The next Atlantis

Observations on carbon neutrality

Mohamed Nasheed knows how fast his country of just 350,000 can move when it needs to. In 2003, the Maldives, best known as a luxurious honeymoon destination, was a repressive one-party state; five years later, Nasheed was elected president in a transparent, almost universally praised election.

In March, Nasheed announced another ambitious goal: creating the world’s first carbon neutral nation within just ten years, a plan for which he won Sweden’s Anna Lindh Human Rights Prize earlier this month. For the Maldives, the climate crisis is an immediate concern. Its 1,200 islands, of which 200 are inhabited, are all 1.5 metres or less above sea level. If the seas rise, the Indian Ocean archipelago could rapidly go the way of Atlantis.

Maldivians are fiercely debating Nasheed’s announcement online. “I am at oxymoron junction,” complains one, calling himself Rannamari after the country’s legendary sea monster. “For tourists to arrive, more flights will have to come to the Maldives. For fisheries to flourish, more black oil needs to be burnt. So how does one go about this?”

According to Nasheed’s plan, announced via video link at the London premiere of the campaigning film The Age of Stupid, “155 1.5MW wind turbines, coupled with 0.5km² of solar panels, would generate enough electricity to power the country”. The estimated cost will be $100m (£65m) per year for a decade – about a tenth of the country’s GDP, although there will be significant savings on oil. A government body is formulating more detailed plans.

“We welcome this,” says Ali Rilwan, founder of Bluepeace, the Maldives’ largest environmental campaign group. “But [the scheme] needs to be coherent. There must be legislation, there must be a development plan.” Rilwan wants to see ideas that will be practical for islanders, not just appealing to a cheering audience in London. “In the 1970s, dhonis [traditional local fishing boats] were forced to carry a sail,” he says. “Is this going to happen again? We also need to minimise consumption in our houses, make sure our lights and fans don’t use too much electricity.” He’s enthusiastic, although he warns: “If we don’t take this seriously, people won’t take us seriously. We have to walk the walk.”

The support of the country’s tourism magnates, often viewed as its real ruling elite, will be crucial. Sim Ibrahim Mohamed, secretary general of the influential Maldives Association of Tourism Industries, is sanguine. “This sounds good: many resorts are using solar power already. People are sceptical about the timeframe, but we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” he says. Both he and Rilwan note that the well-heeled tourists who visit the country’s resorts are the same Europeans who increasingly demand eco-friendly products.

Nasheed’s political opponents denounce his carbon-neutrality promise as a marketing device. The former information minister, an opposition politician also named Mohamed Nasheed, argues it is “highly unlikely to be realised . . . a public relations exercise [that is] romantic for the time being”. But experts such as David JC MacKay, professor of physics at Cambridge University and author of Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, say the plan looks promising. “The figures are in the right ballpark . . . If they can do this, they would be way into the lead in terms of wind turbines per person.” There is potential for the Maldives to achieve its goals: “This plan isn’t just a fig leaf.”