Monday, March 16, 2009

Climate change: we should be ashamed

Back in 2006, Helen Clark showed some vision for once and announced a bold plan to make New Zealand carbon neutral. Unfortunately, the reality didn't quite live up to the rhetoric, and the plan which was eventually released pushed the target date all the way out to 2040 and even then excluded agriculture, our largest source of greenhouse gases - but it was a start. Now, of course, that plan has been formally abandoned by the National Party, whose "ambition for New Zealand" does not extend to the environment (or even to areas we have traditionally led in such as women's rights). And now, "clean, green New Zealand" is about to be overtaken - by the Maldives.

The president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, will today unveil a plan to make his country carbon-neutral within a decade. The announcement comes only days after scientists issued stark new warnings that rising seas caused by climate change could engulf the Maldives and other low-lying nations this century.


The plan includes a new renewable electricity generation and transmission infrastructure with 155 large wind turbines, half a square kilometre of rooftop solar panels, and a biomass plant burning coconut husks. Battery banks would provide back-up storage for when neither wind nor solar energy is available.

The clean electricity would power not only homes and businesses, but also vehicles. Cars and boats with petrol and diesel engines would be gradually replaced by electric versions.

This should shame us all. The Maldives is a developing nation, with a per-capita GDP around a tenth of ours, and a Human Development Index of 0.741 - about the same as Sri Lanka. And yet they're pursuing not just carbon neutrality via offsetting, but a radical decarbonisation of their entire economy. But then, they have a lot more at stake than the rest of us. For New Zealand, climate change merely means farmers suffering from a lot more droughts and a few people losing their beach houses. For the Maldives, whose highest point is a mere 2.3 metres above sea level, it means death.

"Common but differentiated responsibilities" is a key principle underlying current climate change treaties: lesser ability and lesser responsibility means that the developing world should follow, not lead. But thanks to western selfishness, that principle is in practice being reversed. Again, we should be ashamed; we are ruining the world for everyone, and we are expecting the poor to pay the price of fixing it. And that is simply not just.