A scene from a coastal management protection measure activity in Kiribati. Photo by: © AusAID / CC BY

CANBERRA — COVID-19’s impact on the economy and development of island nations was a key focus at the Virtual Island Summit, which drew to a close on Sept. 13. The reliance of tourism for many island nations, which has ground to a halt as the world grapples with the spread, means that lives and livelihoods are being impacted.

Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations Barbados Chad Blackman explained that as tourism is a major income earner, COVID-19 has served as a major disruptor of the economy and the livelihoods of the citizens.

“Hotels received no tourists, taxi operators who would rely on the boom and business of tourists coming to the country virtually ground to a halt, the food and beverage sector which relied on the tourism sector again virtually came to a halt, and there was a high level of unemployment during that period,” said Blackman, speaking about the impacts of lockdowns and travel restrictions.

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The summit provided an opportunity to share lessons learned from the COVID-19 response and approaches to the recovery, with a particular focus on green and sustainable solutions that can respond to the other big global crisis that should not be forgotten in the pandemic — climate change.

Make climate change a priority

“While COVID-19 is our most pressing challenge today, climate change remains humanities’ biggest challenge over the long term,” Ovais Sarmad, deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, said in his address to the global audience on September 9.

As the world does face a pandemic, Sarmad highlighted that climate change has not disappeared but rather is accelerating in impact.

“In Siberia, a heatware took temperatures in the region to 38 degrees Celsius — 18 degrees above the average for this time of year,” he said. “In the Atlantic, the hurricane season has begun with the highest number of tropical storms recorded before the month of August. And the list goes on.”

Understanding connections between the environment and its global impacts — including COVID-19 — is important for building resilience.

“It is an environmental crisis,” Sarmad said. “Our destruction of natural habitats that have made health crises like COVID more likely to occur.” With global temperatures today averaging 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, he said annual emission reductions of 8% annually between now and 2030 is required to prevent global catastrophe and the impact on low-lying island states.

Despite small island developing states — or SIDS — contributing less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, their vulnerability to the effects of the climate emergency sees them “living with the reality” of the environmental, social, economic, and health impacts from the way humanity has treated the planet.

COVID-19, however, may create hope.

“We remain optimistic that our anticipated recovery from COVID-19 will give us a rare chance to catch up in the climate emergency,” Sarmas said. “Right now, nations throughout the world are mobilizing historic sums of money to recover from COVID. We are urging [them] … as they roll out these measures, to avoid fossil-fuel lock-in, and instead embrace green and inclusive stimulus packages. Because in recovery, we have a fantastic opportunity to recover better.”

Focusing on green job creation, ensuring no taxpayer dollars are tied to fossil fuels, and working together through “inclusive multilateralism” were important strategies Sarmad urged for countries to consider in their COVID recovery. While there was uncertainty about whether this opportunity will be seized, islands were making sure their message for global reform would be communicated wherever possible with the goal to see real action delivered at COP26 next year.

Leading the way in sustainable living

While the calls for global action were an important focus of discussion, highlighting what islands have achieved — and continue to achieve — in sustainable living was also an important part of island engagement.

Humberto Vidal, director of the Center of Energy Resources at the University of Magallanes in Chile sees islands as an important setting for innovative research. Focusing on small-scale farmers on islands in the Magallanes Region of Chile, his research is showing how renewable energy — using wind turbines, solar power, and marine energy — can reduce fuel costs for farmers and improve productivity.

But beyond energy, islands can also use innovative ideas to reduce landfill and waste. In Saint Helena in the Atlantic, Lolly Young explained the St Helena’s Active Participation in Enterprise is experimenting with small scale plastic recycling to produce unique souvenirs — among many other recycling strategies that she said is employing locals and is “well regarded among the local community.” Cleaner transport including shipping are other areas islands are hoping to lead on.

Youth leadership is important in global action

While solutions are being developed to create clean and sustainable opportunities for development on islands globally, political action is still required. Youth leaders speaking on the final day of the conference highlighted that for them, climate has impacted their entire lives — and the effects are worsening.

By sharing their experiences and creating youth networks that will draw national and global attention to the climate crisis, they aim to prevent irreversible environmental damage to their homes.

Fiji-based climate change activist Komal Kumar explained that she was inspired to become a climate leader in 2016 when tropical Cyclone Winston hit Fiji and the Pacific. “That was a real eye-opener for me, seeing first-hand that this is what a [category five] cyclone can do to us — the many lives it took and the many livelihoods it destroyed.”

Joseph Moe'ono-Kolio, head of Pacific for Greenpeace International, was also drawn to climate change after an experience as a teenager. “My arrival into this climate space was really triggered by something I saw when I was a 16 year old. My father took me to where his old primary school used to be. And we were standing underneath a foot of water.”

Entering climate activism for Kumar and Moe'ono-Kolio was about fighting for their future.

Combining the voices of the youth among island nations — in the Pacific, Caribbean, and elsewhere — is an important objective for Solomon Yeo to drive political change. Despite perceptions that the Pacific, is small and has limited impact on global debate, his role as campaign director for the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change aims to show that combined, the impact of islands can be great — enabling them to “continue to play an important role in the well-being of humanity.”

Visit the Turning the Tide series for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.