Minister for National Development of Singapore, Mr. Mah Bow Tan; Executive Director of UNEP, Mr. Achim Steiner; Executive Director of UN Global Compact, Mr. Georg Kell; Your Serene Highness; Excellencies; Distinguished Delegates; Ladies and Gentlemen:
I wish, first of all, to thank the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Global Compact and Global Initiatives for inviting me to speak at this Global Summit.
Over the years, Singapore has earned international acclaim as a hub for business and commerce. What has added a further dimension to this remarkable success story is the growing awareness on environmental sustainability among its industrious and friendly people.
Indeed, the Singapore Tourism Board’s theme Discover a World of Unique Contrasts is a fitting encapsulation of the many attributes of this beautiful country. Singapore, with its strong tradition of innovation and dynamism, is, therefore, a most fitting host for B4E 2008.
The chosen theme for this Summit – Business and Markets in a Climate of Change – highlights the important and intrinsic link between business and climate change.
It is indeed a happy coincidence that this important forum is taking place on this year’s Earth Day. I extend warm greetings of the occasion to all of you.
Before proceeding further, it is my pleasure to thank UNEP for its continued support and assistance to environmental protection and preservation efforts in the Maldives.
Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
As for my country, the Maldives, the past quarter century has been a period of unprecedented progress. The dedication and hard work of our people and the development planning and policies of the Government have ushered in a new era of modernization and social, economic and human development in the country.
We have gone from being one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita income of less than 300 US Dollars, to the brink of graduation from the UN’s list of Least-Developed Countries. With almost a ten-fold increase in our GDP per capita, the Maldives today enjoys the highest standards of living in the entire South Asian region. In fact, the compound economic growth rate of the Maldives over the past two decades at 7.5% per annum has been among the fastest in the world. In thirty years, our life expectancy has increased from 46 years to 72 years. The Maldives is also on course to meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
Tourism and fisheries have been the pillars of our development in recent decades. Both industries are, of course, intrinsically linked to the natural environment.
Most of the 91 tourist resort islands in the Maldives have earned a global reputation for luxury, quality of service and sheer natural beauty. Some among them are establishing leading edge ecotourism practices that have attracted world attention. Similarly, the dolphin-friendly and sustainable fishery of tuna and other varieties of fish in the country continues to fetch top prices on the global markets.
Endowed with a pristine and biologically diverse marine environment, the nearly 9,000 square kilometre network of coral reefs that make up the foundation of the country is the seventh largest in the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The beauty and the serenity of our islands mask the vulnerability and fragility of the country. The 1,192 tropical islands that make up the Maldives are among the lowest-lying in the world, with three-quarters of the land area of the islands rising no higher than one and a half metres above mean sea level, with a highest natural point of just 6 metres.
This reality alone warrants our deep concern over the warming planet and associated rising seas. In fact, the scientific findings of the IPCC continue to paint a grim picture for our people, where unchecked global warming and sea level rise could very well render the islands of the Maldives uninhabitable in the not too distant future.
For over twenty years, we have been taking our plea for help before global decision-makers, in the hope of injecting urgency into international efforts to find an effective solution to this impending global environmental catastrophe.
Last year, the Maldives launched an initiative to focus international attention on the human impacts of climate change. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council passed by consensus a Resolution presented by the Maldives, and co-sponsored by over 60 nations, calling for a detailed study on the inter-linkages between climate change and human rights.
Indeed, climate change has already become a part of our daily lives in the Maldives. Unseasonal stormy seas and high waves are increasingly prevalent. Three-quarters of the 193 inhabited islands are faced with a growing beach erosion problem. Other effects include coral bleaching and mortality, salt water intrusion into freshwater lenses, inundation of land, diminishing the availability of fresh water, and reduced productivity of agricultural lands. The impact of these phenomena on human health, well-being and quality of life cannot be overstated.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Climate change is a global environmental problem that can only be addressed on a global scale. Its effects too will be felt on a global level.
The contribution of the Maldives to global greenhouse gas emissions is negligible at less than 0.01%. However, the irony is that the Maldives is predicted to be among the first and possibly the biggest victims of global warming.
To compound the problem, with limited natural, financial, technical and human resources, we are unable to appropriately mitigate against, or adapt to, the rapid climatic changes that are occurring before our very eyes.
In fact, the building of solid structures such as seawalls could be the only realistic adaptation measure against land loss and beach erosion, and the resultant risk to human settlements and vital infrastructure. A seawall and a breakwater were built in 2003 around the capital island, Male’, under Japanese assistance. The cost of building such structures around all 193 inhabited islands would exceed 6 billion US Dollars. For a Small Island State with a GDP of 855 million US Dollars, this is of course not a viable option.
That, though, has not deterred us from striving for heightened domestic environmental preservation and protection standards. We pride ourselves on trying to ‘practise what we preach’. Indeed, for nearly two decades, all our economic activities have been governed by a comprehensive Environment Act and an associated raft of regulations. Today, we have 25 protected marine sites, two protected islands, 70 protected bird species, nine protected marine species and two protected mangrove ecosystems. Our Seventh National Development Plan aims to attach protected area status to no less than 5% of the entire coral reef area of the country.
