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Comment: What can a large planet learn from small islands?

Anne Wheldon

Small island states from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean face the same energy and environmental challenges as the rest of the world – their challenges are just more serious and more urgent.

For a start, most have scattered populations, often dispersed between many individual islands. So getting good energy services to all parts of the population – a challenge for any country – is a far greater challenge for a small island state.

Another constant headache is the cost and availability of fossil fuels. It’s expensive to ship fuel to remote islands, and the small size of their market means they lack the bargaining power that larger customers can wield to bring down prices. If world fuel supplies are short, then island states tend to get hit first.

Small islands also have limited natural resources, such as wood, and don’t have easy ways to get them from neighbouring countries. This can prove catastrophic. Witness Easter Island in the 18th century, where the Rapa Nui civilisation collapsed as a result of over-use of natural resources.

Small island states are also the most vulnerable of all countries to the adverse impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels are already threatening coastlines and polluting fresh water supplies. Before the end of the 21st century, it’s probable that states like the Marshall Islands and Kiribati will be largely under water and uninhabitable. More immediately, the restricted ecological range of a small island makes it difficult for both natural ecosystems and agriculture to adapt to the changing climate.

Ashden Award finalists – blazing a trail for other small islands to follow

Given these challenges, we’d expect that the small island states who get sustainable energy sorted may have a lot to show the rest of the world. That’s why Ashden is delighted to be partnering with the World Bank and SIDS DOCK this year, to highlight sustainable energy champions in small island developing states. And our four finalists have a lot to show – not just to other islands, but to the rest of the world.

In Vanuatu, we’ve seen that the challenge of ‘last mile’ distribution – getting clean energy products to the remote rural poor – can be tackled, even when that last mile is over the sea. The enterprise Green Power has found creative ways of distributing and selling solar lanterns throughout the country’s 60+ inhabited islands.

Many countries, including the UK, struggle to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. The government of the Micronesian island state of Palau has shown it’s possible to make significant cuts in fossil fuel use, by both improving energy efficiency and increasing renewable energy supply. It has set ambitious targets for energy efficiency in homes, and efficiency has been integrated into the mortgage lending of the National Development Bank. This means that nearly all new houses on the islands, and an increasing number of renovations, include energy efficiency measures.

In Cape Verde, wind energy company Cabeólica – with ambitious government policy and regulation to support it – has ignored the orthodoxy that it’s difficult to introduce large amount of wind power into a rather fragile national grid, and just gone ahead and done it.  So more than one fifth of the electricity on the country’s main islands now comes from wind, rather than from diesel generators.

In the Caribbean, Haiti shows all too clearly what happens when natural resources are over-used. Centuries of logging, hurricanes and charcoal production have reduced its forest cover to less than 2%. But one resource that Haiti does have is people, and Haitian entrepreneur Duquesne Fednard and his team of skilled workers are tackling the problem. D&E Enterprises is reducing the demand for charcoal through their locally produced efficient charcoal stoves – and helping Haitian families climb out of poverty.

Governments around the world should take note of what can be achieved

These socially driven organisations have taken on the challenges of providing sustainable energy on islands, and overcome enormous obstacles – in distribution, technology and production. If they can achieve so much with the odds stacked against them, then surely they show it’s possible to tackle the same challenges in the rest of the world?

One thing that’s clear is the importance of ambitious governments. With the damage of climate change already apparent, governments in many islands must be tempted to bury their heads in the sand – and islands have plenty of that.

But we’ve seen what can happen when they make policies that don’t stop with aspirational words, but follow through with well-planned regulations and active engagement to help make change happen. Governments around the world should take note.


Anne Wheldon is Knowledge and Research Manager at Ashden. The Ashden conference is on 19 June and will showcase small island sustainable energy trailblazers. Book tickets

The Ashden Awards, including Awards for Small Island Developing States, supported by the World Bank and SIDS – DOCK, will be webcast on at 7pm BST on 20 June.

Editor's Note: Make sure you get the May/June issue of Renewable Energy Focus, now available, which spotlights the work of the finalists in this year’s Ashden Awards who are using innovative business strategies to bring energy via renewables to off-grid communities around the world. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss out on reading about the work of these off-grid revolutionaries  

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Energy efficiency  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Wind power