A polluter’s paradise: Why the Overseas Territories face significant BIODIVERSITY RISKS

By, Sarah Cooper-Lesadd, Research Analyst


The UK has responsibility for 14 Overseas Territories (UKOTs) comprising of military bases, exclaves, islands and archipelagos spread far across the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, as well as the Mediterranean. While they all are united by their Britishness, they are diverse in size, population and governance from the largest, the British Antarctic Territory with a land mass of over 660,000 square miles to the Pitcairn Islands with one of the smallest populations in the world. The UK’s OTs are not just culturally diverse but environmentally distinctive, boasting unique ecosystems and habitats that collectively encompass over 90% of the UK’s biodiversity and over fifty-eight endangered and 168 vulnerable species. While their rich climate is a big pull factor for tourists seeking a sanctuary ashore, climate change and over-pollution are putting UKOT’s beaches, rainforests and wildlife at risk. From their unique ecosystems to their rich biodiversity, they play to a vast array of treasured and irreplaceable resources but face an increasingly uncertain future in a resource-hungry world as the rate of natural disasters increases, over-pollution intensifies and resource pressures on their unique and irreplaceable ecosystems mount.

While our overseas territories are treasured for their unique and unparalleled environments, a major but often understated risk is undoubtedly climate change. The vast majority of UKOTs are situated in remote archipelagos and while they possess some of the richest habitats, their very beauty is their vulnerability. With the exception of the British Antarctic Territory, Gibraltar and the Cyprus Sovereign Base areas- Akrotiri and Dhekelia, all are small islands and are among those that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified as most “most vulnerable” and “virtually certain to experience the most severe ecological impacts” of climate change. Many of our territories are low lying and are particularly vulnerable to sea level rises, changes in the frequency of extreme weather events and heat waves. The Foresight Report on the International Dimensions of Climate Change highlights that island communities encompass a range of characteristics that make them among the most economically, socially and environmentally vulnerable in the world. Hurricane Irma highlighted the risks associated with climate change and the vulnerabilities associated with an island’s small geographic size, remoteness, fragile ecosystems and isolation from markets.

Anguilla was one of the worst affected islands as Hurricane Irma devastated the infrastructure and almost two years on, islanders are still grappling with the vast economic and societal challenges of coping with a natural disaster. The damage was immediately evident with 90% of the roads being left impassable and the island’s air traffic control tower left damaged which only exacerbated the territory’s remoteness. Long term, it is estimated that Anguilla could suffer at least $190 million in economic losses from the hurricane. However, freak weather disasters not only bring economic impacts, but damages are inherently societal. The Foresight Report on the International Dimensions of Climate Change highlights that some islands could be completely cut off from communication with the outside world as their remoteness means that they face grave risks from sea level rises and more intense storms, including damage to infrastructure such as ports, harbours, airport structures and facilities. Some UKOTs such as Pitcairn already suffer long periods of drought and this issue could only intensify once climate change accelerates.

In today’s increasingly anthropogenic world, regions are facing rising environmental risks and the impacts of human development are evident thousands of miles away from sprawling megacities and mass conurbations. Even the remote Pitcairn Islands now face challenges in sustaining their unique environment and even up until the 1980s, Henderson Island was one of the few remaining island ecosystems free from human damage and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980s due to its pristineness. It wasn’t until an expedition in 2015 that shattered this with the team finding that beaches were covered in an exceptional amount of plastic debris. Dr Jennifer Lavers led the expedition and found that despite only being home to over 50 islanders and thousands of miles away from any heavy manufacturing and processing centres, “the density of the debris is the highest recorded anywhere in the world”. While the Pitcairn Islanders are too remote to get many visitors, its unfortunate geography posits it in the centre of the South pacific Gyre current, making it a focal point for debris carried from South America or deposited by fishing boats.

It is now known that IPCC projections of temperature rises are now considered by some to be conservative. Even if concentration of all greenhouse gases were kept at a constant at year 2000 levels, a further warming of about 0.1C per decade is expected. It is likely that sea levels will rise, and global sea water temperature will increase with weather patterns changing and increasing the frequency of extreme events meaning that some conclude that Hurricane Irma was not a once in a lifetime event but symptomatic of increasing industrialisation. With natural disasters set to be more prevalent, remote island communities will increasingly struggle economically and each earthquake, tsunami or hurricane will leave islanders left feeling increasingly vulnerable. With climate change set to affect UK overseas territories most acutely and with its effects already in motion, the reality is that decision makers will need to start considering the level of adaptation needed to avoid economic catastrophes.