President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives doesn’t believe in wasting energy – or time. He had not even been sworn into office when he made public that combating the threat of climate change would be at the top of his agenda.
On the eve of his inauguration, international news teams were reporting that the president-elect was seeking an alternative homeland for the Maldives. As the lowest-lying country in the world, rising sea levels could obliterate the Maldives’ 250 inhabited islands, which average at just 1.5m above water. For the people of the Maldives, global warming really could be a case of sink or swim. Swim to an alternative homeland, or stay on the islands and watch them sink into the ocean.
The country’s national anthem ‘In national un ity do we salute our nation’ evokes commitment to the land the Maldives were founded upon. President Nasheed has chosen to sit on the ‘Lion throne’ of his ancestors and to tackle the fearsome threat of climate change head on. ‘The Maldives’, he announced in March via video link at the London premiere of the climate-change film The Age of Stupid, ‘will be the first carbon neutral country in the world.’
Sublime: What inspired the decision tomake the Maldives carbon-neutral?
President Mohamed Nasheed: Climate change, left unchecked, is humanity’s doomsday scenario. If we persist with the ‘business as usual’ model of economic development – where we continue to pollute the planet regardless of the environmental consequences – rising temperatures could easily provoke a tipping point.
If average global temperatures increased by more than twodegrees, countries like the Maldives would most probably be totally submerged beneath the rising oceans. But the Maldives’ plight would only be a foretaste of the global carnage to come.
A series of natural processes would kick in, which would lead to runaway global warming. The Siberian tundra would start to thaw, releasing billions of tonnes of extra greenhouse gases. Trees and plants, under stress from the higher temperatures, would begin to release rather than absorb carbon dioxide. In a world four, five or six degrees hotter, human civilisation would unravel. Vast swathes of the globe would become uninhabitable, as higher temperatures fuelled super-hurricanes and widespread winter flooding, while severe summer droughts sparked raging wildfires and famine. Temperate northern Europe would be on the receiving end of climate-change refugees in their hundreds of millions.
Faced with the mounting and overwhelming evidence that mankind’s activities are causing climate change, and given what is at stake here – the very survival of the human species – I don’t see how anyone can excuse inaction.
S: What is your strategy to achieve this goal?
PMN: By 2019/2020, we want the Maldives to be the most ecofriendly country in the world. An eco-plan drawn up by British climate and energy experts Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall states that the Maldives can achieve carbon neutrality in 10 years by switching its energy production from fossil fuels to renewables. The plan calculates that 155 1.5MW wind turbines, coupled with 0.5km2 of solar panels and a back-up biomass plant would provide adequate green electricity for the entire country. Tidal and wave power is also a potential energy option.
To implement the plan, we have established a Presidential Advisory Council on Climate Change, a group made up of 15 environment and energy experts. An international advisory group of British climate-change and energy experts was also inaugurated in London in April 2009. I hope that in a few months, building on Lynas’s and Goodall’s work, we will have developed a detailed blueprint for achieving carbon neutrality in the Maldives.
S: What kind of pressure will this new carbon-neutrality plan put on the country’s budget, and what measures are in place to deal with this?
PMN: People often say to me that going green is too expensive. To my mind their logic is unfathomable, given the risk climate change poses. Just imagine what the world would be like today if, before the Second World War, the Churchill government had convened, examined the cost of fighting the Nazis and then decided it was too expensive.
The carbon-neutrality plan does not come cheap. Initial indication suggest it would require one billion dollars of infrastructure investments over the next 10 years. Once your green infrastructure is complete, however, the project starts to pay back quickly because your economy no longer needs to import oil or other fossil fuels. If oil prices remain at around $50 per barrel, the Maldives plan would pay for itself in about 20 years. If oil returns to recent peaks of $100 per barrel, the entire plan would pay back in just over 10 years.
To attract funds for the initial infrastructure development, we intend to privatise large chunks of the economy, such as electricity production, waste disposal and public transportation. We are actively seeking foreign investors with experience in renewables or environmentally friendly technology to buy parts of the state-run utilities and mobilise the finance to invest in green technology. The Maldives needs to build or replace a lot of infrastructure, but it makes sense to invest now in tomorrow’s technology rather than use the technologies of the past. For us, constructing wind, wave, waste and solar electricity plants makes a lot more sense than building oil-fired power plants.