Following up on the recent blog I wrote about low-lying island nations, I spent part of last week getting a more direct experience with one of these countries. The United States Institute of Peace welcomed former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed for a conference on Monday, June 25th in Washington, D.C. Nasheed was ousted last February by a coup under controversial circumstances. Though he expressed regret over losing the unique stature and influence he had as head of state, Nasheed is still extremely active in the country, pushing for new democratic elections and actively promoting “The Island President”, a documentary narrating his story and seeking to cast light on his unique fight for the survival of his country and the establishment of a functioning democracy after centuries of authoritarian rule.

“Anni”, as he is better known by people of the archipelago, has not left behind his ideals in the presidential office, particularly with regard to climate change. When he touched on the topic of climate change at last week’s conference, the former President called it, as he very often does, “a very serious issue happening right now.” With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, and the world’s lowest natural peak at an astounding 2.4 meters, the archipelago is indeed at the forefront of climate disruption and sea-level rise. Attempting to shame the rest of the world into taking action to mitigate carbon emissions, in 2008 Nasheed launched an ambitious plan for carbon neutrality. The plan seemed achievable: it tapped into the archipelago’s ample wind and solar energy resources, completing the mix with biomass to meet the modest energy needs of this country of 400,000 people, which has a low reliance on electricity and (understandably) almost no cars. Even the country’s most prominent and energy-consuming economic sector, high-end tourism, started bringing itself up to speed. Nasheed’s government planned to offset aviation emissions, which make up the lion’s share of the archipelago’s carbon footprint,  by using the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme. Finally, as “The Island President” abundantly documents, the Maldives also took the lead in making the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) a force to reckon with in international climate summits.

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With the United Nations “Rio+20” Conference fast approaching, the word “sustainable” is more present than ever – including in our own State of the World 2012 publication – sometimes to the point of excess. For low-lying island nations, however, “sustainability” is more than the mild, consensual definition of the United Nations: it is really about maintaining the environmental conditions necessary to sustain human life as we know it. Many countries, regions, and cities fear the potential consequences of runaway climate change, be it desertification, droughts, or increasingly frequent storms. What makes the cases of countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Micronesia, and the Maldives so unique is that their very existence as sovereign states is at stake, and some of their younger citizens might live to see that existence brought to an end – the IPCC (2007) has predicted 0.5 to 1.5 meters of sea-level rise before the century is over.

For low-lying island nations, climate change and sea-level rise are not really a matter for debate, but already a threatening feature of everyday life (Source: The Atlantic.com)

Whether that prediction turns out to be overly optimistic or gloomy is still to be determined, but low-lying island nations are not passively waiting to find out. Despite their remarkably low carbon-footprints, they are trying to lead by example when it comes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions: while an international treaty would only, by the timeline set at the 2011 climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, come into force in 2020, the Maldives and Tuvalu (among others) have pledged to become carbon-neutral by that date. But these nations have understood that due to natural – as well as political – inertia, more emissions and increased sea-level rise are already locked in. This is the basic reasoning behind the islands’ adaptation policies, which are only as varied as they are extreme. For instance, though the President of Kiribati Anote Tong admitted it sounded “like something from science fiction”, the country seriously considered building offshore floating islands and higher seawalls last year, for a total cost of about US$ 3 billion – quite a challenge for a country with a GDP of US$ 200 million in 2011 (about US$ 6,000 per capita).

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Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, electricity, emissions reductions, energy, green economy, Kiribati, low-carbon, low-lying island states, Maldives, negotiations, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development, Tuvalu, UNFCCC

IRENA logoStarting yesterday, a new international organization dedicated to the “rapid development and deployment of renewable energy worldwide” officially powered up. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) will function much like the International Energy Agency (IEA): collecting and analyzing statistics, providing policy suggestions, facilitating partnerships and financing across countries, promoting research and development, and creating technical codes and standards—but only for renewable energy. Still, significant challenges await the fledgling agency if it hopes to promote renewable energy worldwide. An earlier attempt at an international hydrogen fuel agency provides a cautionary example.

One question is what counts as renewable. The agency’s website is filled with descriptions and pictures of wind turbines, solar panels, and even waste-to-biogas plants in China. While no universal definition of “renewable energy” exists, IRENA has made clear what it won’t address—nuclear is out, but so is energy efficiency.

As Frauke Theis reported earlier in this blog, the IEA sees a big place for technologies like nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) in reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Not so IRENA. Before the Copenhagen climate negotiations, IRENA issued a statement condemning the IEA’s support for nuclear and CCS in carbon markets. Energy efficiency receives much better treatment, at least gaining mention in the agency’s 2010 Work Programme where nuclear does not, but it is clear that the focus will be on promoting electricity production from renewable energy, and not on energy savings.

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