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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climate, Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy, energy policy, Green Technology, low-carbon, low-lying island nations, Maldives, Nasheed, renewable energy, sustainable development, sustainable prosperity, UNFCCC

The development of the world’s energy sector will have an enormous role to play in achieving the sustainable future that tens of thousands are working to secure at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development this week in Brazil. Energy is an indispensable component of modern societies. However, the same sector can be extremely destructive, destroying local environments, depleting natural resources, causing sickness and premature death, and pumping record levels of carbon dioxide (C02) into our atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the earth’s climate.

Worldwatchers Ed Groark, Alexander Ochs and Evan Musolino with IRENA Director General Adnan Amin and Director of Knowledge Management Gauri Singh (source: Evan Musolino)

On June 17th, Worldwatch Climate and Energy director Alexander Ochs and I were joined in Rio by Adnan Amin, Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and over 20 top experts for a high-level consultation on Measuring for a Renewable Future. The discussion was a first step in Worldwatch’s development of renewable energy indicators in partnership with IRENA.

The event brought together public and private sector leaders in the field from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe to discuss barriers to renewable energy development and deployment and the enablers that can help us to overcome them. We were excited to be joined by leading thinkers such as Michael Liebreich (Bloomberg New Energy Finance), Christine Lins (REN21), Abeeku Brew-Hammond (Ghana Energy Commission), Ari Huhtala (CDKN), Leena Srivastava (TERI), Dan Kammen (University of California, Berkely), Nebojsa Nakicenovic (IIASA), Vivien Foster (The World Bank), Sunita Narain (Center for Science and the Environment), Youba Sokona (UN Economic Commission for Africa) and many others.

Putting countries on the path to meeting their full potential for deploying renewable energy is a challenging endeavor that necessitates overcoming many myths that still exist about the technologies. Renewables are no longer the costly, fringe technologies that many still believe them to be. In many parts of the world, renewables are already cost-competitive or even a more affordable option than traditional fossil fuels. If additional costs to society that result from burning fossil fuels are taken into account, which are yet to be internalized into energy pricing, renewables quickly become an even more attractive alternative.

Participants at the event outlined a host of challenges that must be addressed. Significant barriers exist in respect to finance, cost efficiency, policy and regulation, infrastructure, knowledge management, public acceptance, and the political climate, among others. The discussion highlighted that while there are certainly many challenges facing the sector, there is also significant hope for the future if the necessary actions are identified and implemented. Governments must be extremely active in designing, implementing and monitoring policies aimed at moving these barriers.

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Climate Change, energy policy, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development

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

The Most Hon. Edward Seaga (UTech President & former Prime Minister), The Most Hon. Portia Simpson-Miller (Prime Minister) and H.E. Josef Beck (German Ambassador) at the Opening Ceremony on 16 May 2012. Photo courtesy of the German Embassy in Kingston.

Recently I was asked to participate in a Sustainable Energy Conference hosted by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Kingston and the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech). The four-day event, which included considerable participation from the Caribbean Renewable Energy Development Program (CREDP), was a great opportunity to highlight the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency in Jamaica. It was also a chance to continue the important debate over how quickly renewable energy can be adopted on the island.

Jamaica is currently one of three Caribbean countries for which Worldwatch is preparing a Sustainable Energy Roadmap. This project, sponsored by the International Climate Initiative of the German Ministry of the Environment, will provide decision-makers in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica with a Roadmap containing concrete recommendations for promoting a more sustainable energy future.

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Caribbean, energy, energy policy, energy security, Jamaica, renewable energy, sustainable development

Following the devastating 2010 earthquake, much of Haiti’s infrastructure, including its already limited ability to manage its municipal solid waste (MSW), was damaged or destroyed. Due largely to lack of public waste management services and sewage treatment centers, thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands more have suffered through outbreaks of cholera. Haiti needs improved sanitation, and improving and building infrastructure to reliably collect MSW will help achieve this goal.