Our policy objectives are also guided by comprehensive National Environment Action Plans. Our Seventh National Development Plan highlights as a priority the implementation of the National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA).
We have also been giving a very high priority to raising awareness among our people on environmental issues in general, and in particular, the issues of climate change and sea level rise. Environmental studies have been a compulsory subject in our primary school curriculum for many years. Children as young as six years of age learn of the country’s vulnerability to climate change and sea level rise. Every school in the country has an active eco-club, through which students learn about important environmental issues.
One of the goals of the Seventh National Development Plan is disaster risk management.
Among the most important adaptation measures that we have introduced following the Asian Tsunami of 2004 is the Safer Islands Programme, which involves the voluntary relocation of island communities to safer and more economically viable islands. We hope to establish at least ten such safer islands by 2010.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Looking at the two main economic sectors of the country – tourism and fishing – both public and private enterprises have been attaching a very high importance to environmental protection and preservation.
Many resort islands are today utilizing model technology and techniques for energy conservation and waste management.
Environment-friendly practices are reviewed as part of the evaluation process in awarding islands for tourist resort development, ensuring that high environmental standards are maintained during the construction and operation phases of development.
Modern conservation concepts such as the utilization of natural lighting have been incorporated into building design and aesthetics.
As for our fishery sector, the absence of all forms of netting except for bait fishery ensures a high degree of environment friendliness and sustainability. Needless to say, the pole and line technique of our fishermen is also dolphin-friendly.
Other sustainable practices have also been undertaken by the country’s fisheries sector, particularly by the Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO). MIFCO now collects used cans of their products for recycling.
Looking at other relevant sectors such as transport, we have been enforcing strict emission standards and taking necessary measures to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. Among the most notable initiatives are the imposition of high taxes on vehicle imports, banning the import of all vehicles older than five years, the introduction of mandatory road-worthiness testing and the discontinuation of the import of all leaded fuel into the country.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
For all its energy needs, the Maldives relies almost entirely on imported petroleum-based fuels. Being extremely vulnerable to rising world oil prices, the high dependence on fossil fuels has been a major hurdle in our efforts to mitigate against climate change. For, regardless of our negligible contribution towards climate change, mitigation is still a high priority. We will make our contribution to the global effort.
Therefore, the biggest task ahead of us today is to increase the contribution of renewable energy in meeting the country’s energy needs. Earlier this year, we embarked on an exciting journey of energy transformation.
I refer to the launching in January of this year of a Hybrid Renewable Energy Pilot Project in the north of the country. The project, which was an initiative of our State Trading Organisation and Maldive Gas, was supported technically and materially by Daily Life Renewable Energy of Singapore and the US Government. Under this pilot project, the Maldives has successfully established the Hybrid AC Coupled Renewable Energy Micro Grid, and efforts are underway to duplicate this process on other inhabited islands.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
We are today at an important crossroad in our endeavour to find a speedy solution to climate change. I believe the will of the global public has never been stronger. And the changing mindset of the business community on the need for innovative solutions to the problem is cause for much optimism.
History was made in Bali last December, and the roadmap that we adopted at Bali can lead to a meaningful post-Kyoto agreement at Copenhagen. However, in order to achieve this important objective, the international community must be more willing to listen to the voice of its smallest and most vulnerable members.
We believe that the emissions reduction targets set under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is not rigid enough.
Indeed, the current mindset to target for the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentration levels in the atmosphere at 450 ppm is unacceptable to the Maldives. The proposal to allow temperatures to rise by 2% on 1990 levels may seem good enough on a global level, but would spell disaster for us.
There is an urgent need to conduct Stern Review-type comprehensive cost benefit analyses for SIDS. Without the valuable information from such audits, global decision-making on climate change may not be appropriately representative of all its members.
There is no doubt about the importance of the business community in climate diplomacy, science and economics. In particular, powerful alliances need to be developed to strengthen lobbying positions on the global stage.
As for the Maldives and other SIDS, we are determined to continue our diplomatic efforts until the safety and security of our peoples are ensured. For this, we need the world to act decisively. We need greater access to funds for climate proofing. On this point, let me emphasize the importance of the immediate implementation of our National Adaptation Plan of Action, and urge the international community to help us in this endeavour.
I also call upon the global business community to support and assist local entrepreneurs’ eco-initiatives, by sharing their experiences and expertise, as well as offering them financial incentives to undertake green ventures.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am confident that, with the strong partnership between governments and the private sector, the international community can achieve the goal of a comprehensive post-Kyoto accord that adequately addresses the concerns of Small Island States such as the Maldives.
Later this year, the people of Vilufushi island, who were displaced by the 2004 tsunami will return to their home island for the first time since the disaster. They will return to their new and improved homes in the knowledge that, as a “Safer Island”, Vilufushi now has a number of features to reinforce environmental security and disaster risk management.
We must draw inspiration from these resilient people, who have battled against the odds and worked tirelessly to make their dreams a reality. Although Vilufushi is just one of so many of our islands in need of better environmental security, it is a striking example that success will come our way if we persist.