Sunday, March 29, 2009

How to tackle climate change — the Maldives example

The tiny Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives will become carbon-neutral within 10 years. This was the pledge made by Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed on March 15.

The low-lying country will be among the first in the world to be inundated by rising sea levels caused by human-induced climate change. The highest point in the chain of 1200 islands and coral atolls is just 1.8 metres above sea-level.

The latest research indicates that if present rates of carbon emissions continue, global warming will likely cause sea level rises of about one metre by 2100. This is close to double the rise predicted by most scientists just two years ago.

At the request of the Maldives government, a plan for carbon neutrality has been developed for the Republic of Maldives by British climate writers Chris Goodall (author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet) and Mark Lynas (author of the best-selling book Six Degrees). An outline of Goodall and Lynas’s plan has been posted at .

Carbon neutrality

The plan focuses on the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy for electricity, most land and sea transport, and household cooking by 2020.

About 160 wind turbines will provide the bulk of electricity for the inhabited islands. Wind power will be supplemented with solar power farms built in shallow island lagoons. These two power sources are expected to generate considerably more electricity than the Maldives currently consumes.

To account for the variability of wind and solar power, Goodall and Lynas suggest the country invests in a biomass combustion plant, mainly using coconut husks, for backup energy needs in the capital Male. Outside the capital, backup energy supply can be secured by storing energy in lithium phosphate batteries, they say. Currently, diesel-powered generators are a major source of energy on most of the islands.

About US$100 million will be needed to rework the electricity transmission network to make the most of renewable supply and to improve energy efficiency.

Under the plan, diesel fuel used in larger boats can be switched with power from renewable electricity. Petrol used to power cars and smaller boats can be sharply reduced via the steady replacement of the combustion engine with electric battery-powered vehicles. In the long run, electricity will be a far cheaper option than petrol for land and sea transport, Goodall and Lynas say.

Wood and kerosene are used by most people in the Maldives for cooking fuel. Goodall and Lynas suggest the introduction of “highly efficient closed stoves” for remote islands. For homes and tourist resorts with access to the grid, the replacement of older stoves with electric-powered alternatives will be needed. Solar cookers are another option for household use.

The release of methane gas from organic waste is responsible for a estimated 20% of the nation’s total emissions. This can be mostly eliminated through organic composting techniques. The compost can be used to improve the Maldives’s poor soil fertility and increase local crop yields.

Outside of their small fishing industry, the Maldives economy is almost completely dependent on foreign tourism. After electricity, the next most important source of carbon emissions is from aviation.

Goodall and Lynas propose that the Maldives could offset aviation emissions by buying, and then cancelling, emissions permits from the European Union carbon trading scheme.

This is the most questionable part of the ambitious plan. The EU’s carbon trading scheme is widely discredited for failing to reduce emission while allowing speculators to make windfall profits from buying and selling the “right to pollute”.

Action from industrialised countries in sharply cutting emissions is the only real “offset” the Maldives can rely on.

A larger problem is that the entire plan will cost at least $1.1 billion over a decade — far more than the Maldives can afford.

The plan would only be possible if the country were to receive loans from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank — bodies notorious for impoverishing, rather than helping, countries in the global South.

Despite the cost of setting up renewable energy infrastructure, Goodall and Lynas predict the switch to renewables would save the Maldives money in the long term. Cutting the country’s dependence on oil would reduce the nation’s energy bill by $50 to $130 million every year.

No excuse for inaction

The announcement from the Maldives government came just days after the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change had met in Copenhagen in early March. The key findings of the conference were summarised in a blunt press statement on March 12.

Climate change is much worse than we thought, the scientists concluded. The “worst-case” scenarios outlined in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are being reached, or even surpassed, right now.

“For many key parameters, the climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. … There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts”, the statement said.

“Rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action is required to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ … There is no excuse for inaction.”

The conference gave further scientific backing to what growing numbers of people already fear. The planet is perilously close to passing climate tipping points which, if crossed, will provoke runaway global warming and threaten billions of lives.

The Arctic ice cap — one of the Earth’s natural “air-conditioners” — is melting. The oceans are warming, turning the planet’s greatest carbon-sink into a carbon emitter. The Siberian permafrost is retreating, releasing mega-tonnes of trapped methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful that carbon dioxide, up into the atmosphere.

The world’s glaciers — irreplaceable sources of fresh water for billions of people — are shrinking rapidly. The huge ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica are becoming fragile; their melting would herald further rises in sea levels and turn millions of people into climate refugees. Weather systems are changing in unpredictable ways; extreme weather events are on the rise.

Urgent, international action to end the burning of fossil fuels for energy is required now to avert the climate change threat. Despite this, wealthy polluting nations such as Australia continue to make excuses for inaction.

‘The choice is that stark’

On March 17, Nasheed outlined the reasoning behind the Maldives’s ambitious plan for carbon-neutrality in a video address streamed to the British launch of the forthcoming feature film about climate change by director Franny Armstrong, The Age of Stupid.

“If we can achieve this — a small, relatively poor country — there can be no excuse from the rich, industrial nations who claim that going green is too complex, too expensive or too much bother”, Nasheed said.

“Now the world has an opportunity to come together and prevent the looming environmental catastrophe. That opportunity is called Copenhagen.

“And let’s be very frank about this: Copenhagen can be one of two things.

“It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of co-operation and collaboration.

“Or, Copenhagen can be a suicide pact.

“The choice is that stark.

“My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: please, don’t be stupid.”

If the Copenhagen conference in December fails to set emissions cuts that can restore a safe climate, then the fault will lie with the governments of the developed world, who are desperately resisting change.

At the last international conference on climate change, held in the Polish city of Poznan late last year, the Australian government helped to sabotage a binding international agreement.

The Australian delegation chaired a bloc of some of the world’s biggest polluters, including the US, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Canada. The bloc was dedicated to stopping agreement on a proposed 25%-40% emissions reduction by 2020.

Unfortunately, they were successful.

The Rudd government’s push to legislate sickeningly low emissions cuts of 5%-15% by 2020 is designed to undermine the Copenhagen conference and stop it from adopting the serious cuts urged by the Maldives and other countries in the global South.

This reflects the reality of climate policy in Australia: the biggest, wealthiest polluters call the shots. The Rudd government defends them, while pretending to be serious about climate change.

Both the government and the powerful fossil fuel interests must be confronted, and their agenda defeated, if we hope to secure a safe climate.


1 comment:

Condos in Toronto said...

Nice article. It sure looks like a pretty promising plan. I wonder though if the solar powered and wind powered power plants will be protected from the sea somehow. One big tsunami and all of it would be gone in a heartbeat.
Another thing I'm curious about is what if it all fails and by 2100 the sea level really does wipe out all the islands of Maldives. I guess land could be purchased from some other countries but that would sure raise a lot of conflicts.
Anyways, interesting idea and I hope it work for Maldives.

Take care, Elli