Swap, a financial transaction in which a portion of a developing nation’s debt is forgiven in exchange for local investments in environmental conservation measures. This debt swap will result in increased marine protected areas in the country to 30 percent. By protecting the marine habitats such as coral reefs, the island nation is better protected against powerful storms and swells.

After the presentation, each panelist provided a brief response, expressing their gratitude and admiration of the work and research. The first panelist to speak was Ambassador Ronny Jumeau of the Seychelles. As the Ambassador for Climate Change and Small Island Developing State Issues, he argued that the problems such as high electricity prices, high public debt and vulnerability to climate change, were all development issues.

“The solution to all these problems are providing opportunities and challenges for us to solve development issues. We are too small, with the little resources we have, to be dividing these issues into separate empires,” he said.

Ambassador Jumeau urged people to “wake up and smell the coffee,” as many island states are already being left behind in developing the resilience to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.

“How can we buy time and make it easier for our populations and our communities, our people to adapt to the transitions that are headed our way whether we like it or not?” he said.

He, along with other panelists, stressed the need for further collaboration amongst the SIDS in sharing information, data and solutions.

Panelist Jennifer DeCesaro, the Director of Technology–to-Market Program at the US Department of Energy spoke about her agency’s contribution to small island energy transitions. The work being done resulted in the publication of a new playbook with case studies, research and observations from studies done in Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands and other island states such as New Zealand and Iceland.

“The playbook has phases one through six to help islands on their energy transition,” DeCesaro said. “The first step is committing to transition, then setting the vision, assessing the opportunities, doing project preparation and execution, operation and then finally, looking at improving processes.”

Addressing several detailed components to the issue of development was panelist, Justin Locke. Locke is the Director of Islands at the Carbon War Room and expressed that regulatory and policy framework were still not mature enough to take on full-scale projects.

“Land is something we must consider in our development plans,” he said. “Renewable energy becomes very much a part of the natural landscape just like the resorts and hotels that have become a part of the landscape.”

He also made note of the project development costs and the often tedious and drawn out process that makes investors hesitant to commit. There are often multiple stakeholders involved, from the politicians to the investors. Lack of communication and access make projects complex and drawn-out, leading to cuts in funding or stunting of production.

Jan Hartke, the panelist from the Clinton Climate Initiative spoke significantly of the importance of building partnerships with international communities, NGOs and other islands. He thanked the students that presented for their efforts to highlight problems that he hoped to make clear in his work as the Global Director of Clean Energy.

In his response, he compared the effects of climate change and natural disaster on islands and the United States, focusing on the difficulties to recuperate and rebuild after major hurricanes and storms.

“When we think about what Katrina did to one city, imagine what happens when an entire country’s GDP is wiped out for an entire year, maybe even two,” he said.