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paris climate talks

People read the Paris agreement after the announcement of the final draft by French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius at the COP21 climate conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, on Dec. 12, 2015. Under the agreement, countries will try to hold temperature increases to “well below” two degrees “while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.”MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP / Getty Images

None of the 195 countries at the Paris climate change conference got exactly what it wanted when the gavel went down on Saturday night, but the world's small island states seemed happier than most.

When the final text was published earlier that day, Thoriq Ibrahim, Minister of Environment and Energy for the Maldives, beamed. "We're happy with this," he said in an interview at the pavilion of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

For years, the alliance – which represents about 40 island countries, many of them low-lying states in the Pacific and Indian oceans – have been campaigning for a United Nations-sponsored climate change pact that would strive to limit average global temperature increases to 1 1/2 C above pre-industrial levels.

The new Paris Agreement, the most ambitious climate accord ever, came close. Countries will try to hold temperature increases to "well below" two degrees "while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees." The agreement also commits countries to fulfill the national carbon-reduction plans they submitted ahead of the conference and calls for five-years reviews of the plans to prevent slippage.

On Sunday, world leaders pushed for implementation of the accord. "I urge the international community, in its entirety, to carefully follow the road ahead, and with an ever growing-sense of solidarity," Pope Francis, who published an encyclical on the environment last summer, said in his weekly prayers from St. Peter's.

But some fossil-fuel associations said they did not foresee a slowdown in the use of carbon-based fuels even if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented. The World Coal Association noted that coal, which is abundant and cheap, remains the fuel of choice in the developing world.

The small island states argue that some of their countries will be doomed unless planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions plunge. "The science says we're already at a one-degree increase and we're already feeling heavy damage," Mr. Ibrahim said. "So we've been saying that two degrees is too high. Let's keep it at 1.5 degrees."

The inclusion of the 1 1/2-degree aspiration – it is not a firm target – is a remarkable victory for the AOSIS countries. They came to Paris armed with science and allies, whose numbers expanded by the day to include Canada, the European Union, Brazil, Australia and U.S. President Barack Obama. On the first day of the two-week conference, when leaders from 150 countries stormed Paris to give their negotiators a push, Mr. Obama made time for AOSIS. "These nations are not the most populous nations; they don't have big armies," he said. "But they have a right to dignity and a sense of place.

The spirits of the AOSIS countries soared when Mr. Obama told them "I'm an island boy," a reference to the time he spent in Hawaii and Indonesia.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said AOSIS did not simply get lucky in Paris. "They became a big force here," he said. "They were unified and came prepared. They worked with the environmental and scientific community to project their voice."

Some of the big countries might forget the small island states warned about the dangerous effects of climate change well before many of them did. The Maldives, which are located in the Indian Ocean about 600 kilometres southwest of India, realized something was wrong with the climate in 1987, when tidal waves inundated Malé, the capital, triggering fears that the atoll country might one day slip beneath the waves. More than 80 per cent of the total land area, made up of almost 1,200 islands, lies less than one metre above sea level.

In 1989, three years before the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit that introduced "climate change" and "global warming" into the everyday lexicon, Maldives hosted the Small State Conference on Sea-Level Rise. At the Rio conference, AOSIS, whose members now include tiny countries such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu and some relatively big ones, such as Cuba, Singapore and Trinidad, formally came together. Over the years, they held more summits, hired international consultants and lawyers, sought allies and ramped up their social media presence. But the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, which went nowhere, came as a big disappointment to them. "The needs of the small island states [weren't] discussed," Mr. Ibrahim said. "It was all about protecting the big economies."

AOSIS came well armed in Paris. Its case was bolstered early this year, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change released the Structured Expert report, which found that a 1 1/2-degree warming goal would substantially reduce the risks over two-degree warming. At the lower temperature, sea-level rises might remain below one metre – at two degrees, all bets were off – and ocean acidification rates would stay at moderate levels, giving some hope for the survival of coral reefs.

While the AOSIS countries probably will not know for decades whether the Paris Agreement will in any way protect their environment, they certainly made a splash at the conference. "The dynamics of the small countries [were] amazing in Paris," UNFCCC spokesman Nick Nuttall said.

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