Tokelau plans an all-renewables future
- 9 December 2011
- From the section Science & Environment
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.
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.