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In September, the Caribbean...
The Chinese year of the Water Snake began less than a month ago, on February 10, heralding a year of transformation and change, of rebirths and new beginnings.
It marks a shift from 2012, the year of the Water Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac. The year of the dragon in the zodiac is supposed to be aggressive and ruthless, forceful with energy and fast-paced. And what a year it was—a veritable rollercoaster of a year for the environment. There were many devastating blows.
We saw this on a global level—in the weather, in climate change and in the refusal of the world to change or adapt to inevitable changes.
We saw the failure of Rio Conference after the hope of Durban, in the melting ice caps and the de-frosting of Greenland. We saw the awesome power of Hurricane Sandy, spanning over 1,000 miles in length.
We see it in the Caribbean as well. Alongside the deluge of images of Sandy battering New York in international media, I remember searching for images of the effects of Sandy in Haiti.
There were few images. Sparse footage of children barefoot and homeless, tents flapping loose in the breeze, brown muddy floodwater cascading over three-year-old rubble, a dead cow carried along the streets in a wooden cart.
Images of cholera borne by blue-helmeted Nepalese UN peacekeepers. And fear and desperation in the eyes of mothers as they wonder where to find shelter, water, food for their families.
Years after the earthquake, Haiti has not been rebuilt, and every hurricane that passes debilitates it further.
We have so much to lose as small islands. Vulnerable to every passing storm, every drought, every inch the sea-level climbs as a result of climate change.
In the Pacific, the Carteret islands—a ring of six atolls 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea—have already seen the results of rising sea levels. The residents of these islands have become the first climate-change exiles or refugees, as they are controversially known, having to leave all they know owing to loss of habitable and arable lands and desalination of fresh-water aquiferous lens.
They are the canaries in the coalmines, and we in the Caribbean are next if we do not take action. It is a peculiar situation to be in, being a small island.
Sea levels are rising as a result of the pollution produced by developed industrialised countries.
The melting of polar ice sheets and glaciers, as seen at record rate in Greenland in 2012, could raise the level of the oceans resulting in the inundation of Pacific island states such as Tuvalu and large parts of Bangladesh.
This could trigger a major shift in human population as people are forced to migrate from low-lying coastal areas and islands.
Developed industrialised countries must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that lead to climate change.
The importance of global action and accountability was addressed at two major environmental summits in 2012: the Rio+20 summit in Brazil, and the United Nations Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar. Both were highly anticipated, and both were overwhelmingly disheartening.
The Rio+20 Conference (or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) was held in Rio de Janeiro in June to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). This 1992 conference, also held in Rio de Janeiro, was the original Rio Conference. It was seminal in its groundbreaking outputs, which pushed forward the environmental agenda, as countries adopted Agenda 21 to advance economic growth, social equity and environmental protection.
Part of Agenda 21 was the Bali Road Map—a set of decisions that focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest management, encouraged technology transfer to developing countries, launched the Adaptation Fund and included the ambitious Bali Action Plan.
In contrast, the 2012 Rio+20 Conference, according to environmental journalist George Monbiot of the UK Guardian, was “283 paragraphs of fluff.”
“At least the states due to sign this document haven’t ripped up the declarations from the last Earth summit, 20 years ago,” he went on to say. “But in terms of progress since then, that’s as far as it goes.
“Reaffirming the Rio 1992 commitments is perhaps the most radical principle in the entire declaration.”
I attended the 2011 UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa. I remember being jubilant at the outcomes, though tentatively and cautiously so, for we thought we had seen the heralding of a new era.
For once we thought that change was possible, that the developed world was beginning to acknowledge their historical responsibility for the crisis. An agreement, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, had been signed. It launched a new round of negotiations aimed at developing negotiate a new, legally-binding instrument engaging all countries for the post-2020 period after the end of the Kyoto Protocol, which commits developing countries to limiting emissions.
However, at the 2012 UNFCCC agreements in Doha, environmentalists were less than enthusiastic. The outcomes were feeble at best.
There were gains. The life of the Kyoto Protocol, which had been due to expire at the end of 2012, was extended until 2020. The concept of “loss and damage” was incorporated for the first time. And an agreement in principle that richer nations could be financially responsible to other nations for their failure to reduce carbon emissions.
But only the bare minimum of agreements could be accomplished, and more difficult agreements were pushed into the future.
Here in the Caribbean, there is much we can do. Barbados has taken strides in solar energy and water conservation but the energy sector has rendered us inactive in T&T.
We cannot rely endlessly on oil and gas non-renewable resources. Development must be sustainable if we are to confront the realities ahead of us. T&T changed status in October 2011, and is no longer considered a developing country, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) list, which determines who receives aid for development.
It is now up to us to focus on protecting what is ours. We can learn from countries like Costa Rica, where conservation is a national effort.
Editor’s note: Caroline Mair is a lawyer and a consultant specialising in international environmental law, with an emphasis on climate change and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). She is a consultant with Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) which advises developing countries on multilateral environmental negotiations. She is also a special advising consultant with British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL).