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Small Island Developing States at the crossroads or which way for the energy transition in Large Ocean States?


Small Island Developing States at the crossroads or which way for the energy transition in Large Ocean States?

A name can change everything. As in the case of Small Island Developing States which are some of the most vulnerable regions globally with regards to the consequences of the ecological crisis. However, this categorisation - having been assigned to them by the International Community - seems to be outdated. Recently, a new concept has made its way to the international audiences, namely the self-denomination as Large Ocean States. The essay looks into this change of name and associated concepts related to the sustainable energy transition and their contestations within the field of Political Ecology.

That Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are one of the most vulnerable groups of countries to the consequences of the ecological crisis and climate change has already been announced three decades ago and elaborated in more detail since (UNOHRLLS 2024; Baptiste, Thomas 2018). Still, ideas and pathways how to combat climate change and how to transition to more sustainable energy sources are contested (Shah 2022), also within Political Ecology. Meanwhile, sea levels are rising, forced population relocation is becoming no individual phenomenon because of degrading coastal lines while the sand of beaches is dissipating and the already limited land mass is further decreasing (Vousdoukas et al. 2023; Asariotis 2020; Shultz et al. 2018).

Naming is an act of power (Escobar 2012). The term SIDS was introduced by the United Nations in 1992 (UNOHRLLS 2024). This connotation of being especially vulnerable has however recently been officially contested by contrasting the denomination of SIDS with the concept of “Large Ocean States” as it was found that SIDS “must reconceptualise ourselves as ocean states, with control over a territory almost 100 times larger than our land space” (DeBeauville-Scott 2020). Similarly, at the Vienna Energy Forum, a panellist called for the new designation as Large Ocean States (Vienna Energy Forum 2021). On both occasions, the new self-denomination was connected to events related to Blue Economy initiatives in the region. How does the new concept of Large Ocean States relate to prospects of foreign investment and the promise of profit and growth through the commercialisation of the ocean space of island states? This is also a concern for the acting island states, as “the global tale of Blue Economy investment in small islands has been one of unequal bargaining positions and grossly inequitable distribution of returns from the use of the islands' seascape” (DeBeauville-Scott 2020).

Changing the colour of the economic concept, and as a central controversy within Political Ecology, also Green Economy as well as Green Growth strategies are being adopted in island states (Moore et al. 2014; UNEP 2014).

Controversies between Green Growth and Degrowth approaches manifested themselves already during the debate between Paul Robbins and Erik Gómez-Baggethun at the POLLEN18 Conference (Political Ecology Network 2018). Following the growth logic, it is claimed that decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions is possible (Wang, Su 2020). However, it has been shown that the assumption of decoupling needs to be concreticised (Wiedenhofer et al. 2020; Haberl et al. 2020) and that green growth theory is not supported by evidence (Hickel, Kallis 2020: 469).

According to Pellizzoni, ecomodernism – a concept related to Green Growth – rejects the understanding of ecological limits and celebrates industrial technology (Pellizzoni 2021: 81f). Degrowth on the other hand makes ecological debt a subject of discussion. Degrowth initiatives require substantive transformations, including different society-nature and power relations, but also answers to the questions how social life is organised and which imaginaries are being followed (Brand 2022: 37). Hickel explains that “Degrowth is […] a demand for decolonization. Southern countries should be free to organize their resources and labor around meeting human needs rather than around servicing Northern growth” (Hickel 2021: 1, emphasis added). Degrowth approaches can only be directed towards the Global North because resources and labour from the Global South are being appropriated by the Global North to achieve economic growth highlighting colonisation patterns (Hickel 2021: 1). However, not only growth in the Global North, also Green Growth leads to more exploitation of the Global South since “[t]ransitioning to 100 percent renewable energy should be done as rapidly as possible, but scaling solar panels, wind turbines and batteries requires enormous material extraction, and this will come overwhelmingly from the global South” (Hickel 2021: 1).

Now, what about countries in the Global South, like Large Ocean States, pursuing Green Growth? To face the ecological crisis with its very unequal consequences around the world, we need to find ways to approach the complex of problems in a socially and ecologically just manner. What is needed is a socio-ecological transformation as suggested by Görg et al., especially "a better understanding of scale interactions, i.e., global, regional and local processes, and the systemic processes as much as the actor constellations and power relations involved" (Görg et al. 2017: 6).

The urgency of climate action seems to be obvious, however, its respective forms are far from being unanimously supported. The concept of "Climate Populism" (Swyngedouw 2022: 1, italics in the original) criticises climate discourse for applying populist practices and calls the liberal climate consensus and climate movements into question which seem to be sustaining the dominant unsustainability.

This leads to another controversy as it manifested itself at the International Summer School Political Ecology in Ljubljana in 2022. The perspective of Erik Swyngedouw was countered by Gladys Fernández, a Cuban economist. Her approach to the ecological crisis and its manifestations in Cuba were more pragmatic underlining the situation of Large Ocean States and the short-term consequences the ecological crisis will have on the life of inhabitants which is why action is needed immediately (Feingold 2023; UNEP 2021; United Nations 2021). Keeping in mind that “the global ecological crisis is playing out along colonial lines” (Hickel 2021: 1), for Large Ocean States, fast adaptation is essential (Klöck, Nunn 2019; Theokritoff et al. 2023). The question that was asked and that still remains open is: How much more time can we spend on deciding which is the most relevant or most supported concept which should be applied to act against the ecological crisis?


[1] Institute of Social Ecology, BOKU University, Austria


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