Maldives in Peril: From the SLOWLIFE symposium

There is no place more apt to engage in heavy-hitting conversation about the future of Planet Ocean than the heart of the small island nation of the Maldives.

It is a place many have heard of but few could pick out on a map. Made up of twelve hundred islands and atolls, most pancake flat, the highest reaches no more than five feet above sea level making the Maldives the lowest country on earth. Only two hundred of the islands are inhabited by roughly 320,000 people. It is an always hot, exceedingly beautiful, Muslim country stretching about 600 miles from north to south in the heart of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka.

In terms less geographic the Maldives is also ground zero for assessing the impacts of climate change. As the earth’s temperature continues to heat up, impacting sea surface temperatures in particular, the Maldives is at incredible risk of both rising sea levels and increased frequency and violence of storms.

No politician in the world has taken a bigger role in trying to ramp up interest in efforts to slow climate change (except perhaps Al Gore), than the Maldives’ young president, Mohammed Nasheed.

This past weekend an invested crowd of thinkers and doers, including President Nasheed and several members of his cabinet, gathered on the small island of Kunfunadhoo, home to the Six Senses resort Soneva Fushi. This was the third annual S.L.O.W.L.I.F.E Symposium organized by Six Senses CEO Sonu Shivadsani and his wife Eva. The barefoot conference brought together climate change environmentalists like the UK’s Jonathan Porritt, Tim Smits and Jeremy Leggett, renewable energy and island nation leaders from as far away as Reunion and Bali, ocean mariners including Fabien Cousteau and some incredibly dedicated headline-makers (Richard Branson and the actors Edward Norton and Daryl Hannah). The subject of three days of talks was: What can we do fast, before it’s too late.

Topics ranged from how small island nations can become energy independent, how to protect marine biodiversity, how to engage local communities in ambitious carbon reduction plans and the challenge of adapting transportation in a low-carbon economy.

It’s clear there are no easy answers. Soon after arriving by float plane on Saturday morning President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to kill us,” he said. “Here in the Maldives our goal of becoming carbon neutral is not to scare the world, but simply to make a step in the right direction.”

While Nasheed leads an effort to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country on the planet, by 2020, there are other good things going on here on the Laccadive Sea. They’ve banned shark fishing, tuna are only caught by pole and the Baa Atoll has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere.

The Maldives, with few natural resources but a growing population and energy demands, is on the forefront of taking itself permanently off the grid. It’s clear the problems are not a lack of knowledge and information — cures to the problems of renewable energy via solar, creating clean drinking water and wastewater treatment are known. But what the Maldivian government officials reiterated throughout the weekend is that access to money makes implementing all that knowledge and information extremely difficult.

In the past year the government has put its political energy behind its hope of becoming the first carbon neutral nation. By 2020 it hopes to generate 60 percent of its electricity from solar, without raising the cost of power to its consumers. It has introduced a new import regime by the Transport Ministry to ensure that in the future electric cars will be a third of the price of conventional gasoline cars. And it has pledged to spend two percent of its national income on renewable energy deployment in the country. If that figure were matched worldwide, we would be collectively spending $1.25 trillion a year rather than the $260 billion we spend today on renewable energy sources.

Worrying to all island nations of course is that CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is not declining but growing, as development and growth continue to mount globally. The goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million — what scientists regard as the safe limit for humans — may fast becoming an unreachable goal, since it has already risen to above 392 ppm.

One industry that prospers in the Maldives of course is tourism. Nearly 1 million visitors a year, including increasing numbers from China and India, fly into the capital city of Male each year and jump out to various island resorts by float plane or small boat. Taxes on resort development — and potentially new tariffs on visitors to support renewable energy projects — are the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy.

(Tomorrow, up close and personal with Mohammed Nasheed, the Maldives’ Green President.)

[image credit: Fiona Steward (above) and Adrian Olson (below)]