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Islands of Climate Innovation

Large developed countries often continue to finance new fossil-fuel projects in small island states that are disproportionately affected by climate change. Donors and lenders should instead help these islands to become laboratories for testing innovative clean-energy technologies.

ORANJESTAD – To live in a small island state today is to reckon regularly with the cruelest irony of climate change. Islands contribute little to global warming, but they are the first to suffer from its devastating effects and the least equipped to manage them.

As carbon dioxide emissions from larger, wealthier industrialized countries continue to warm the planet, rising sea levels claim these islands’ territory. Furthermore, massive hurricanes like Maria and Irma, strengthened beyond historic norms by unnaturally warm waters, destroy homes and power systems, leaving death, destruction, and illness in their wake.

As these threats become the new normal, small island states are finding solidarity in common vulnerabilities. We are also sharing a newfound spirit of resilience, and are committed to working together to help the world combat climate change. More specifically, our islands can serve as ideal laboratories for testing innovative clean-energy technologies.

In Aruba, during my tenure as Prime Minister, we established a goal of generating 100% of our electricity with clean energy by 2020. We landed this initiative by working with key partners – universities such as Harvard and TU Delft, and think tanks such as the Rocky Mountain Institute. We were also supported by Sir Richard Branson, Al Gore, Wubbo Ockels, Daan Roosegaarde, and José María Figueres – all leaders in the climate and sustainability movement.

Most islands still rely heavily on imported fossil fuels for their relatively small energy needs, putting them at the mercy of global markets. As a result, islanders must endure unpredictable price shocks and supply disruptions, especially in times of crisis. By contrast, locally generated renewable energy such as wind and solar power – supported by high-storage batteries – makes islands more resilient and stabilizes their electricity supplies.

Small island states want clean energy now, for our own wellbeing and for the good of all humankind. We are eager to show the world how practical and affordable it is to shift away from fossil fuels while expanding the economy, ensuring reliable access to energy for all, and creating good jobs for local populations.

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Many of our Caribbean neighbors have already set ambitious targets for deep decarbonization and development of renewable energy. Jamaica’s prime minister, for example, wants his country to generate 50% of its energy from renewables by 2030. Barbados intends to go even further, achieving carbon neutrality and 100% renewable energy by that date.

Unfortunately, foreign investors often continue to support carbon-energy infrastructure projects in small island states and other developing countries. For example, China has committed more than $20 billion in funding for coal plants around the world. Japan continues to fund new coal projects domestically and abroad – the only G7 country to do so. Such investments threaten to keep vulnerable regions anchored to fossil fuels for decades, while worsening long-term climate risks.

Numerous large, developed countries have pledged to help small, vulnerable nation-states adapt to climate change. Yet these donors and lenders sometimes undermine their own commitment by also funding new fossil-fuel projects.

Richer countries should focus on climate-smart investments aimed at reducing the future burden of global warming. According to one estimate, the average cost of adapting to climate change for nine of the world’s most vulnerable countries could reach $15 billion per year between 2015 and 2030.

China provides a good example of the current inconsistency regarding clean energy. At home, the country is showing how a rapidly industrializing economy can shutter coal plants and increase access to energy with clean renewables. Yet under the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s massive transnational infrastructure investment program – most of the energy projects in developing countries are focused on oil, gas, and coal.

It doesn’t have to be this way. China can easily export its clean-energy and climate-smart technology when borrowers request it. In Argentina, for example, the Export-Import Bank of China is lending nearly $400 million to finance the construction of South America’s largest solar farm.

In addition to the BRI, other countries, such as Japan, are also ramping up investment in island states and throughout the developing world. Countries receiving these funds must think carefully about how such projects will serve their citizens and local communities in the long term, and how new brown-coal-fired power plants will add to their already heavy climate-change burden.

Meanwhile, donor countries must consider how their foreign investments align with their pledges under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The only possible way to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures – a truly existential threshold for many small island states – is immediately to stop new construction of fossil-fuel plants. If an energy project is not compatible with this 1.5-degree limit, can a self-proclaimed “climate leader” such as China or Japan justify funding it?

The Paris agreement ushered in a new era of international cooperation, as world leaders agreed to work together to combat the threat of global warming. Vulnerable islands like mine welcome foreign investment in our energy future, provided that projects are clean and carbon-free, and help our citizens achieve true energy security.

Small island states are disproportionately affected by climate change. But with help from our lenders, we can also punch above our weight in helping to mitigate its worst effects.