Last week (1 October) Caribbean ministers at the UN General Assembly called on its member states to pay attention to the threat that climate change poses for small island states.
They had good reason. From Trinidad to Tuvalu, small islands across the globe may be diverse in topography, language, culture, religion and geography, but they have one key thing in common: extreme vulnerability to the threat of rising sea levels caused by increased CO2 in our atmosphere.
The threat is particularly grave for small island groups formed from coral. These include many of the Pacific islands as well as popular tourist havens such as the Maldives, the highest point of which is a mere three metres above sea level.
As well as the threat of literally being washed away, coral islands and atolls face the spectre of disappearing sources of drinking water. This is because the freshwater ‘lenses’ that float on top of saltwater layers above coral reefs – which are often the only sources of drinking water in small islands – is likely to disappear as a result of increased levels of CO2 in water.
Compounding this, as sea levels rise, live coral will also start to become weaker as CO2 levels increase – so reducing islands’ defences.
Only this weekend, foremost climate scientist Michael Mann was reported in the Guardian as predicting that pacific Islands such as Tuvalu “may have to consider evacuation in the next decade”.
Energy dependence and economic vulnerability
But climate change isn’t the only threat faced by small island states. Small island groupings concentrated in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South China Sea, the Caribbean and Pacific also suffer from extreme economic vulnerability.
For a start, they import most of their fuel, making them particularly vulnerable to spikes in global oil prices. The cost of transporting fuel to remote and scattered locations is already exorbitant, making energy prices in most small islands among the highest in the world.
To add to this, for island states with relatively small populations scattered over hundreds of small islands and atolls, building generators and electric grids often doesn’t make economic sense, leaving many remote and rural communities with little or no access to modern, affordable energy services and the life-changing benefits they bring.
With high rates of energy inefficiency, small island states are also heavily reliant on indigenous biomass – mainly fuel wood from natural forest, coconut shells, husks and stem wood, as well as crop residues, for cooking and crop drying.
The search is on for sustainable energy pioneers
We are convinced that investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes in small island states will enable them to increase the remote rural poor’s access to energy in these countries. Reducing dependence on importing fossil fuels will also make small island states less vulnerable, generate employment and free up finance resources to invest in initiatives focused on mitigating the worst effects of climate change.
For these reasons, this year we are partnering with the World Bank to run a new award category, the Small Island Developing States Awards. Supported by SIDS DOCK and the World Bank, the awards will reward innovation in renewable energy and energy efficiency that bring tangible economic and social benefits to island states inhabitants.
A wide range of programmes are eligible to apply for our awards, ranging from those greening the grid by cutting fossil fuel use, to innovative finance mechanisms that enable increased access to sustainable energy products and services. It’s also key that they are improving people’s lives – for example, by improving health, or opening up new educational or employment opportunities.
In June next year, two winners will each receive a prize of £20,000 at a prestigious ceremony in London. As well as their prize, they will also gain vital national and international publicity, a broadcast-quality film and new access to funders and investors and the prestigious Ashden Alumni network.
Small island states are in urgent need of help. Please help us spread the word about our call for entries for this new award category, so we can reward and then support the most exciting projects that are enabling these countries to make the transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient development.
Apply for a Small Island Developing States Award: Deadline 23 October 2012.
Julia Hawkins is PR and Digital Media Manager at Ashden, an organisation which champions and promotes practical, local energy solutions that cut carbon, protect the environment, reduce poverty and improves people's lives.
[Editor's note: The November/December issue of Renewable Energy Focus will also be looking at off-grid renewables and renewables for small island states, so make sure you subscribe here to secure your copy of the issue]