By Dr Satyendra Prasad, Climate Lead – Abt Global and Fiji’s Former Ambassador to the UN

Next week, the United Nations will hold one of its largest ever international conferences on small island developing states. This will be held in the beautiful and one of the most climate vulnerable island state of Antigua and Barbuda.

The 4th International Conference on Small Island States will be convened under the Chairmanship of Prime Minister Browne – a great friend of Fiji and the Blue Pacific.

Several world leaders, heads of international financial institutions will attend as will the entire United Nations machinery. The Pacific small island developing states and its institutions such as PIF need to get their ambition and settings right. This may be their last big opportunity until 2030 to do so.

At the half way point in the lead to 2030, the SDG (global development goals) report card for small states looks bleak. On the present trajectory, these states are likely to fail on most of the SDG goals come 2030. All their development efforts are being persistently degraded by the relentlessness of the climate crisis.

Closing the climate gap

His Holiness Pope Francis has warned only this week that “climate change at this moment is a road to death. We have now gotten to a point of no return. Its sad – but that’s what it is”.

Pacific’s leaders, its regional organisations and civil society have been saying this for years. The small island states expect a game change.

Small states are used to hearing comforting and empathetic words from rich countries when they present their development challenges at international forums. The truth is that no country outside of the small states can understand the scale and pain that small states suffer. They cannot.

Vanuatu lost 70 percent of its economy in one night when Cyclone Pam struck a few years back. That is the equivalent of wiping USD$18 trillion off the USA economy overnight; or nearly AUD$1 trillion off the Australian economy overnight. No rich economy has had to bear this scale of loss outside of the 2nd World War.

Climate change erodes resilience across SIDS economies and their societies. The resilience of their roads and wharves is eroded as a result of more intense rains. The resilience of their educational and health infrastructure is eroded as a result of cyclones and erosion of the financial means to repair and rebuild more often. The resilience of their communities is weakened as sea water intrudes into their gardens and farms. Something must change.

SIDS leaders will no doubt talk about this growing resilience gap. What their leaders will be really saying is that on the current 2.5 celcius plus climate change pathway, small states are sleepwalking to their death in full view of the world.

So what must leaders of small states be reaching out for in St Johns next week. What is now needed is a once in a generation global SIDS deal. A SIDS deal that allows small states to break though the impossible odds stacked against them. The elements of a SIDS deal may involve the following.

Closing the $90 Billion debt gap

Collectively, SIDS owe international financial institutions and lenders over USD$90 billion in debt. For each of the three days over which their leaders will meet in St Johns – over $100 will flow back from these small states into the rich world in the form of debt repayments. This is staggering. Debt cancellation, debt pause and substantial debt relief has to be crucial element of this SIDS deal.

Closing the exclusion gap

Small states may be telling the world once again that they feel excluded from decision making. They may deliver great speeches at the UN. But they know that decisions that really matter are the ones that are made on the boards of World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank, and financial institutions. What they really want is real voice, not empathy in places where the great decisions of our times are made. Correcting this injustice must be a part of the SIDS deal.

Closing the finance gap

Leaders of small states will be seeking international solidarity needed to deliver on a new climate finance goal by the time COP 29 is held later this year. Proposals advanced by leaders such as Barbados PM and Fiji’s Deputy PM Prof Prasad for dedicated financing windows for small states across all climate-nature-ocean finance frameworks – at the IFI’s, at GCF and GEF and in other multilateral and bilateral frameworks need to be seriously considered.

I do not see any dramatic change in international solidarity in favour of SIDS by the end of next week. Until that does happen, the world will need to look at proposals for global carbon tax – such as on shipping and air travel to meet the shortfall. To stay exactly where they are today – SIDS need USD$ $10 billion of new grant funds annually all the way through to 2030. A SIDS deal must find a pathway to secure this base level of new funding.

Closing the gap in political will

Host Prime Minister Gaston Browne has eloquently spoken about a widening gap in political will that is needed to deliver stability and hope to SIDS. We know that lack of finance is not the issue. The terms on which finance is made available to SIDS is the problem. We know that capacity to accelerate development in SIDS is not the problem. The transfer of capacity from SIDS to the rich world is the problem. And so at the most consequential meeting for SIDS perhaps in a generation, the World will need to take steps to close the gap in the political will necessary to deliver a SIDS deal.

An evolving security gap

Business as usual will mean that the next stock of fragile states will come from the World’s small states. Fragility is never contained within borders. It has a way of migrating into its broader neighbourhood. Small states have not been a collective problem for the rich world in the past. This is no longer true. There is a real potential that a string of fragile and failed small states stretching across the Indian Ocean, the Blue Pacific and the Caribbean will evolve rapidly. This will become a problem for rich world in no time. This is what is at stake for the World next week.

Dr Satyendra Prasad is the climate lead for Abt Global based in Canberra. Dr Prasad is also a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is Fiji’s former Ambassador to the United Nations.