Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On the issue of climate change, it is easy to feel despondent. Despite all the recent weather disasters public and political interest in climate change remains low. At the United Nations, progress is slow as the world’s major emitters blame each other for climate change. A frankly childish mentality persists, which says: ‘I won’t act on carbon emissions until you act first.’ Political will to tackle climate change appears as fickle as the weather. And right now, politicians seem stuck in the midst of a depression.
Despite my country’s precarious place on this planet, I remain optimistic. I remain optimistic because away from all the bickering, a quiet revolution is taking place. A growing number of countries, large and small, rich and poor, from every part of the world, are coming together under the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action. What unites the Cartegena Dialogue is a desire to see negotiations move at quicker pace and with higher ambition. But another, more subtle underpinning bolts the progressive nations together. And that is the creeping realization that growth and development no longer needs to be linked to carbon emissions.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the Maldives, we don’t view cutting carbon emissions as an obstacle, but rather as an opportunity. We must cut emissions to stop climate change. But we must also shift to renewable energy for our future economic development. The Maldives is one of Asia’s most energy insecure nations. This is because we are addicted to imported oil. Recent oil price rises are costing my country $350,000 per day in extra fuel bills. And we only have 350,000 people – so that’s an extra $1 per person, per day in extra costs!
The lifeblood of our economy is at the mercy of an oil price over which we have no control. Shifting to indigenous, renewable energy is therefore crucial to ensure our energy security. And so for all these reasons: environmental; economic; and security in 2010, the Maldives submitted to the United Nations a unilateral target to become carbon neutral by 2020.
Allow me to present, for the first time, the key components of the Maldives’ carbon neutral plan. About 50% of our emissions come from burning oil to generate electricity. Government economists have been working in detail on our energy plan. But being a small country, the Maldives’ doesn’t have a huge amount of renewable energy experts.
So, in this globalised, interconnected age we thought we would invite everyone to help us in our endeavours. And so we are crowd-sourcing our carbon neutral energy plan. We have published our detailed plan online and we are inviting experts to review it and send us feedback. For those of you who would like to get involved, please visit the website of our Ministry of Economic Development, where you will find some technical questions we need help in answering.
But let me return to what we do know. The key part of our energy strategy is a cabinet-endorsed target to generate at least 60% of our electricity from solar power by 2020. The remaining 40% we will generate mainly with wind and biomass, with some diesel remaining as back-up. The total investments needed to decarbonise the our entire energy system is in the range of $3 - $5 billion over the next 10 years.
The good news is that this target is achievable without increasing people’s electricity bills. It is, though, a very difficult engineering challenge. And let me tell you why. Most countries in the world are dabbling with low levels of renewable energy penetration, targets to get 20 or 30% of energy from renewable sources. If you only use a small amount of renewables, then when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, you can rely on the other sources of power to take the load.
But if you are using renewables for the majority of your electricity generation, this throws up a key challenge. This challenge is matching nature’s delivery of energy with mankind’s demands.The general public wants the lights to go on when they press the switch. They are not impressed if there is a blackout every time a cloud passes overhead.
This brings us to some very technical issues around battery storage, demand side management and ensuring a continuous supply of electricity. I don’t want to get into too many specifics here. Nevertheless, we believe we can economically generate up to 80% of electricity in island communities through a mix of solar, wind and batteries, with existing diesel generators held in reserve.
One of the interesting things about the Maldives, is that it is a country of 300 off-grid island communities, scattered across the Indian Ocean. Two hundred of these are islands where people live, with a relatively low energy demand. If we can create reliable and affordable renewable energy systems for these island communities, we will have template for every off grid village in the developing world.
The other 100 inhabited islands in the Maldives are some of the most luxurious tourist resorts in the world. They are rather like having 100 Swiss villages sitting in the middle of the sea. If we can develop cost-effective renewable energy systems in our resorts, we will also have a template for wealthy communities across the world that want to go off-grid.
Again, the good news from the Maldives is that even energy-hungry luxury resorts can make the transition to carbon neutrality. Soneva Fushi, for instance, one of the Maldives’ most luxurious resorts, is already implementing plans to become carbon neutral in the next couple of years. And many other resorts have expressed an interest in switch to solar power.
Before I end, I should point out that in some ways, the Maldives is lucky. Our electricity costs are already high because imported diesel is expensive. So, renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels in the Maldives today. In other countries, it may take a few more years until renewables are cost competitive with fossil fuels.
Moreover, it is easier for us to make this transformation because we don’t have a large fossil fuel industry. The big corporations in the Maldives are hotel and resort operators. And tourists don’t like pollution. We simply don’t have climate deniers or scare mongers trying to prevent renewable energy, because we don’t have a fossil fuel industry to finance them. This gives politicians the freedom to talk about energy issues dispassionately, based common sense and sound economics.
Allow me to conclude with three lessons we have learnt, which might be useful to other countries.
Firstly, get the politics right. To undertake a radical energy transformation, you have to have clear backing from the highest levels of government. All the machinery of government, the private sector and individual households need to have a clear signal that the direction of the country has changed and their investment decisions should change too.
The second lesson we have learnt is the need to get solid, sound advice. We have very little indigenous experience in renewable energy. All our engineers, technicians and bureaucrats have grown up with an energy system run on oil. To replace diesel with renewables requires new skills and expertise. And for renewable energy, choosing the correct technologies is critical because the cost of installing renewables is all up-front. If you install more solar panels that you need – or the wrong kind – people’s electricity costs will be higher than they should be. So you must test lots of different technologies in the local environment and then blend a system that is best for you.
The third and final lesson from the Maldives is the need to frame the issue correctly. We have found that the public responds better if we say we are making a shift to renewable energy because of economic and security reasons, in addition to environmental concerns. And for the Maldives, and I suspect many other countries, the economic argument in favour of renewables is compelling. The true price of oil is not the price we pay at the pump. We have to include the insecurity our economies face because we rely on oil; and we have no idea what the oil price will be next year.
Let me end with this observation: over the next decade, we will witness as much global economic growth, as all the economic growth from the start of time until the year 2000. At the same time, the chief economist of the International Energy Authority – an organization not known for its support of renewable energy – says the world has already passed peak oil capacity. As China, India and the developing world industrialise, the amount of global economic growth will increase exponentially. And we have already passed peak oil. Just imagine where oil prices will go in future.
And so, for those countries still addicted to oil in ten years time; I can only say ‘good luck.’
Thank you very much.