Last week, Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed announced that his country would phase out HCFCs by 2020, ten years ahead of what is required of his country under the Montreal Protocol. HCFCs, used commonly in refrigerators and air conditioners, are ozone-depleting chemicals that are also highly potent greenhouse gases.
In his speech announcing the accelerated commitment, Nasheed thanked his predecessor President Gayoom for having taken the lead in climate change issues. It was an unusual gesture: a leader complimenting a bitter political rival who had imprisoned and tortured and hounded him into exile.
But everything about ‘Anni’, as Maldivians affectionately call their president, shows that he is probably the only leader in this part of the world who hasn’t let the trappings of office get to him.
After giving his speech on Thursday in the resort island of Bandos, Nasheed stepped out for refreshments. He waited in line for tea, there were no sycophants and sidekicks trying to obsequiously usher him to the head of the queue. He waited like everyone else, and everyone left him alone because they knew he didn’t like the fuss.
Later, during an interview at his modest official residence in Male (he has refused to move into Gayoom’s luxurious presidential palace, which he has bequeathed to the Supreme Court) Nasheed denies he is doing this just for effect.
“Integrity and equality must start at the top,” he explains, “but I am also trying to make sure that the government doesn’t cost the taxpayer more than it should.”
After he was elected to office in 2008, Nasheed drastically cut the size of the presidential secretariat, reducing its annual budget from 400 million rufias a year to 27 million ($1=12 rufiya). He's responsible for leading a nation of nearly 2,000 islands spread over 90,000 square kilometers, and what a change from the usual course of things he represents.
The first priority for every new ruler is to increase the size of the cabinet, award themselves perks, facilities and junkets. Last year, Nasheed initially canceled his trip to Copenhagen for the Climate Summit in order to save money and only decided to go after the Danish government insisted on hosting him.
It’s not just the president, most Maldivian ministers impress visitors with their grasp of the portfolios they head. The reason is that the president appoints technocrats to ministries, not cronies from his own party or members of parliament he needs to appease. Which is why the Maldivian minister of health has a PhD in nursing, the education minister has a PhD in education, the minister of the environment has a geography masters from New Zealand and the vice president is a public health doctor who once worked for UNICEF in Kathmandu.
President Nasheed has already announced that his country will be carbon neutral by 2020. This is a huge challenge: the diesel used in the inter-island ferry system and the country’s fishing fleet needs to be replaced with biofuels, tourists have to buy carbon offsets for flights to the Maldives and back, the resorts themselves need to be converted to renewable energy, and the country has ten years to replace all thermal power plants.
To be truly carbon neutral, the country also needs to phase out the chemical called HCFC that is used in refrigeration and air conditioners in the fisheries and tourism sectors. HCFCs are harmful to the ozone layer and are also potent greenhouse gases.
While Nasheed has become popular abroad for his pioneering environmental activism, it has become more difficult for him to sell the idea of cutbacks and phaseouts at home. Which is why to his own people he justifies the switch to renewables by saying it will bring down the country’s high electricity tariff.
The country is setting up its first carbon-neutral resort in the south of the archipelago, powered by wind and solar and using cold 4 degrees Celsius water from 4 km below the ocean’s surface for cooling equipment to replace air-conditioning. All this will take time, and till then the Maldives is collaborating with the Indian Bureau of Energy Efficiency to label household appliances to cut fuel use.
As Nasheed says: “What we do is not going to save the planet, but it will save us. And we can tell the world, look it works.”
After the interview, the President of the Maldives accompanies us to the street outside and walks along the sidewalk to his office a few blocks away.
(Photos: Kunda Dixit)