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Small States, big challenges

Australia will help island nations overcome the threats of climate change.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2011 22:21 IST

As a neighbour to many small island developing States, Australia knows well their vulnerability to climate change. The very existence of countries like Kiribati, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands could be threatened by rising sea levels and more extreme storm surges resulting from global warming.

Yet these are the least responsible for climate change. Small developing States together account for less than 1% of global emissions, and produce an average of 3.3 metric tonnes (mt) of carbon dioxide emissions per capita compared to the world average of 4.6 mt. These islands and coastal States depend on the oceans for their food and livelihoods. Yet, marine ecosystems and coral reefs worldwide are in decline due to overfishing and other destructive fishing practices. Ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change also threaten the long-term survival of marine species.

These States are especially exposed to natural disasters such as hurricanes, cyclones and droughts, some so severe that entire populations and economies are affected. The tsunami that hit Samoa in 2009 cost it 22% of its annual GDP.

The international community, over the next several months, has a chance to change the course of sustainable development.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Durban in December provides another opportunity to take concrete steps toward a global climate regime, which includes legally binding mitigation commitments by all major emitters. The international community will meet again six months later in Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as the Rio+20 Summit. The summit presents a further opportunity for the international community to set the world on a more sustainable course and to decide on practical outcomes that integrate the three pillars of sustainable development - economic, social and environmental. It's important that the global community makes the most of these opportunities.

The world population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Coupled with current economic trends, this could bring with it a tripling in consumption of basic natural resources. Carbon emissions in 2010 were the highest in history, according to the International Energy Agency. And world primary energy demand is estimated to increase by 36% between 2008 and 2035.

Australia knows well that the prosperity of small developing States depends on global progress towards a more sustainable future. The world needs to hear the concerns of these States to understand fully the challenges we all face. And the world needs to act to help them build their resilience to the threats they face.

Australia will shortly host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, with the theme 'Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience'. CHOGM will turn the international community's attention to the importance of building resilience, particularly that of small States, to global crises.In the lead-up to CHOGM, I will host a meeting of Commonwealth and developing small States' foreign ministers bringing together a diverse range of States from every continent.

The meeting will focus on the challenges particular to developing small States in combating climate change and achieving sustainable development, and identifying how the Commonwealth can advance these priorities through national and international cooperation. We will look to pass this message to CHOGM, to the G20 Summit in France in November, to the Durban conference and to Rio+20.Through our role in CHOGM and the G20, at Durban and Rio, Australia will be supporting small developing States to ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear.

Kevin Rudd is the Australian foreign minister. The views expressed by the author are personal.