Tokelau plans an all-renewables future

Atafu atoll, Tokelau Atafu atoll, Tokelau

A tiny nation you may well have never heard of fears it may become an early casualty of climate change - and will almost be the first to make its entire energy supply carbon-free.

"By September next year, we will become the first nation using 100%-renewable energy, and number one in percentage greenhouse gas reduction in the Pacific and elsewhere," Foua Toloa told a meeting on the fringes of the UN climate conference.

Tokelau's entire population would fit inside four jumbo jets, and its per-capita income is around $1,000 per year.

So its greenhouse gas output is an infinitesimal fraction of the global total.

Now, calling Tokelau a "country" is something of an issue. The three atolls constitute a New Zealand territory, which depends almost exclusively on New Zealand's budget for its finances, with little indigenous wealth creation.

But government is largely self-administered and it has some trappings of nationhood - for example, competing in international sporting events under its own banner - and ended up under New Zealand's aegis only because of its colonial history.

So why is tiny Tokelau taking the 100%-renewables path?


The electricity mix will be about 93% solar photovoltaic cells, and 7% biodiesel made locally from coconut oil.

In part, it's sound economics. Fossil fuels might be cheaper in many parts of the world - but when they have to be transported in relatively small amounts across thousands of kilometres of ocean, the cost equation changes.

That might have been a factor in the New Zealand government's decision to fund the majority of the cost.

But the Tokelauans say the main factor is concern over climate impacts, and a desire to show it can be done.

A drought earlier this year, caused by changing rainfall patterns, was severe enough that drinking water had to be shipped from New Zealand.

Foua Toloa in Durban Foua Toloa in Durban

The droughts are typically linked to La Nina conditions, Mr Toloa said - but there's concern that climate change is exacerbating the pattern. "We had a seven month spell of no rain," he said.

"In the two previous droughts we could use groundwater, so we didn't need to call for help.

"But this time, because of the contamination of the groundwater, the salination, because of the inundation of the land from the sea, we couldn't use it."

Mr Toloa, a former ulu (government leader), said the islanders were feeling other effects that they presumed were related to climate change.

"The land has been affected, there's a loss of species in the lagoon, changes in the fish-spawning cycles outside the lagoon - a whole set of things that are affected.

"My heart is really heavy as a result of the climate-change situation."

Not all of these impacts may be climate-related. Ocean life, for example, is being affected by industrial-scale fishing and marine pollution, to name but two.

But climate change is on Tokelauan minds, probably because the future for atolls that rise only two metres at their maximum above the waves is not, currently, a happy one.

Which is why, if things go according to plan, one of the smallest and poorest and most isolated places on the planet will soon take the plunge that so many vastly bigger nations say they want to make in the next few decades.

Richard Black, Environment correspondent Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Team of Pacific youth representatives who are in Durban for global climate summit says delaying a deal on carbon emissions puts more pressure on small island countries. Govts at COP17 Summit are generating a road map towards a legally-binding agreement on reducing emissions. Many countries want this to be in place by 2015 but it’s uncertain whether US (or China) will commit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Aaron Packard (Pacific Team) lobbying leaders about destruction as sea-levels rise & other climate changes occur on Pacific islands, talks about delays being catastrophic to Tuvalu & Tokelau which which literally ran out of water. New Zealand govt's decision to provide majority funding is huge factor. Good luck to the Tokelauans in demonstrating what can be accomplished.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.


    Shouldn't you have mentioned the *rate* of sea level rise which hasn't changed much for thousands of years and has actually declined in recent years?

    How much loss of land was caused by Cyclone Percy and good old fashioned land erosion? Let's have the full story and not selected highlights please

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Tokelau is the kind of place where technologies like wind or solar or biodiesel can actually make sense. - Small numbers of people and small scale low energy industry in a large space with the right resources (coconuts and sun). Try running a few steel smelters or 2 million electric cars or a major economy on wind - not going to work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I could argue for nuclear or fusion but the moment I think investment in funding genuine new solutions is more valuable.
    Ok I am kind of hoping that more people will take an interest in this project I am promoting.. It might be 1000:1 or 1000,000:1 against succeeding but if it does could easily solve the worlds need for clean low carbon energy.-


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