Island nations face some pressing challenges in the 21st century which heighten the importance and imperative of moving to more sustainable and secure energy futures. IUCN, with the Austria Development Cooperation, organised a parallel session at the Vienna Energy Conference 22-24 June 2009.
This session asked an expert panel and the audience to explore the challenges facing island nations including the challenges of:
- achieving a low carbon energy future and influencing the climate change discussions
- stimulating the financial investments needed to get to a more sustainable energy mix;
- creating the regulatory and legal frameworks to move beyond a dependence onfossil fuels; and
- safeguarding ecosystems and livelihoods in the context of any energy future pursued.
The panel and participants agreed that there is an urgency felt in island nations like nowhere else in the world. Islands are on the front line when it comes to suffering the impacts of climate change, and those impacts are being felt by island peoples today. Increased incidents of king tides, hurricanes and cyclones are all part of the island reality of today. There is no time or room for complacency or delayed action. Nor is there acceptance among islanders that a world with 450 parts per million concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (the level expected to bring 2 degrees warming to the world) is acceptable. 350 is the most island nations can bear. Islanders do not want to become refugees.
Island nations can and must take immediate action to move away from petroleum products that are expensive, take foreign reserves out of government coffers, and are going to be harder to deliver and transport. Even a world with less than 2 degrees warming will bring impacts on the infrastructure of oil based economies which predominate in island nations. Ports will disappear, roads will be submerged, airport runways will need to be barricaded.
Islands are rich in renewable resources that can provide clean and reliable energy. Donors have been generously investing in pilot renewable projects throughout the Pacific and Caribbean for years, but grants are limited in their scope and can be difficult to secure. Ongoing running and maintenance costs are not usually covered, and scaling pilot projects up to nation wide penetration remains a challenge. The irony is that islanders spend a disproportionate amount of their income on energy (more than housing costs in some countries when oil prices peaked at USD$150 / barrel in 2008). Alleviating strains of payments for fossil fuels and debt would enable investments in the infrastructure of a more sustainable energy future based on indigenous renewable resources.
Developing appropriate technologies (or adapting technologies to island conditions) would also help. Island conditions can be harsh on hardware. Storms, sun, sand, saline conditions are all part of that harsh environment. Technologies should also be simple to use and to repair, and users should have the training and capacity to maintain the technology. The panel members also recommended further work on establishing policy frameworks which encourage and enable expansion of renewable technologies on both the demand and supply sides (such as tax rebates for consumers switching to efficient and renewable technologies, and tax free imports of materials needed to produce efficient and renewable technologies). The panel also recommended removing environmental barriers to renewable energy technologies, by establishing robust but “light” assessment procedures for renewables, and mapping ecosystem goods and services that underpin energy options in island nations.
The panel made a plea for those at the conference to take note of the urgent need to transform our global energy systems now to avert further disaster in islands and other vulnerable places around the world.