5 October, 2020

Consultations in the time of Covid-19: small islands unhindered in stepping up climate ambition

Eriko Shrestha, Rachel Pham

Despite the compounding challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, its economic fallout and a slew of tropical storms, small island nations still prioritise fighting the existential threat of climate change. They are pressing on with strengthening their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, which governments are expected to communicate by the end of 2020.
Antigua and Barbuda's Fourth National Communication Mitigation Workshop ©Antigua Newroom

As if 2020 were not bad enough with the COVID-19 pandemic, Caribbean small island nations were also hit with a record-breaking slew of Atlantic storms this year. Meteorologists resorted to using the Greek alphabet in naming tropical storms last September just days after more than five named active storms ravaged the Atlantic Basin. This is the second time in recorded history that more than five named storms occurred simultaneously in the same region, and only the second time the World Meteorological Organization’s predetermined list of tropical storm names have been exhausted.

Disasters during a pandemic become threat multipliers for vulnerable countries – in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean, the Pacific and for Least Developed Countries around the world. Yet, SIDS that depend on tourism as the largest revenue generating sector are drowning in the economic fallout from COVID-19 as tourism has all but ground to a halt. This lack of revenue has compounded existing debt issues.

These issues currently at the forefront compete with a far more existential challenge: climate change. Recognising this, SIDS push forward with strengthening their climate plans (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, which governments are expected to communicate ahead of the next UN climate summit COP26.

When the world essentially came to a standstill at the start of the pandemic, discourse around the NDC revision process circulated around the delays that the pandemic would pose, particularly in gaining critical feedback from stakeholders. The stakeholder engagement process is key to inclusive decision making by seeking feedback from public, private and civil society entities like ministries, businesses and non-profit organisations, whose ownership of targets support their success.

The time and effort allocated for these discussions cannot be overlooked or undervalued, even during a pandemic. Stakeholder engagement helps evaluate the feasibility of mitigation targets and adaptation actions, determine national ownership, and assist in translating NDC targets into implementation strategies, national development plans and long-term strategies.

Without these consultations, there are few avenues to gain national buy-in for domestic climate strategies, and slimmer chances of obtaining funding to realise the conditional targets set by SIDS.

There are also concerns that online video conferencing cannot replace the dynamics of in-person consultations, especially in conveying highly technical information, and could hinder negotiations, especially for capacity-constrained countries. Despite these challenges, SIDS have stepped up to the plate and led the way by adapting to the “new normal”: working remotely without compromising on climate action priorities or key processes such as stakeholder engagement.

Antigua and Barbuda hosted their Fourth National Communication – Mitigation Workshop on August 14 in order to garner support for their 2020 NDC. The innovative workshop format included a mix of in-person participants, in accordance with national health guidelines, and virtual attendees. The Department of Environment hosted the event outdoors and organised small groups with socially distanced seating to limit the gathering of multiple stakeholders. Those not comfortable or unable to attend in person joined through a video conferencing platform to enable remote participation.

Each small in-person group was given a laptop in this multimedia setup so that all participants could connect and discuss regardless of their physical location. At the kick off for this Fourth National Communication held earlier this summer, this format even survived the test of breakout group sessions. When participants arrived at the outdoor venue they joined a breakout group specified by sector and those joining remotely tuned into the relevant virtual conference streams.

Climate Analytics has been providing technical support to Antigua and Barbuda’s NDC revision process and participated in both workshops – our experts joined virtually but one expert joined in person. In the latest mitigation workshop, our experts presented preliminary results from their energy model to gain local feedback from key sectors like energy, environment, agriculture and waste.

It is still possible to host stakeholder consultations while following local COVID-19 guidelines. Saint Lucia has followed suit by organising its own virtual validation workshop involving public and private sectors. The takeaways from Antigua and Barbuda’s workshops are that engaging stakeholders virtually as well as in-person requires well-organised moderation of the discussion, and of course, strong internet connectivity.

The same enablers for the format of this workshop are often the pitfalls of many others: SIDS and developing countries at large face internet connectivity issues and finding the space to hold such workshops can be difficult with weather challenges as we inch closer to winter (albeit, not a concern for tropical islands). Most important of all, funding is still required, whether it be to rent a space, purchase video conferencing licenses, or set up the technology and infrastructure to bring such a workshop to fruition.

SIDS continue to fuel the momentum for climate action and ambition. The Marshall Islands and Jamaica have already submitted their revised NDCs, but the strides that they are making require equal reinforcement from the international community.

While the pandemic is disruptive at multiple levels, there are also opportunities to be found. Since virtual workshops have now become the norm, coordinating to include team members and implementing partners across several time zones has become almost seamless. The virtual connection is also conducive to knowledge sharing between countries and implementing partners to undertake best practices for NDC revision.

Above all, limiting climate change is a marathon, not a sprint, and controlling the pandemic adds to the already long list of adaptation and mitigation measures for which capacity-constrained countries will need resources from climate funds and donors. As the Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, Ambassador Lois Young wrote in a recent commentary, “we have taken up the responsibility to lead and will continue to do so, but we cannot do it alone.”

Climate Analytics provides support and technical assistance to developing countries in revising and/or updating their NDCs for 2020. These currently include Antigua and Barbuda, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Grenada, Nepal, and Saint Lucia.