Maldives, facing an existential threat from rising sea levels, has intensified its campaign on climate change, which is led by none other than its president Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed has figured in Foreign Policy magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s most influential thinkers for his endeavours to check climate change. The magazine has described him as “the world’s most environmentally outspoken president.”
Climate change has emerged as the most important aspect of Maldivian foreign policy. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that President Nasheed has been trying to highlight the issue at all global fora. Most recently, while speaking to students in Oxford University, he urged them not to work for oil and coal companies which were responsible for major carbon emissions into the environment. He also pointed out that these companies were also funding campaigns to deny the existence of climate change. He pleaded with the students to instead join those companies engaged in the area of alternative energy sources and green technologies.
However, his campaign on climate change has come to be mired in some controversy after a UK media report, citing documents leaked by Wikileaks, suggested that Maldives had pushed for US $50 million assistance from the US government in exchange for unequivocally backing the Copenhagen Accord. According to the leaked US State Department cable marked “secret” and dated February 26, 2010, the Maldivian Ambassador, Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, told US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing that several projects including harbour deepening and strengthening sea walls would cost approximately US$50 million. The cable further says that Pershing encouraged Ghafoor to provide concrete examples and specific costs in order to increase the likelihood of bilateral assistance and congressional appropriations. On the basis of this conversation, the report inferred that Maldives had agreed to support the Copenhagen agreement if the US were to provide it with $50 million.
The Maldivian Foreign Ministry has however refuted this. In a press release the ministry clarified that this meeting took place nearly two months after the Copenhagen summit. It also stated that Maldives gave its support for the Copenhagen Accord unilaterally and without reservations on December 19, 2009, just hours after the climate change negotiations concluded in Copenhagen.
The ministry also released a letter sent by Maldivian Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmed Shaheed to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on December 30, 2009, in which Shaheed informed Clinton that Maldives was keen to activate the Copenhagen Accord in order to get assistance from the $30 billion fund promised in the accord as early as possible. The letter pointed out the necessity of funds being allocated for countries like Maldives which have to undertake urgent adaptation projects and programmes so that they can reorient themselves towards a low carbon future.
The press release emphasized that Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed and Foreign Minister led a diplomatic offensive to urge other countries, including the US, to follow suit. Nasheed, in an interview to Foreign Policy magazine, has also urged people to take direct action and put pressure on their respective governments to abide by the agreement.
In the meantime Maldives has been taking concrete steps for its part. On 24 November 2010, Maldives released the first ever carbon audit. The audit calculates current and future emissions trajectories and recommends steps to reduce greenhouse gases and oil dependency. This audit was funded by France’s Rothschild banking dynasty and carried out by BeCitizen. According to this audit, the country’s national emissions were at 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2009. The main contributors to this were the combustion of diesel fuel oil for power generation (50 per cent), domestic transportation (22 per cent), emissions from the fishing industry (13 per cent) and waste treatment (15 per cent). The audit projects that if nothing is done to change the situation then the amount could double by 2020. On the basis of the country’s population (310,000), these emissions correspond to 4.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per individual. By way of comparison, India records 1.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person per year, China 5.5, France 9, and the United States 23.5.
Rising sea levels threaten the survival of Maldives prompting the country to intensify its efforts to highlight the consequences of climate change. But the country faces challenges at both the domestic as well international levels in this regard. Domestically, the carbon neutral master plan would have to be approved by its parliament, where the opposition holds the majority; this at a time when the country is in the midst of an intense phase of fractious domestic politics. At the international level, Maldives can only set an example of how to move towards reducing carbon emissions. Much would depend on what other countries do. The big emitters are not looking at Maldives as an example, claiming that their social and economic development cannot be compared to that of a small state. It is not clear whether a broader agreement on climate change will be forged before major damage is done to Maldives.