Admit it: you haven’t been paying attention to the Marshall Islands. And why should you? It’s populated by a mere 69,000 who live on 1,156 islands. But climate change has propelled the Pacific Ocean nation to the international centre stage. With its exposure to rising sea levels, the Marshall Islands are in peril of being the first country obliterated by climate change, but the country has seized this threat as an opportunity and positioned itself as a lab for new, clean technologies. It is in negotiations with some of the world’s largest companies about commercialising new ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) energy. Tony de Brum, vice president and the minister in charge of climate change adaptation, talks to Guardian Sustainable Business.
When it comes to climate change adaptation, what has the government accomplished so far, and what are your priorities for the next couple of years?
We’ve just announced the solarisation of our islands, so all our homes will be solarised for life. We’ve solarised our schools for lights and computers, and the dispensaries where people go for healthcare now have solar lighting, solar pumps for water and solar electricity for refrigeration. Because of our geography, it’s a tremendous task, and we’ve accomplished it with the help of the EU, among others. In Majuro [the capital], we’ve added solar to the grid. We still have to bring in petroleum, and doing so costs about 25% of our GDP, so limiting our petroleum imports is one of our priorities.
We talk to young people about cleaning up, not dumping things in the lagoon.
And we’re exploring OTEC production. We have a grant from the World Bank, and we want to build an OTEC plant to provide electricity below 25 (US) cents, maybe as low as 16 cents, per kilowatt. It’s a new technology, but that’s what we need. Eventually we want to produce hydrogen for export. We want to turn around our dependence on petroleum.
In a way the Marshall Islands, a very small country, is becoming a pioneer in exploring financially sustainable solutions to climate change…
The Marshall Islands were the site for the US nuclear testing programme. That’s a problem not of our choosing. We’re still suffering the effects of it. It’s the same thing with climate change. The polluters are far away, but we’re living with the consequences. We want to improve our economy by processing fish. We belong to a group of eight small island countries that export 54% of the world’s raw tuna. That’s a huge economic bundle that can make our countries prepared for eventualities. In order to exploit that, we need power and water. We can get power from OTEC, which will help our fish exports and will probably make us exporters of energy in a decade or two. And we’ll be contributing to clean energy.
How do you envision working with the private sector to build a sustainable economy?
There are opportunities in everything from fisheries to tourism to energy.
Our experience with climate change is of value to the rest of the world.
We have characteristics that put us at the cutting edge of technology – for example, OTEC and hydrogen as a fuel replacement. Big countries are talking about all these fuel cells that they’re going to have in their new hybrid and electric cars, but nobody is telling you where the hydrogen is going to come from. Right now they’re getting it from petroleum, but, if they’re serious about making the atmosphere cleaner, they have to turn to hydrogen, which is made using sun power.
Have any companies showed interest in working with you?
Absolutely. We’ve had very good approaches from Japan, Korea, Europe and the United States. Some of the largest companies in the world are in negotiations with us as we speak.
President Loeak recently said he’d rather drown than leave the Marshall Islands. Is that really a good investment scenario?
That was a response to a question about the government’s displacement plans. Our neighbour, Kiribati, has bought land in Fiji in the event that they need to move. That’s their view. Our view is that going that far at this moment is tantamount to admitting we can’t stop the effects of climate change. We haven’t given up yet!
How do you sell the Marshall Islands as an investment opportunity to companies, since they’ve no doubt heard that your country is at risk of being submerged?
OTEC involves ocean platforms, so it doesn’t matter whether the water rises. The platform just goes up with it. We tell them about the opportunities of exporting energy. But, even more importantly, we hope that we can help the world control the rising temperatures so climate change stays within a manageable two degrees celsius, perhaps even one and a half degrees. Of course, we keep displacement in the back of our minds, but we have all this development that’s happening. It means that dealing with climate change can be financed by us and we don’t have to be at the mercy of other countries. That would be the best preparation for climate change.
Reblogged from: The Guardian
Photo: © Luiz A. Rocha