COP-23: Can More Transparency, New Technology Save Small Island States?

As the Climate Conference of Parties (COP-23) wraps up in Bonn, Germany, the prime minister of the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which is sinking a few millimeters every year, made an impassioned call for transparency in the Paris Agreement “rule book” and for ratcheting up worldwide ambitions to reduce climate change.  While informal texts were drafted to guide implementation of the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, formal adoption of these rules will have to wait until COP-24, to be held in Poland next year.

“Verifiable actions must be implemented to save Tuvalu and save the world,” said Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga.  He pleaded for continuing the Tanaloa Dialogue (Fijian for “open conversation”) which includes vulnerable nations and the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters like China and India. He also called for an increase in adaptation funding for the most hard-hit nations, and for “loss and damage” provisions to be restored. 

However, payments of loss and damage to the most vulnerable developing nations like Tuvalu may be a non-starter, and funds for mitigation and adaptation projects will be relatively modest.  As diplomats prepare to take stock in 2020 of the 196 participating nations’ voluntary nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for emissions reductions, Tuvalu is trying to leverage the assistance that does exist, and also access a technological fix.

In a Sea of Blue Carbon, New Land Rises

The 10,000-person republic has a land mass smaller than the District of Columbia, but its government has jurisdiction over a large swath of Pacific Ocean—otherwise known as “blue carbon” for its effectiveness as a carbon capture sink. Tuvalu has just received the Green Climate Fund’s first major outlay, the first US $2 million in a planned $50 million U.S. project to dredge and protect the coasts of several of Tuvalu’s atolls against flooding caused by sea-level rise.  Even more ambitious, however, is the government’s plan to reclaim and construct a land area the size of New York’s Central Park at 5-to-10 meters above sea level, allowing citizens from outer atolls to resettle on this new elevation-fortified land, excavated from the sea on Funafuti Atoll.

Japanese photographer Shuuichi Endou, who has advocated for decades to save Tuvalu, said the island construction project, which is estimated to cost from $200 million to $400 million, could be a conservation area, tourist resort, and sanctuary for residents of outer flooded islands. “We don’t have mountains to protect. We don’t have lakes.  But we do have an atoll,” he said.

Some 2,000 Tuvaluans already live in New Zealand; and Fiji’s Agriculture Secretary and COP-23 host Inia Seruiratu explained that Fiji has offered to resettle Tuvaluans displaced by climate change. But Funafuti Island Chief Silliga Kofe said that his people do not want to relocate, and that the international community should live up to the pre-Paris pledge of restricting climate change to the targeted maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius over this century (rather than the 2 degrees Celsius goal acknowledged by the Paris negotiators as acceptable). “How many more people must be drowned or have their livelihoods washed into the oceans before we act?” said Kofe.

Measuring the Invisible: Blockchain for Climate

As nations are called upon to account for their carbon dioxide emissions, which are largely invisible and difficult to detect, transparency concerns are paramount. Article 13 of the Paris Agreement requires nations to report regularly to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on progress meeting their NDCs.  But efforts to codify rules on reporting requirements, perhaps along the lines of those used by other international organizations, have thus far met with national resistance. 

The NDCs were determined by “bottom up” pledges, based on national determinations of how to mitigate climate change, rather than on any “top down” systematic approach based on a technically derived carbon budget.  Many nations felt that compliance would also be entirely voluntary, but many frontline analysts, including Sopoaga, are calling for a more rigorous bureaucratic structure for monitoring and verifying compliance.

Joseph Pallant, who manages emissions trading for Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd., said that more stringent international standards to regulate the measurement of carbon emissions would also serve the private sector.  “We in carbon markets are no strangers to intangible products and outcomes of our work.  A carbon offset, fundamentally, is an intangible commodity that represents a ton of carbon dioxide that has been kept out of the atmosphere” through absorption, he said.

Pallant and others increasingly see a partial solution to the problem of transparency in the use of “blockchain,” or distributed ledger technology. Blockchain was first used by bitcoin and other digital currencies, but now it may be adopted in climate change-related transactions because of it can facilitate decentralized transactions of data and other information that does not require third-party verification.

Miroslav Polzer, a scientist seeking to involve young entrepreneurs worldwide in climate mitigation projects through blockchain, said the tool has been effective in microfinance development projects for “gathering young people on the ground in places like Ghana and China, where we otherwise would not be able to reach them.” Through blockchain technology, they could “fully participate as climate change entrepreneurs.”

Whether network-organizing structures like blockchain can help nations account for emissions reductions or give rural entrepreneurs access to start-up capital remains to be seen.  Such private sector solutions are increasingly being heralded, especially by U.S. COP observers, as President Trump in June announced that the United States would withdraw from the climate change negotiations. 

Tuvalu’s efforts to assume control over their problem may inspire hope.  More broadly, the Tuvaluans’ story, as told to a somber audience on Tuesday, made the invisible strikingly visible for the participants of COP-23. But as COP-23 winds down, Tuvalu must prepare, as always, for the waters to keep rising.

Todd A. Eisenstadt is a professor in the Department of Government at American University

Sources: Banking Technology, The Blue Carbon Initiative, Climate Change Adaptation, International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative, Project for Advancing Climate Transparency, Statistics New Zealand, Tuvalu Islands, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, World Resources Institute

Photo CreditJapanese photographer Shuuichi Endou, who directs the NGO Tuvalu Overview, presents his plan to enlarge Tuvalu’s largest atoll to resettle people escaping sea-level rise, at COP-23 meeting in Bonn, Germany, November 2017.  Photo by Todd A. Eisenstadt.