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This image shows an aerial view of a tropical archipelago with numerous small islands and sandy beaches. The crystal-clear turquoise waters are vibrant and filled with coral reefs visible from above. The islands are interspersed with greenery and patches of forest, creating a striking contrast against the blue ocean. In the distance, the horizon meets a clear blue sky, enhancing the serene beauty of this coastal landscape.

SIDS can pioneer the next generation of climate adaptation solutions

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SIDS can pioneer the next generation of climate adaptation solutions

Small Island Developing States have a crucial role to play in climate action and biodiversity protection. Karina Barquet examines their evolving challenges and innovative climate adaptation responses ahead of the upcoming Fourth International Conference on SIDS conference.

Karina Barquet / Published on 22 May 2024

This article was originally published on IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub and is republished here with permission.

The fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4), taking place in Antigua and Barbuda from 27-30 May, has been described as the most important conference to date for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Compared to when the last such conference took place in Samoa ten years ago, the 39 SIDS are now facing even greater challenges.

Much has changed in the past decade. Not only has the climate crisis turned out to be harder-hitting than expected. As the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has made clear, we are living in an era of environmental degradation, which was not well understood back in 2014, and we are only starting to grasp the magnitude of global pollution risks.

SIDS are at the forefront of this triple planetary crisis. At the same time, they have experienced hardships that few of us would have anticipated a decade ago, like challenges brought about by growing geopolitical tensions and a sharp drop in tourism revenue due to the global pandemic. This has come on top of the special circumstances they already grappled with, like remoteness from international markets, high transport costs, small population sizes, and fragile ecosystems.

Nevertheless, there have also been some unexpected positive developments of importance for climate change adaptation. At SEI, we have followed promising approaches where nature-based solutions (NbS) are combined with novel technologies that are small-scale, modular, and increasingly competitive.

At the SIDS4 conference, we will explore what this can mean for island States in a side event on 28 May. Hopefully, we could be on the cusp of a new generation of climate change adaptation solutions that can be applied in different parts of the world – with SIDS playing an important pioneering role.

Ahead of the SIDS4 conference, we would like to highlight four emerging trends.

SIDS as biodiversity hotspots

Despite a combined population of just 65 million people, SIDS have an outsized importance to many planetary systems. Islands are often exceptionally rich in biodiversity, with endemic species that cannot be found anywhere else. In the case of SIDS, they are home to 20% of biodiversity on land and 40% of coral reefs – one of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth.

We are starting to have a better understanding of how these systems are connected, which has struck a new conversation on how the global commons should be governed. One landmark example was the recent BBNJ Agreement on marine biological biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

New focus on Large Ocean States

As the world is starting to be more aware of the critical role of the ocean for sustaining life on our planet, the importance of island nations should become better understood. Their actions and knowledge are crucial as the world sets out to restore and protect large marine areas.

SIDS are custodians of an area 28 times greater than their land mass. In many cases, their traditional cultures also embed an understanding of marine and terrestrial ecosystems which otherwise may not be very well researched. In recent years, both IPBES and the BBNJ Agreement have stressed the importance of traditional knowledge. Consequently, SIDS are starting to refer to themselves as Large Ocean States.

Nature for resilience

SIDS are increasingly assuming the role of stewards of the global commons. This is clearly in their own interest since they become more resilient to climate shocks by restoring and conserving critical ecosystems like coral reefs, coastal wetlands, and seagrass beds – ecosystems that reduce the impact of storms, buffer against flooding, and prevent erosion. At the same time, they also support biodiversity and sequester greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, for the benefit of the whole planet.

SIDS as pioneers of groundbreaking technology

Another essential contribution of SIDS can be pioneering innovative approaches to climate change adaptation where nature-based solutions are combined with new technology. Through our Gridless Solutions initiative, SEI has followed a promising technology shift with small, modular, and gridless systems becoming increasingly cheap, effective, and viable. Hopefully, this could bring about a fundamental technology transformation that can help countries adapt to rapidly growing risks from sea level rise, water shortages, and extreme weather events.

SIDS have shown great interest in these solutions since they could help them address several of their specific challenges. Critical services like energy, water, and wastewater management can become more robust and better able to cope with new climate extremes. It also enables greener, cheaper, and more locally produced energy in countries that traditionally have relied on high cost, imported fossil fuels. Furthermore, marine multiuse platforms are attractive to islands where limited space is an issue.

For SIDS, it is essential to have access to these new solutions since they could be helpful tools when building more resilient societies and economies. At the same time, this could fast-track a critical technology shift, for the benefit of the whole world.

Given that 40% of the global population lives within 100 kilometers of coastlines, many will soon face threats similar to those experienced today by SIDS. The world will need to invest in more research on innovative nature-based and gridless solutions, where SIDS offer a valuable environment for testing and development.

Hopefully, SIDS4 will be remembered for constructive discussions about the urgency of the multiple crises facing island States but also for having grasped the new opportunities for climate change adaptation, with SIDS in a leading role.

SEI author

Karina Barquet
Karina Barquet

Team Leader: Water, Coasts and Ocean; Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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