In 2017, hurricane Irma turned the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda into “literally rubble” forcing the entire population of 1,400 residents to be evacuated to their sister island, Antigua.
The recovery needs assessment led by World Bank Group concluded that Irma, combined with another hurricane, Maria (which struck Antigua shortly afterwards), would cost the twin island nation $377.2 million in damages, losses and recovery needs—a bill amounting to 25% of the country’s GDP that year.
The destructive capacity of Irma, which made landfall in Barbuda as a category 5 storm, was likely intensified by warming seas in the Atlantic Ocean caused by climate change.
Antigua and Barbuda —together with all the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the world— emit less than 1% of Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs); yet, there exists no active mechanism for holding the world’s largest emitters accountable for recovery efforts through the United Nations Framework Convention (UNFCCC) on Climate Change.
Even more, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) rules stipulated that Antigua and Barbuda was too rich to qualify for most aid grants needed to rebuild and repopulate Barbuda post-Irma.
“Immoral and unjust,” is how the Prime Minister of Barbados branded failures to deliver critical loss and damage funding to small islands when addressing the World Leaders’ Summit at COP26.
She added that the toll of the climate crisis for SIDS was being measured in “lives and livelihoods”.
With current emissions trends, small islands face an existential threat. The Emissions Gap Report shows that even if each country stuck to its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, the world would still become 2.7C warmer than pre-industrial levels by the year 2100.
A separate special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) demonstrates that this half-a-degree difference is indeed a matter of life or death for SIDS.
Because of this, Antigua and Barbuda decided to kick off COP26 with a big, bold move made in collaboration with Tuvalu, an Pacific island nation that is disappearing as a result of sea-rise and coastal erosion. Both islands announced a platform to hold big emitters legally accountable for loss and damages from extreme weather.
Holding polluters accountable for loss and damage
With Barbuda still reeling from the effects of Irma five years later—a fact acknowledged by COP26 president Alok Sharma during the Opening Plenary—its Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, came to COP26 with a big plan: hold polluters accountable.
On the day of the World Leader’s Summit, he joined Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, Kausea Natano, to launch a commission that would investigate legal ways to hold large emitters responsible for the “loss and damage” experienced in their home countries and other SIDS.
“The polluters must pay,” he said, cautioning that the statement was not intended as an act of aggression. Discussions about “loss and damage”, however, are a sensitive topic for small islands, experts said.
“Developed countries for a long time have resisted any effort to recognise loss and damage, because of the liabilities and potential claims for compensation that might emanate from that,” said Dr Colin Young, Executive Director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC).
He credited the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Caribbean negotiators for the fact that article 8 was even included in the Paris Agreement to address concerns of “loss and damage”. However, the absence of language about liability for developed nations was a result of compromise.
As he said, the critical issues at COP26 for small islands are limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels; securing climate finance for adaptation; finalising the Paris rulebook; and creating a loss and damage fund.
Speaking at a high-level side event at the AOSIS Pavilion at COP26, Tuvalu Minister of Finance, Seve Paeniu, said that such a fund would need to be accessible to the most vulnerable countries on the frontline of the climate crisis.
“This is critical because even with the current funding mechanisms such as the Global Climate Fund, a number of the SIDS have taken years just to access that global fund,”Natano said.
For example, it would have been a game changer for Antigua and Barbuda to have had a loss and damage fund in place after Hurricane Irma. This could’ve been implemented through the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for loss and damage.
One developed country that has taken a public leadership role in advancing loss and damage is Scotland. The country announced at COP26 a donation of £1 million to a prospective loss and damage fund.
“It’s an issue of climate justice,” Young said. “We [SIDS] are not the cause of this problem we’re suffering. So when a country like Scotland would then show global leadership and be a first mover in putting a million pounds to loss a damage, it is significant,” he added.
As small as this amount may seem, the moment represented the first time that a developed nation had embraced the term loss and damage and the implication of liability that comes with it, according to the largest conglomerate of climate NGOs, Climate Action Network (CAN). Scotland is “setting a precedent that the richer nations must follow,” CAN said in a statement.
This sentiment was shared by Caroline Mair-Toby, director and founder of the Caribbean Institute of Small Islands, who said the gesture was significant.
The fact that Scotland was not an independent country added to the significance of the gesture, she said. “That they simply are not obliged to do so, starkly highlights the reluctance of countries that are wealthy and fully capable,” she said.
Professor Payam Akhaven, the lawyer who will lead the commission on behalf of Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu, told Climate Tracker that Scotland’s gesture was a “reflection of the growing recognition that climate change is the consequence of deliberate conduct causing harm”. This, he said, was proof that climate change must be framed in terms of damages.
Antigua and Barbuda currently serves as chair of AOSIS; however, their commission with Tuvalu has been launched independently of AOSIS and will seek to garner support from other AOSIS members over the coming months.