Facing rising sea levels, increasingly frequent natural disasters, major waste and pollution challenges and weakening family structures, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) around the globe require a fresh round of innovative solutions, ranging from economic diversification to island-based technological and cultural innovation to regional and global policy initiatives, according to a new Global Environment Outlook report released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

According to the GEO SIDS Outlook, which engaged a broad range of SIDS scientists, experts and policymakers, SIDS have reached a turning point from which a number of future scenarios are possible, ranging from business as usual – where islands are left farther behind – to a future marked by significant gains in sustainable development.

The report explores the state of SIDS in today’s world, from extreme sea level rise in islands like Tuvalu and Funafuti – which have recorded levels up to three times the global average – to the natural disasters that disproportionately affect SIDS. Under the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenario for a global average temperature increase of approximately 4°C, it notes, sea level rise could be as much as one metre by 2100, severely affecting the estimated 30 per cent of the population of SIDS who live in areas less than five metres above sea level.

The report also puts forth a number of proposed elements of a SIDS policy framework for sustainability within the larger global framework of the post-2015 agenda and the future Sustainable Development Goals.

In particular, it recommends action as part of a “blue-green economy” outlook – one which offers the prospect of environmentally sound, socially inclusive growth with a lower level of indebtedness, transparent financial systems, food security and enhanced disaster preparedness.

“Small Island Developing States presently face a number of major challenges and hardships,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.  “Many suffer from isolation and high costs associated with long distances from global markets, and lag behind in the adoption of new technologies and innovation. Growing populations concentrated in urban areas are putting stress on island resources and the health effects of unsafe water, poor sanitation and increasingly unhealthy diets. Meanwhile, climate change threatens biodiversity, livelihoods and even the very existence of some island nations.”

“As the world enters the post-2015 era, significant changes both in global policy and on islands themselves were identified by the GEO expert teams from SIDS. Improvements in line with the blue-green economy would include, among other things, economic diversification, economic approaches to improve the management of biodiversity, resource efficiency, and sustainable consumption and production,” he added.

Along with the blue-green economy outlook, the report recommends an ensemble of three other island-centric elements: “technology leapfrogging”, priority to island community and culture and reconnecting with nature.

The blue-green economy

According to the report, a blue-green economic strategy – one which targets resource efficiency and clean technology, is carbon neutral and socially inclusive – will provide a clean and healthy environment and help conserve resources. By focusing on balanced development and the linkages between small-scale fisheries and aquaculture, water, tourism, renewable energy and waste, some of the most critical challenges facing SIDS can be addressed.

Transitional policy instruments will be needed to establish the conditions for a blue-green economy. An enabling agenda, focused on increasing public investment and spending, development of market-based instruments, encouragement of private sector involvement, integrated planning and management of island resources based on social equality and poverty eradication, revision of the legislative and regulatory framework and enhancement of institutional capacity, could be considered.

A blue-green economy outlook requires the development of economic tools to improve the management of biodiversity, using indigenous and local knowledge in decision-making and monitoring. Such tools as the UN System of Environmental and Economic Accounting, natural capital accounting, payment for ecosystem services and carbon trading schemes would contribute to establishing the “right” market prices for natural resources.

Other elements of a blue-green economy outlook include the increased awareness of resource efficiency and innovative eco-product design – those that “design-out” waste – as well as fostering sustainable consumption and production patterns and integrated waste management strategies.

Technology leapfrogging

According to the report, SIDS should envisage rapid technological innovation, especially in information and communication technologies, that will help overcome island isolation, create new ways of maintaining social and cultural ties across the island diaspora and help evolve new economic activities.

Some of the hallmarks of technological leapfrogging in the context of SIDS include Information and Communication Technology (ICT) enablement for the benefit of society, phasing out of inefficient technologies and increasing the penetration of renewable sources of energy and materials, as well as the use of traditional knowledge to create scale-appropriate technologies.

Digital technologies have enormous potential to benefit everyday life in SIDS and to tackle disaster risk management and a variety of social challenges. A digital agenda, focused on ICT capabilities to support social cohesion and connectivity, will help improve access to information, reduce energy consumption, support citizen’s lives, revolutionize health services and deliver better public services.

SIDS will continue to face many challenges when dealing with climate change. For example, in the western Pacific –where the rates of sea level rise on islands such as Tuvalu and Funafuti have been recorded up to 3 times the global average of 2.8-3.6 mm/year – islands are susceptible to extreme sea level events such as storm surges and tidal waves.

In order to deal with such challenges, a very high level of skill and education will be required. Therefore, policies should encouraging “brain circulation”, or the return of skilled people who have emigrated away from the island. In addition, traditional knowledge and activities such as fishing can be combined with other sectors to create new business opportunities.

Priority to island community and culture

There is great potential among SIDS to encourage a healthy island culture combining traditional and modern elements, evolving with the times while maintaining roots in island heritage. Each island community and culture should select what it wants from globalization within island limits, without being passive consumers.

Giving priority to island community and culture involves the promotion of participatory community and indigenous conservation and management; communities that are resilient; widespread collective action and partnership and the development of an island-centric demand side in the global marketplace; and education that has sustainability at its core.

Among participatory and community approaches described in the report is that of building community resilience as a key element in successful climate change adaptation and risk management.

This involves four critical strategies: building coping capacities to withstand and counteract shocks; strengthening existing and developing new early warning systems; strengthening disaster risk reduction capacity in SIDS, for example,  through ecosystem-based adaptation such as restoring beaches and mangroves; and actively engaging the international community in reducing the anthropogenic causes of the increased frequency of extreme events, including global warming and environmental degradation.

Reconnecting with nature

Connections with nature have long been important to island peoples. In a blue-green economy outlook scenario, traditional knowledge of the environment would be combined with modern science to increase the integration and harvestable capacity of island ecosystems to restore biodiversity. Coral reef growth could be maintained by careful management and supported by citizen science and monitoring.

A number of SIDS have emphasized improving management and expansion of protected areas (PAs) as a strategy for dealing with biodiversity loss. Between 1990 and 2009, however, only a handful of SIDS showed an increase of over 4 per cent in protected areas. A related strategy is the promotion and implementation of community or indigenous conservation and management areas, which respect and incorporate local and indigenous knowledge.

Similarly, empowering local communities and devolving power to them for managing and restoring forested areas has proven effective in places like Palau and Vanuatu.

The report recommends investments in organic agricultural policies and agritourism – which connects sustainable agriculture with tourism – as ways to increase food self-sufficiency, and notes that many SIDS are already successfully investing money in improving and developing water and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

To download the full report, visit: http://uneplive.org/media/docs/region/59/GEO_SIDS_final.pdf