Pacific Island Countries are simultaneously at the frontlines of feeling the effects of climate change and creating solutions. Development projects and political commitments in the South Pacific are setting precedents and shifting the global perspective of sustainable energy. The 2013 Pacific Energy Summit in Auckland, New Zealand March 24-26 closed with strong results that will continue to drive investment in sustainable development projects. New funding of $635 million was secured for projects throughout the Pacific. Similar to Pacific Island Forum meetings, the Summit was preceded by a Pacific Leaders Energy Summit in Nuku’alofa, Tonga that also served as a launching pad for new ideas and to assess existing projects.
Organized by the Government of New Zealand and the European Union – major funders of development projects and tied to the region economically – the Pacific Energy Summit is another positive example of multilateral cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. Close to 80 projects were presented at the Summit, enabling donors and the private sector to partner on projects of mutual benefit. Additional sponsors included the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Asia Development Bank and The World Bank. More than half of the $635 million secured will be “in concessional loans to support over 40 of the proposed projects”($380 million), and only $255 million committed will be grant funding.
UNDP Administrator Helen Clark recently stated that the potential for renewable energy – harnessing wind, sun and tidal opportunities – was the most promising area for development in the Pacific; a significant challenge Clark pointed out, however, is the “tyranny of distance.” Therefore it is critical that Pacific Island Countries remain united in their mutual economic, political and energy goals for the Pacific as the Pacific Island Forum continues to garner additional international observers and the Pacific Plan is reviewed this year.
The recent Summit’s new funding will enable most Pacific Island Countries to reach a target of obtaining 50% of their energy from renewables within five years; several states are already leading the way. The Tonga Energy Road Map (TERM) was a highlight of the Leaders Summit as a model for a “well-designed and integrated country action” plan. The TERM drew an additional $6.5 million in funding from the European Union over the next three months. Last October, Tokelau became the first nation relying totally on renewable energy, in their case solar energy.
In a statement on March 22 in Tonga, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres emphasized the overwhelmingly constructive impacts of pursuing renewable energy in the Pacific nationally, regionally and internationally. For example, the Cook Islands, and Tonga spend 30% and 15%, respectively, of their GDPs on importing fossil fuels; those funds could instead be spent on adaptation, education and public health. Additionally, Pacific Island Countries making the switch to renewable energy provides necessary models of successful plans for other states. Figueres calls the plans and actions of the Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga and Tuvalu to transition to renewable energy for electricity generation as “a courageous example of what the rest of the world needs to do.”
Figueres and others have called for Pacific nations to be the catalyst that the international community needs to act on real, workable climate change rules and frameworks. Countries in the Pacific will not be able to “reverse global emission trends,” but they can signal to governments and markets alike that the path toward a green, low carbon economy is irreversible and “the new development norm.” Other small island country leaders such as President of Kiribati Anote Tong and former president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives have played significant advocacy roles within the international community to promote the plight of small states among Climate Change difficulties. Steadily the tide is turning in favor of Pacific development projects, but it may take a continued, concerted effort by a resolute Pacific Island Forum and group of small island leaders to maintain this momentum and convince larger states to change their habits and transition to green economies.
Was Figueres too bold in her call to action? Are Pacific Island Countries making national plans and setting energy targets that are too ambitious? As Matthew Dornan writes for East Asia Forum, small island nations in the Pacific cannot raise funds necessary for these projects internally; therefore, they must turn to international development grants and soft loans as obtained at the Summit. Ambitious targets indicate to potential funders that a country is more serious about the long-term implications of projects and so the probability is higher that the country will receive more investment. Realistic or not, these targets are a step in the right direction if they are produced from cohesive national and regional plans that seek to consider individual stakeholders.
The Pacific has been a place for inspiration for internationally acclaimed authors and artists such as Paul Gaguin to Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson since the 1800s. While states work to keep their beaches pristine, oceans full of fish and water supplies sufficient, the sustainable energy projects and forums continue to inspire enthusiasts of renewables and international collaboration alike. Renewable energy benefits the environment, local residents and businesses; however, a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating climate change, like energy projects in other parts of the world, will not work for the Pacific. To help maintain momentum for the new ‘development norm’ in the Pacific and elsewhere, there is a distinct need to improve media coverage of the challenges and opportunities brought on by Climate Change in the Pacific. The new Carnegie program Ocean Matters is one initiative that helps to bring environmental journalism to the forefront.