PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (AlertNet) – Many small island nations that depend on imported fossil fuels plan to diversify into renewable energy to free up much-needed resources to help them adapt to climate change, reduce poverty and develop sustainably.
The world’s 39 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) from Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific met this month in Barbados to work on improving their energy efficiency and developing clean power sources for transport and electricity generation, including hydro, solar, wind, biomass and coconut oil.
The aim is to wean themselves off costly imported fuels like oil. Tonga and Tokelau plan to become fully energy independent this year; Tuvalu and the Cook Islands by 2020. Others also are following the trend.
“The small island developing states are writing the stories of their future,” said Veerle Vandeweerd, director of the environment and energy group at the U.N. Development Programme.
“They point towards a time when respiratory illness from cooking over smoky stoves is no longer a primary cause of death for the women and children of poor households; where girls can go to school instead of collecting firewood; and where students have light to study through the night for exams if they so choose.”
Some small island states - described as the most petroleum-dependent countries in the world - could free up to 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by switching to hydro, solar, geothermal or other renewable energy sources, according to a background paper prepared for the conference.
The money now spent on importing fuel could be used to boost jobs, healthcare and education, or invested in new farming practices to keep yields up amid climate shifts or initiatives to cope with rising sea levels.
Oil typically accounts for 95 percent of commercial energy use in the Pacific islands. Oil imports cost up to 29 percent of GDP in the Cook Islands, 15 percent in Tonga, and 9 percent in Samoa.
Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, UNDP’s resident representative in Barbados, warned that rising oil prices could lead to economic and social instability in energy-importing SIDS.
“Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, building local renewable energy sectors, investing in green jobs and strengthening social safety nets for people whose livelihoods depend on imported energy is critical for gaining energy independence and poverty eradication,” she told the conference.
20 STATES MAKE PLEDGES
The “Barbados Declaration” adopted at the end of the gathering - hosted by the Barbados government, UNDP and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States - called for universal access to modern and affordable renewable energy services while protecting the environment, ending poverty and creating new opportunities for economic growth.
It also included an annex with voluntary commitments by 20 SIDS to move towards providing universal access to energy, switching to renewable power sources and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
Host country Barbados announced a plan to increase renewable energy to 29 percent of all electricity consumption by 2029, while the Maldives said it aimed to make its energy sector carbon neutral by 2020.
The Marshall Islands wants to electrify all urban households and 95 percent of rural outer atoll households by 2015. Mauritius committed to boosting renewable energy – including solar, wind, hydro, bagasse (sugarcane fibre) and landfill gas – to 35 percent or more of its supply by 2025, and the Seychelles set a target of 15 percent for the same by 2030.
Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart lamented that high oil prices have damaged the Caribbean region’s fragile economies.
“For example, Barbados spent $393,538 million last year on oil imports, or 6 percent of GDP, which has impacted negatively on … the overall competitiveness of the Barbadian economy,” he said.
The tourist island of St. Lucia may be one of the hardest hit by rising fuel prices, as it imports 100 percent of the fuel required to meet its energy needs.
“Naturally for a small country like ours, the oil import bill is very high and we have to contend with fluctuation and prices which have a huge impact on our revenues,” Energy Minister James Fletcher told AlertNet Climate.
The St. Lucian government is now exploring options in geo-thermal, wind and solar, with the goal of importing less fuel – but says it needs financial help to make the switch.
“We want to have a mix of renewable projects and become energy-efficient, but we also want to get much-needed funding to help us bring these projects to reality,” Fletcher added.
While Belize already generates nearly two thirds of its electricity from hydropower and biomass, the Central American nation’s energy minister, Joy Grant, said the government wants to do more to reduce fossil-fuel imports.
She suggested that stand-alone solar and wind projects could help solve the problem of limited access to electricity in rural areas. “But renewable projects have high capital costs so we will be looking for external funding,” she added.
Some countries are already putting in place policies and fiscal incentives to encourage investment in clean energy. The Cook Islands, for example, has removed import duty and tax on solar water heaters, which have become standard in most new housing and commercial buildings.
The National Development Bank of Palau has pioneered energy loan packages, and Samoa has established a Clean Energy Fund to finance renewable energy systems.
Meanwhile, the Pacific island states set up a sustainable energy industries association in 2010, which provides technical guidelines on how to switch to clean energy alternatives.
Trinidadian civil engineering student Nadir Mohammed said he welcomed efforts by island governments to diversify their energy mix and move away from imported fossil fuels.
“The technology for different renewable projects is already available, but we also know it is an expensive venture and not many of these SIDS can afford to fund these,” he said. “I think once the funding can be sorted out, our small countries can then begin to have a mix of traditional and renewable energy.”
Linda Hutchinson-Jafar is the Reuters stringer in Trinidad and Tobago, and editor of online magazine Earth Conscious. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.