Island states should become global leaders in climate innovation

Large developed countries need to stop financing new fossil-fuel projects on small islands that are disproportionately affected by increasing temperatures

By Mike Eman  / 

Sun, Jun 16, 2019 - Page 7

To live in a small island state today is to reckon regularly with the cruelest irony of climate change. Islands contribute little to global warming, but they are the first to suffer from its devastating effects and the least equipped to manage them.

As carbon dioxide emissions from larger, wealthier industrialized countries continue to warm the planet, rising sea levels claim these islands’ territory.

Furthermore, massive hurricanes such as Maria and Irma, strengthened beyond historic norms by unnaturally warm waters, destroy homes and power systems, leaving death, destruction and illness in their wake.

As these threats become the new normal, island states are finding solidarity in common vulnerabilities. They also share a newfound spirit of resilience, and are committed to working together to help the world combat climate change.

More specifically, islands can serve as ideal laboratories for testing innovative clean-energy technologies.

In Aruba, during my tenure as prime minister, a goal was established of generating 100 percent of electricity with clean energy by next year.

This initiative was landed by working with key partners — universities such as Harvard and Delft University of Technology, and think tanks such as the Rocky Mountain Institute.

It was also supported by British billionaire Richard Branson, former US vice president Al Gore, Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde and former Costa Rican president Jose Maria Figueres — all leaders in the climate and sustainability movement.

Most islands still rely heavily on imported fossil fuels for their relatively small energy needs, putting them at the mercy of global markets. As a result, islanders must endure unpredictable price shocks and supply disruptions, especially in times of crisis.

By contrast, locally generated renewable energy such as wind and solar power — supported by high-storage batteries — makes islands more resilient and stabilizes their electricity supplies.

Small island states want clean energy now, for their own well-being and for the good of all humankind.

They are eager to show the world how practical and affordable it is to shift away from fossil fuels while expanding the economy, ensuring reliable access to energy for all and creating good jobs for local populations.

Many Caribbean islands have already set ambitious targets for deep decarbonization and development of renewable energy.

For example, Jamaica’s prime minister wants his country to generate 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030. Barbados aims to go even further, achieving carbon neutrality and 100 percent renewable energy by that date.

Unfortunately, foreign investors often continue to support carbon-energy infrastructure projects in small island states and other developing countries.

For example, China has committed more than US$20 billion in funding for coal plants around the world. Japan continues to fund new coal projects domestically and abroad — the only G7 country to do so.

Such investments threaten to keep vulnerable regions anchored to fossil fuels for decades, while worsening long-term climate risks.

Numerous large, developed countries have pledged to help small, vulnerable nation-states adapt to climate change. Yet these donors and lenders sometimes undermine their own commitment by also funding new fossil-fuel projects.

Richer countries should focus on climate-smart investments aimed at reducing the future burden of global warming.

According to one estimate, the average cost of adapting to climate change for nine of the world’s most vulnerable countries could reach US$15 billion per year between 2015 and 2030.

China provides a good example of the inconsistency regarding clean energy. At home, the country is showing how a rapidly industrializing economy can shutter coal plants and increase access to energy with clean renewables.

Yet under the Belt and Road Initiative — China’s massive transnational infrastructure investment program — most of the energy projects in developing countries are focused on oil, gas and coal.

It does not have to be this way. China could easily export its clean-energy and climate-smart technology when borrowers request it.

For example, in Argentina the Export-Import Bank of China is lending nearly US$400 million to finance the construction of South America’s largest solar farm.

Other countries, such as Japan, are also ramping up investment in island states and throughout the developing world.

Countries receiving these funds must think about how such projects will serve their citizens and local communities in the long term, and how new brown-coal-fired power plants will add to their already heavy climate-change burden.

Meanwhile, donor countries must consider how their foreign investments align with their pledges under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The only possible way to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures — a truly existential threshold for many small island states — is to immediately stop new construction of fossil-fuel plants.

If an energy project is not compatible with this 1.5°C limit, can a self-proclaimed “climate leader” such as China or Japan justify funding it?

The Paris agreement ushered in a new era of international cooperation, as world leaders agreed to work together to combat the threat of global warming. Vulnerable islands such as Aruba welcome foreign investment in their energy future, provided that projects are clean and carbon-free, and help their citizens achieve true energy security.

Small island states are disproportionately affected by climate change, but with help from lenders, they can also punch above their weight in helping to mitigate its worst effects.

Mike Eman was prime minister of Aruba from 2009 to 2017.

Copyright: Project Syndicate