Revisited: Climate change desperation and the Maldivian hypocrisy

The show goes on at COP26; but, where tangible actions have already been lacking, at what additional cost to the state?

Twitter | @EPAMaldives; Addu Atoll — designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Twitter | @EPAMaldives; Addu Atoll — designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

With COP26 hanging over the entire world, it feels prudent, again, to remind ourselves of the evolution in the Maldivian voice against climate change. And the hypocrisy that lurks beneath.

The climate change battle has been fought for over 30 years, when adverse effects of the changing weather began to ravage the shorelines of Small Island Developing States such as the Maldives, and also affecting crop production in larger landmasses. However, a critical point has been reached, and passed, and scientists now wonder if salvation for all is realistic.

In 2009, during the Conference of Parties 15 (COP15) held in Denmark, a movement called joined the ranks of multiple other organisations calling for climate action, and a binding treaty. The value ‘350’ represented the ‘parts per million’ count of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere — the maximum increment that the activists believed should be allowed. The carbon count in the atmosphere directly correlates with global temperatures, as this was the most common greenhouse gas. Substances defined as greenhouse gases trapped the sun’s heat within the atmosphere, raising global temperatures, and then changing the climate, all in one fell swoop.

However today, the carbon density has easily surpassed 350 ppm — and continues to rise beyond 416 ppm. It is a curious fact, as the nations that vehemently refused 350 as a limit claimed 400 should instead be the allowed limit. This was only, and solely, due to industrial pollution that some of the more powerful, economically dominant nations wanted to be allowed in continuing. They claimed that changing from fossil fuels to renewable resources — and reducing carbon output in the form of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and the like — was too much to ask for. They claimed that their potential profit from their factories outweighed the pleas of climate victims.

The Maldives did try to argue against this. Multiple representatives, from former President Mohamed Nasheed, numerous environmental activists including child activists, played their part at forums, panel discussions, and even protests. The world was on the cusp of a fair, binding treaty until nations the likes of the US vetoed, and effectively torpedoed, these controls, and at the end of the day, and years hence, the economy of the near future took precedence over sustainability of future life. 

The ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘carbon credit’ was established as way to monitor output of pollutants into the air by using green methods to reduce or annihilate existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, which worked like a financial vice on big industry. Nations drew and renegotiated deals and quotas, made pledges to move to greener industries, and vowed to do better.

Yet, this year being one of the hottest in the past 19 years on record, results have been less than optimal. 

As for accomplishing pledges, how the Maldivian administration has been doing in the last decade is almost laughable. Distressing, even.

In 2009, then President Nasheed declared, to the amusement of anyone in the “climate know,” that the country was going to go carbon-neutral. This was a hot, trendy goal at the time, which meant the total output of carbon in the Maldives was to be equal to or less than the amount of carbon the Maldives helped remove from the atmosphere. Planting trees, cultivating coral reefs, and phasing out fossil fuels as much as possible were all viable steps that could be taken — in theory.

For a country with such a small population and congested living spaces in the capital with existing electricity infrastructure, the fossil fuel power plants could, technically be replaced with sustainable, efficient renewable resources — this would mean there would be a huge technological shift but the possibility has been proven by nations such as Brunei. Carbon neutrality in the Maldives may not have budged the numbers on the global tables, but the method, the determination, and the achievement alone would have carried weight in further protests and negotiations for climate action. 

Twelve years and two administration changes later, the country is still partaking in actions they continue to vehemently condemn. Proper policy evolution to switch to renewable resources is non-existent. Revamping the transport sector to use clean energy, establish actual working public transport systems within city centres, investing in changing public lifestyles, and also assisting and promoting individuals to switch over to clean energy are dreams that were once bright and hopeful, but today are murky at best. 

With next to no cap on motor vehicle imports, and curiously constrictive policies on building self-sustaining power systems for homes, it appears to show that the administrations are, in all practical senses dispassionate about such a crucial, life-threatening issue.

Yet passions seem to be aflame, and on full display, at COP26 — for which the Maldives’ tab for attendance alone costs MVR5 million.

The Maldivian team, with a President Solih, “Climate Minister” Shauna, “Climate Envoy” Noordeen, and many more high profile officials, have been pleading on public stages for a change to be brought, for a chance of survival of the low-lying nations. On the face of it, these pleas and protests, the constant participation in as many forums and discussions as possible during the Conference of Parties, is absolutely amazing. Once again the people are seeing their elected leader and his assignees taking charge at the conference, demanding changes, and… asking for funding?

It would appear that the Maldivian economy is so deeply decrepit that after nearly three years in power, the Solih Administration has to resort to requesting for further funding to bring about meaningful, sustainable change in the country. Where are the lines of credit, up to USD1.4 billion from India, and the current loans, the Sukuk issuance, and then at the very least, the income from SOEs, taxes, and licensing fees?

The lack of work done before the conference raises eyebrows on home ground, as the administration did not seem to be doing any meaningful practical work, nor have they had the essential drive, as the current Speaker of Parliament Nasheed “does” in the climate change fight. The key issues raised were rising sea levels, weather changes due to global warming, and then coastal erosion, but has the administration walked the talk enough, or at least taken nominal steps in improving the nation sustainably?

Tree planting campaigns used to take place on a national scale, now scaled down to either NGOs or local councils. Advocated for over decades, coastal erosion is most effectively combatted with mangroves and other fauna, and also innovative coastal constructions, already explored and researched on. Innovation in sustainability is not as broadly supported today as it should be, where workshops, forums, and even Expos can be conducted to bring out new ideas and concepts to ‘go green’. Speaking of renewable energy, the absolute lack of attention to turning central power into a sustainable resource, instead working on bringing in a less-dirty fuel to power the smoke belching chimneys of STELCO, seems troubling enough. 

The local councils and local communities are the ones trying to bring about the changes, yet this creates a disconnect across the nation in general. Some islands are left behind in this movement, while others lead the charge although funding is scarce. The lack of proper controls, nor discussion, on the sources of pollution and environmental detriment in the Maldives could make one wail in frustration, yet be drowned out by the high profile media and attention centred upon the nation’s leaders as they preen for the cameras, along with their cohorts of course, at international conferences.

Calling upon developed nations to reign themselves in and guilting them for creating and perpetuating the problem is fair. Rallying together with other SIDS further empowers this struggle, and the voices can get amplified. Yet there is consistent failure to show even a modicum of leadership as climate change evangelists. They have, unsurprisingly Nasheed included, failed to lead by example, and in this regard, fallen alarmingly short.

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