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CLIMATE CHANGE: Maldives Inches Closer to HCFC Phase-out

Feizal Samath

MALÉ, Jun 14 2010 (IPS) - The Maldives Islands, fast gaining a reputation for ‘walking the talk’ as it raises its tiny island voice in the climate change discourse, has launched an action plan to phase out hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) by 2020, or 10 years ahead of other countries and the target set by an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

The government said work has begun on measures needed to effect this change, which includes bringing in legislation for a course of action that would reduce, minimise and eventually end the use of greenhouse gases in air conditioners.

The Maldives – an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean – has also announced that it would be carbon neutral by 2020, again years ahead of other countries.

Minister of Transport, Housing and Environment Mohamed Aslam said some of the steps being taken to begin the phase-out process includes providing directions to government agencies and preparing a database on HCFC equipment.

“We are also targeting small industry and preparing guidelines for enforcement,” he told reporters here last week. “All these measures would be included in a detailed programme of work to ensure targets are met by 2020,” he said.

Industry has confirmed its support for this government initiative. Representatives of companies, attending a recent conference here on the phase-out process, said they were working alongside the government in phasing out the use of HCFCs in air conditioners (ACs). “Already we have imported a few HCFC-free ACs, and the response is good,” said one executive.

Used mostly in air conditioners, HCFCs depletes the ozone layer and contributes to global warming, experts say. In 2007 the international community took an important step towards phasing out these refrigerant gases.

President Mohamed Nasheed, who won power in November 2008 and ousted Maumoom Abdul Gayoom, who ruled over this island nation with an iron fist for 30 years, is the man behind the Maldives’s success on the world stage as a campaigner for environmental change – while making that change happen at home.

“Foreign governments are now listening to me fairly intensely and also inviting me to speak more often on the environment,” the President told IPS in an interview at his modest home in this capital. “Europe is supportive of our environment efforts, but we have a long way to go with the U.S.”

The Maldives is the first country to receive United Nations funding – a one million U.S. dollar grant – under the Montreal Protocol to implement the phase-out of HCFCs.

The lowest country on the planet, with islands just seven feet above water, is leading the way in climate change, with Nasheed campaigning on behalf of all small island states, saying this is a “human rights and a right to live” issue. “Going green is not only ecologically sound but also economically beneficial.”

Across the Maldives, everyone is clued into global warming and sea level rise. Fathimah Reema, assistant director at the Environmental Protection Agency, cited a survey conducted by the agency showed sea erosion topped the list of public awareness of environmental issues, followed by waste, the ozone depletion and climate change.

“Regular reporting of these issues by the media has helped make people aware of these concerns,” she said.

Mifzal Ahmed, an advisor on investments at the Ministry of Economic Development, said the government is promoting only sustainable development projects. “The government policy is that that all investments should be sustainable. We don’t want someone to come and put up a coal power plant for example,” he told IPS.

“We want to give a positive message on climate change. We don’t want to be all doom and gloom. We want to say the technology exists to solve these problems; it’s just a matter of investing in these technologies.”

He said the Maldives wants to showcase these technologies, and any company can come and invest in these environment-friendly technologies. “If you want to make the Maldives your poster chart, by all means do so,” he added.

Nasheed, dubbed the ‘rock star’ of climate change, said that during his trip to Australia earlier this month, he visited the Australian National University, which has been developing cheaper solar power technology since 1971.

“This university has been preparing a prototype to produce solar power at 10 Australian cents (less than one U.S. cent) per minute since the energy crisis. They have finished everything – all the scientific research has been done,” he said. “However, no one is touching it because all the money is with coal producers and fossil fuel companies.”

According to Atul Bagai, regional network coordinator of the U.N. Environmetal Programme based in Bangkok, Maldives is the first country to achieve so much out of the 145 countries that have agreed to the HCFC phase-out programme.

“It shows the efficiency of the government and the public-private partnerships in industry,” he said, adding that by the time Maldives phases out its HCFC usage, the other countries would still be using these destructive gases.

“We can’t go on forever with small steps,” argued Minister Aslam, referring to his country’s urgency and speed in dealing with climate change and its adverse effects on the environment.

“(The Maldives) is where we have lived for generations and where we will continue to be. You can’t think of relocating (to other countries). No one wants to leave,” he noted.

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