Improved MSW management can also increase power generation from domestic sources in Haiti, providing some relief from its dependence on imported heavy fuel oil and helping to electrify a country where 75 percent of people do not have access to the grid.

Caribbean, developing countries, Haiti, health, renewable energy, sustainable development, waste-to-energy

As we described last week, there is a growing consensus that the time is right for a global shift to sustainable energy solutions. The Worldwatch Institute, in partnership with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), is taking a leading role in facilitating this shift through the creation of the Renewable Development Index.

Countries enacting renewable energy support policies or targets as of 2011 (source: IPCC SRREN, 2011)

Countries worldwide are recognizing the significant role that renewable energy can play in their national development. As of early 2011, nearly 100 countries had set targets for wind, solar, biomass, and other renewable energy sources. Governments aim to utilize these technologies to meet a host of development priorities, including reducing carbon emissions, expanding energy access, enhancing energy security, and creating new jobs and industry opportunities. At both the national and sub-national levels, they are using a variety of policies and measures to support centralized and decentralized renewable energy installations and to work toward achieving wider national development goals.

Despite the many forces working in favor of renewables, growth within the sector remains constrained. Although renewable energy technologies accounted for roughly half of the newly installed power generation capacity during 2010, they were responsible for only 16 percent of global final energy consumption and close to 20 percent of electricity generation that year. Government support policies, adopted by 118 countries as of early 2011, continue to be one of the most significant forces driving renewable energy deployment.

To more efficiently harness the potential of renewables to meet national goals, decision makers must have a better understanding of the effectiveness of support policies in overcoming existing barriers. Countries continue to face challenges in the renewables sector, including gaining public acceptance and buy-in, mobilizing financing, attracting investment, building local capacity, and facilitating collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Worldwatch is partnering with IRENA to help governments develop policies aimed at best utilizing their renewable energy potential as a way to meet national growth and development goals. As a first step, the project seeks to identify barriers constraining renewable energy deployment. It will then develop strategies that can help policymakers overcome those hurdles. Finally, the project aims to develop a set of renewable energy indicators, with the goal of helping countries assess the effectiveness and efficiency of renewable support programs. Because there is no one-size-fits-all policy for promoting renewable energy, fully inclusive indicators can help to inform the policy community in a more objective manner.

In the development arena, well-designed high-level indicators, such as the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI), have been influential in shifting the discourse away from one based solely on domestic economic growth, providing the basis for a deeper understanding of national progress toward overarching development goals. The Renewables Development Index aims to achieve a similar goal in the energy arena, steering the discourse away from conventional fossil fuel energy usage and toward cost-effective and more environmentally sound approaches to meeting global energy needs.

Worldwatch has actively engaged key actors from leading institutions in the international energy community on this initiative. Through a series of interviews, meetings, and workshops, the Institute’s Climate & Energy team will facilitate the development of this new and influential tool.

When completed, the analysis based on this small and concise set of renewable energy indicators will provide governments with a powerful new instrument to better inform domestic policymaking, implementation, and monitoring processes. The indicators can be used for steering investments, refining policy choices, optimizing the impact of limited financial resources, and understanding the outcome of policy results supporting renewable energy development.

This Renewables Development Index will fill an important void in the landscape of sustainability indicators and will help countries in their important transition to a sustainable energy future.

Evan Musolino is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental research organization. Alexander Ochs is Director of the Climate and Energy Program at Worldwatch.

Climate Change, emissions reductions, finance, green economy, low-carbon, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development

Energy is at the very foundation of modern economies. Since the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago, all countries—if at a quite different pace—have developed on the back of the production and burning of fossil fuels. There is no doubt that the comfortable lives many of us live today would not be possible without the fossil-fueled development of the past. But the merits of fossil fuels now seem less and less convincing.

Renewable energy technologies, such as solar PV, offer the potential to benefit countries around the world. (source: Flickr user Magharebia)

First, take subsidies. Currently, we throw about 10–12 times more taxpayer money at fossil fuels than we put into renewables—and those are just direct subsidies. In addition, local air and water pollution and related health consequences cost trillions of dollars worldwide. The U.S. National Research Council estimates the “hidden” costs of fossil fuels in the United States (the real costs to society that are not reflected in the fuels’ market prices) at $120 billion annually. The Chinese government believes pollution and related healthcare costs amount to 10 percent of that country’s GDP.

Then there is the volatility of fossil fuel markets, which has arguably led to enormous economic instability in the recent past. Just to give an idea of what this volatility means to some nations: an increase in the world oil price of just $10 can mean a decrease in the GDP of some small nations of 2–3 percent.

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Climate Change, emissions reductions, finance, low-carbon, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, solar power, sustainable development

For the seven countries of Central America—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—a transition to renewable energy and low-carbon technologies is imperative. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a robust renewable energy industry can stimulate the growth of clean energy manufacturing and help address regional problems such as an energy supply deficit, low rural electrification, and poverty.

Yet despite abundant renewable energy resources—including wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal—Central America remains highly dependent on imported oil, fossil fuel-based electricity, and unsustainable large hydropower. In the 1990s, deregulation of regional electricity markets opened the power sector to private investments, but it also paved the way for a surge in fossil fuel-based capacity, as most governments did not consider policies to promote renewables during the early stages of these reforms.

Solar panels used by Alimentos Campestres to dry fruits and vegetables. Source: Alimentos Campestres.

As the region’s economies expand, led by strong growth in Panama, energy demand is expected to surge. As a result, these countries will only become more vulnerable to high and fluctuating energy costs from imported oil.

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Central America, Guatemala, Nicaragua, off-grid, renewable energy, rural electrification, sustainable development

The public transportation system in Medellín, Colombia, has proven to be one of the most successful transit systems in the world. It not only reduces the city’s energy consumption and carbon footprint, making the city more environmentally sustainable, but also drives positive social and economic change for Medellín as a whole.

Medellín metro system. (Source: http://www.colombia.travel/en/international-tourist/multimedia/photo-gallery/medellin)

Medellín received the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. ITDP is a global consortium of organizations that works with cities worldwide, mainly in developing countries, to provide solutions for their public transportation systems, tackling carbon emissions, poverty, and social inequality. The previous award winners are Guangzhou, China, in 2011 and Ahmedabad, India, in 2010.

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Climate Change, emissions reductions, natural gas, Public transportation, sustainable development

Earlier this week, a Committee of Secretaries (CoS) established by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met to discuss environmental and economic issues facing the country’s electricity generation sector. CoS members included the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, as well as representatives from the Ministries of Power, Petroleum, Coal, Environment, and Finance.

The 4,000 MW Tata Power Ultra Mega Coal Power Project at Mundra, photo credit: Flickr - Joe Athialy

The 4,000 MW Tata Power Ultra Mega Coal Power Project at Mundra, photo credit: Flickr - Joe Athialy

The first day’s discussion focused on increasing difficulties of coal power production, including domestic production shortages and import costs. While the availability of domestic and supposedly cheap coal supplies was once cited as a central justification for pursuing coal power in India, which currently supplies about 70 percent of the country’s electricity generation, recent coal shortages, dramatic price increases, and environmental mismanagement by the coal industry have led policymakers, energy developers, and investors to acknowledge the need for the country to pursue an alternative energy path.

In January, an Indian Power Ministry official expressed concerns regarding the pricing scheme of the state-owned coal mining company, Coal India, which would increase the cost of coal power generation by an estimated 35 percent. Coal India is responsible for over 80 percent of the country’s coal production. A Coal India executive cited the need to rework the company’s pricing scheme, as coal prices have recently risen by 50 to 180 percent, depending on fuel quality.

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coal, human rights, India, mining, sustainable development