How I am practising what I preach

It is quite difficult for someone who spends his life pontificating to try to do something practical for a change. But this is what I have taken on with the Maldives, whose transition into the world's first carbon-neutral country it is my duty, as an adviser to the president, to help deliver.

The country has a lot going for it. Year-round equatorial heat and white-sand beaches make it a location that engineers and technical consultants are generally happier to visit than, say, Uzbekistan. So we are not short of advice or offers of help. But the Maldives is also a developing country. It has a severe deficiency of trained personnel with the expertise and capacity to deliver a carbon-neutral energy infrastructure. Simply co-ordinating all the different offers has become a major headache.

For someone like me, used to dealing in generalities, the challenge of real, on-the-ground engineering has been a steep learning curve. I have had to learn about kilowatts and megawatts, about electrical load-balancing and storage options. I have had to come to terms with the basic problem that renewables tend to be land-intensive, while land is the resource that the Maldives is most short of. Might floating arrays of solar panels and wind turbines be the answer? These are cutting-edge technologies with huge uncertainties attached.

In some ways, the situation in the Maldives is the reverse of that facing most other countries, where the politics is more difficult than the technologies. Here, the politics was the easy bit: President Mohamed Nasheed declared to the world in March 2009 that he wanted his country
to be carbon neutral by 2020. Press releases were written; journalists' questions were answered; an underwater cabinet meeting was held to spread the message. Now we've got to deliver.

The stakes are very high. The Maldives is a tiny country, with only about 350,000 people scattered over a few hundred small islands, but we have made a pledge before the eyes of the world - and we need to make good on it. We must prove that we were right when we said that going carbon neutral is not just possible, but beneficial for a country's people and its economy.

There is no room for ideological posturing, either. The Maldives depends on tourism for a third of its GDP, so there is no point in opining about the awfulness of long-haul flights. We can't decarbonise aviation on our own, so, to be carbon neutral, we have no choice but to use offsets against international flights in the short term. We also have to consider domestic aviation (mostly seaplanes) and marine transport - people are fond of fast speedboats to get between islands.

Some transport can be electrified (no one drives that far here). Waste-to-energy technology will help deliver some back-up power when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Imported biomass will probably play a significant role. But how does it all fit together? Should we aim to build a "ring-main" grid around each atoll to connect the islets (via a subsea electrical cable)? Can this be done without damaging fragile coral reefs? These are engineering questions, not political ones - and helping to solve them is daunting and exciting in equal measure.

While we tackle these problems in the Maldives, I am aware that every economy in the world must decarbonise within the next few decades to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. The Maldives may be the first to take the carbon-neutral plunge, but all must soon follow.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice