Comment: The Maldives cannot represent climate leadership with an autocrat at the helm

This article is by former president Mohamed Nasheed’s climate advisor Mark Lynas. It was originally published in The Guardian. Republished with permission. 

Lynas has authored several books on climate change, including Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. 

This week sees governments meeting in Bonn, Germany for the last negotiating session in advance of November’s UN meeting on climate change in Paris – billed as the best chance in a generation for a worldwide treaty to tackle global warming.

The omens are better than for many years. The political landscape was changed dramatically by last November’s China-US emissions deal. With the world’s two biggest emitters covered, other pledges have been arriving thick and fast: the task for Paris will be to forge them into a global agreement with legal force.

The other major issue under discussion in Bonn is finance, in particular how the commitment to providing developing countries $100bn (£65bn) a year by 2020 for climate adaptation and mitigation can be funded. One of the strongest and most morally charged voices in this arena is the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis), who are most vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate impacts. But this is where the problems start.

The chair of Aosis is currently the Maldives, a country of hundreds of coral atolls, none of them more than a metre above sea level. The Maldives shot to global attention in 2009, when its charismatic president Mohamed Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to raise awareness of his nation’s plight, and laterpledged to make his country the world’s first carbon neutral state.

Nasheed personally took on the might of China and the US in the climactic closed-door heads of state meeting in Copenhagen in 2009. He then defended the deal from the conference floor when other world leaders had already jetted home, salvaging some positives from a process that was otherwise headed towards total collapse. (I was climate adviser to President Nasheed during that time.)

However, the Maldives is no longer represented by Nasheed,who was ousted in a coup in 2012 and later lost a rigged presidential election to the half brother of the former dictator. Nasheed was recently arrested, tried and sentenced to 13 years in prison following a politically-motivated trial Amnesty International decried as a “travesty of justice”. He is currently languishing in an unsanitary jail with highly restricted access to medical care, legal representation or visits from his wife and young children.

The Maldives’ new autocratic leadership has gutted the country’s democratic institutions and imprisoned every political opposition leader. The authoritarian president Abdullah Yameen has ditched the carbon neutral pledge and plans instead to drill for oil in the Maldives’ pristine coral-fringed waters. Yet this is the voice, as chair of Aosis, now supposedly representing the moral force of small island states at the international climate negotiations.

Having some of the most vulnerable countries in the world representated by authoritarian regimes presents the world with a dilemma. Should demands from these countries for billions of dollars’ worth of climate aid be heeded, when minimum standards of good governance are ignored and human rights are trampled?

In the Maldives, Yameen’s ministers have been accused of links with international gangsters and drug-dealers. Corruption is endemic, while journalists have been threatened, beaten and disappeared. Islamic extremism, meanwhile, is thriving, with hundreds of Maldivians reportedly traveling to Syria to join Islamic State.

The problem was recognised by Nasheed when in office. Sharing his concerns over the possible channeling of western climate aid through corrupt governments in developing countries, he said: “The money is rarely spent on what it should be. Even that which isn’t stolen is spent on the wrong thing. The contract is given to a minister’s relative, rather than to a reputable company.”

This is not a call to reduce the amount of aid pledged in Paris: the $100bn target has been agreed and should be met. But there is surely now a strong case for setting up procedures to enforce minimum standards of accountability for countries aiming to draw from these funds. There are plenty of Aosis members and other vulnerable nations that respect democracy, human rights and good governance, from Barbados to Cape Verde to Samoa.

These countries should be first in the queue, while nations like the Maldives that slip backwards into autocracy and corruption should be excluded from accessing climate finance support. In the meantime, Aosis should come to its senses and realise that it is damaging the interests of small island states worldwide to have its collective voice represented by a regime that crushes democracy and imprisons opposition leaders.

Human rights and climate change cannot be traded off against each other. It is because human rights and dignity are accepted as universal values that there is a moral case for climate finance in the first place – to address the injustice of those suffering the worst climate impacts not being those who bear the most responsibility for global warming.

Morality is a double-edged sword – if you behave unjustly yourself you forfeit any claim to moral leadership. That is why the Maldives cannot represent climate leadership while an aspiring dictator remains at the helm.

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Maldives committed to carbon neutral aims despite political uncertainty

The government says it remains committed to pursuing the previous administration’s carbon neutral ambitions despite recent political tensions reportedly affecting investment potential for such schemes.

Environment Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela contended that some of the programs presently being undertaken by her ministry had started seven years previously – before Former President Mohamed Nasheed came to power – and were being adhered to on the grounds they would benefit the nation.

“We are continuing with the carbon neutrality program,” she said. “ We are giving it our best shot.”

Nasheed, who alleges he was forced to resign under duress back in February of this year,  claimed that resulting political tensions from his ouster had all but ended hopes of achieving these aims.   The former president aimed to position himself globally as a high profile advocate for pursuing carbon neutral developments.

However, as the Maldives commits itself to a new US$138 million project that it has claimed within five years will generate 16 megawatts of renewable energy, one regional environmental organisation has called for greater collaboration between Indian Ocean nations to drive sustainability.

Mumbai-based NGO, the Centre for Environmental Research and Education (CERE) has told Minivan News that despite being a small island state, the Maldives stood as a good indicator of how other larger nations could scale up its programs to successfully undertake green initiatives.

“Maldives needs to assume a bigger role in the sustainability dialogue with India and a clear road map on how this will be achieved has to be stipulated,” CERE stated, pointing to the key commitments it hoped to see from the present government.

The comments were made as the Maldives Energy Authority yesterday told local media that once the US$138 million project became operational, ten islands within the country would be entirely powered with renewable energy. The ministry contended that a further 30 percent of the total energy demands of 30 islands would be “converted” to renewable energy.

Minister of State for Environment and Energy, Abdul Matheen Mohamed, said that a so-called Sustainable Renewable Energy Project (SREP) was also set to be conducted on 50 islands with assistance from organisations like the Climate Investment Fund as part of wider national sustainability commitments, according to Haveeru.

Environment Minister Dr Shakeela confirmed to Minivan News today that the SREP scheme was directly related to the the Scaling-Up Renewable Energy Program in Low Income Countries devised under the previous government of former President Nasheed.

Some of the key minds who helped devise the Scaling-Up Renewable Energy Program (SREP) for the former government said earlier this year that the project had fallen through after political instability following February’s controversial transfer of power had deterred potential investors in the scheme.

Dr Shakeela, who was in Hyderabad, India, for the 11th Convention on Biological Diversity confirmed that the project had been within the Economic Ministry before she retrieved and reviewed the plans.

“I worked on it with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the IFC and it has now been finished,” she said.

“I think it is important [to understand] that our ministry does not categorise projects according to who has [initiated them]. Our plan is to continue them with all the policies and programs as long as they are not detrimental to the economy.”

The government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan has previously stressed that it was committed to “not completely” reversing the Nasheed administration’s zero carbon strategy: “What we are aiming to do is to elaborate more on individual sustainable issues and subject them to national debate.”

As well as committing to trying meet the carbon neutral goals of his predecessor, President Waheed has also announced plans to make the Maldives the world’s largest marine reserve within the next five years five.


Addressing the Maldives’ ongoing eco-commitments, CERE claimed that the main challenge for carbon reduction developments both in the country and around the world was to show sustainability projects could actually be synonymous with economic benefit.

CERE Co-Founder Kitayun (Katy) Rustom claimed that the organisation continued to try and advocate green strategies that defied traditional perceptions of sustainability being seen as ‘anti-development’ or ‘anti-growth’.

“It is necessary for all of countries to realise that our window of opportunity for carbon reduction is only till 2020 – after this it will be next to impossible to mitigate the disastrous and irreversible impacts of climate change,” she claimed.

“The key challenge is to see carbon reduction as a positive economic initiative.”

Rustom said that the Maldives’ ongoing attempts to become a carbon neutral economy were well publicised in India and reflected a “commonality of purpose” between the two nations.

“India is one of the most vulnerable to climate change especially with respect to sea level rise – just like the Maldives – since it has a 7,500 km long coastline and even a one metre rise in sea levels will submerge an estimated 5,700 square kilometres displacing millions of people,” she added.

“Of course, there are a host of other catastrophic impacts that climate change will have on our country. India does not see itself as any different from the island states in the Indian Ocean and it understands the need of working on a united platform.”

Rustom added that she ultimately hoped for much more defined collaborations between the authorities of Indian Ocean nations in future.

“A cross-sharing of carbon reduction strategies need to be encouraged and formalised in which quantitative targets need to be spelt out. The Maldives needs to assume a bigger role in the sustainability dialogue with India and a clear road map on how this will be achieved has to be stipulated,” she said.

“Perhaps the Ministry of Environments of both countries can set up a Indian-Maldivian Committee to work on this mission and lay down specific goals.”

Earlier this year, former President Nasheed’s Climate Change Advisor – UK-based author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas – said that after the controversial nature of the transfer that bought the present government to power, he was sceptical of its ability to take stands on sustainable development.

Lynas claimed that the loss of “democratic legitimacy” in the Maldives had destroyed its ability to make a moral stand on climate change-related issues, and be taken seriously.

“I think that the Maldives is basically a has-been in international climate circles now,” said Lynas, who drew a monthly stipend of Rf10,000 (US$648) for expenses whilst serving in his position.

“The country is no longer a key player, and is no longer on the invite list to the meetings that matter. Partly this is a reflection of the political instability – other countries no longer have a negotiating partner that they know and understand,” he said.


Government ponders voluntary tourist contributions to fuel US$100 million green energy fund

A proposed tourist “tax” aimed at raising US$100 million to assist the Maldives’ carbon neutral aims would likely be implemented as a “voluntary contribution” scheme for foreign visitors, Minister of Environment and Energy Dr Mariyam Shakeela said today.

Dr Shakeela, who was recently approved by parliament to head the newly established Ministry of Environment and Energy, said that the scheme was presently being considered in the form of donations collectable from tourists visiting the country.

“We have not agreed anything yet, but the plan would be to set up a voluntary contribution programme to aid environment protection here,” Shakeela said, adding that the fund could be maintained and run in a similar manner to health and wealthfare charities.

While no agreement has yet been finalised on seeking support for the Maldives’ green aims through its lucrative tourism industry, representatives for the President’s Office today said there was reluctance to place further mandatory charges on foreign guests.

The comments were made as President Doctor Mohamed Waheed Hassan today discussed the future of the country’s sustainable initiatives, and played up commitments to become carbon-neutral by 2020.  The carbon neutral pledge was initiated by his predecessor Mohamed Nasheed.

However, following the controversial transfer of power that brought Waheed’s government to office in February – an act Nasheed later alleged was a “coup d’etat” – the key minds behind a risk-mitigated renewable energy investment devised for the previous administration raised concerns about the viability of a large scale national sustainable commitments at the present time.

Mike Mason – a former mining engineer and expert on renewable energy who served as Energy Advisor for Nasheed’s administration on a reportedly unpaid basis, alleged political uncertainty since February had derailed interest in fundng. Mason, who outlined a detailed alternative power strategy and funding plan set to be signed into place on February 7 this year, claimed capital investors who had been “queuing up” to assist the project made their excuses and declined assistance after the transfer of power.

At the same time, former President Nasheed’s Climate Change Advisor – UK-based author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas told Minivan News last month that the loss of democratic legitimacy in the Maldives had destroyed its ability to make a moral stand on climate change-related issues, and be taken seriously.

“I think that the Maldives is basically a has-been in international climate circles now,” said Lynas, who drew a monthly stipend of Rf10,000 (US$648) for expenses whilst serving in his position.  “The country is no longer a key player, and is no longer on the invite list to the meetings that matter. Partly this is a reflection of the political instability – other countries no longer have a negotiating partner that they know and understand,” he said.

Reserve strategy

President Waheed himself used last month’s Rio +20 global summit to commit the Maldives to become the world’s largest marine reserve within the next five years five.

Speaking at the summit, the president also pledged that the Maldives would “cover 60 percent of our electricity needs with solar power, and the rest with a combination of biofuels, other clean technologies and some conventional energy.”

In clarifying details of his government’s sustainable plans, Waheed told Reuters today that as opposed to enforcing a US$3 mandatory tax on tourists to fund his government’s own carbon neutral policies, a voluntary fund targeting a sum of around US$10 per visitor was being considered.

“I believe most of the tourists who come to the Maldives are environmentally conscious and quite happy to make a contribution towards making the Maldives carbon neutral,” he added.

To compliment its desired aims to match the previous government’s carbon neutral objectives, Waheed explained to Reuters that the country required more investment in environmentally friendly buildings, as well as a move away from its heavy dependence on fossil-fuel powered transportation.

“We are a little bit behind schedule (on the renewables plan) but we hope we will be able to catch up over the next 5 years or so,” Waheed said.  “Male’ is not the most ideal island location right now – it doesn’t have ‘green’ buildings but a lot of companies are interested in developing them.”

The article also drew attention to the country’s resort industry, reporting that seven of the country’s 100 secluded island properties were presently considered “ecofriendly” in regards to efforts to cut down their carbon footprints. One resort is also expected to obtain carbon neutral status as of next year.

Reuters added that the present government was also looking to receive a sum of US$30 million from Climate Investment Funds that would help “leverage” US$120 million in capital to establish renewable developments across the nation.

Tourism “burden”

Addressing Dr Waheed’s comments today, President’s Office spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza said that the voluntary charge for tourists to help fund the country’s green efforts remained at the proposal stage.

Abbas added that the exact mechanics of how the potential funds would be paid and overseen therefore were yet to be developed.

According to the President’s Office, with tourists already facing a US$27 charge for an airport development project and a six percent Tourism-GST (TGST) on goods and services purchased during their stay, there had been reluctance to further “burden” the industry with more charges.

Resorts in the Maldives have previously expressed concern about the potential increase in T-GST to 12 percent, among several measures the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said are urgently needed to offset the Maldives’ spiralling budget deficit.

Abbas had previously stressed that the government was committed to “not completely” reversing the Nasheed administration’s zero carbon strategy: “What we are aiming to do is to elaborate more on individual sustainable issues and subject them to national debate. Previously, these discussions on sustainability were not subjected to a national debate, such as through parliament,” Abbas said.

Election calls

Speaking to the Huffington Post news service earlier this month, former President Nasheed said he believed the controversial nature of the transfer of power in February meant that fresh general elections were presently the most important aspect to any successful climate change adaptation plan.

“Without democracy, you’d be making the wrong decisions at the wrong time,” Nasheed claimed, raising concerns that carbon neutral plans n the Maldives were now “stuck”.

In the months following his controversial resignation, Nasheed visited the US to raise awareness on the current political upheaval in the country, as well the documentary film, “The Island President” in a tour that saw him appearing on prime time TV and at talks across the country.

The documentary film chronicles his government’s ambitious pledge to become a carbon neutral nation by 2020, and has received increased global coverage since Nasheed was removed from office.

Whilst still in office back in November 2010, Nasheed claimed that failure to meet the country’s ambition aims of being an entirely carbon neutral nation would be a “disaster” for the country.

International perspective

Despite Nasheed’s high-profile climate activism, Greenpeace told Minivan News in 2010 that the Maldives acted more “as a symbol than a practical demonstration” of how national development and fighting climate change can be mutually exclusive.

“The Maldives can become a strong proponent of a paradigm shift in the World Bank and in developing countries whereby it is recognised that fighting climate change and promoting development go hand in hand,” said Wendel Trio, Climate Policy and Global Deal Coordinator for Greenpeace International.


‘Island Ex-President’ debuts in UK

Thursday night saw the UK Premier of “The Island President” as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London. After the screening Mark Lynas, former Climate Advisor to the previous President Mohamed Nasheed, helped make up a panel of experts who fielded questions from the audience.

“The debate was very much focused around what has happened since the film was made, with the coup and the new government being installed. People were very concerned about the former president’s welfare, and what it means for him to be back in opposition fighting for democracy after having apparently won the battle earlier in the film,” said Mr Lynas.

Human Rights Watch, the independent human rights organisation describes its film festival thusly: “Through our Human Rights Watch Film Festival we bear witness to human rights violations and create a forum for courageous individuals on both sides of the lens to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.”

The personal commitment on display was that of former President Mohamed Nasheed, whose efforts to win the Presidency and to raise international awareness of climate change were documented in the critically acclaimed film.

The film debuted to packed audiences in the Maldives in November and is scheduled for showings across the United States throughout March and April.

The expert panel also included the former Envoy for Science and Technology, Ahmed Moosa; and the Guardian’s Head of Environment, Damien Carrington.

Renewable commitment?

As with most public events concerning the Maldives recently, home and abroad, the event was accompanied by opposition lobbyists who dispensed pro-democracy literature outside the theatre.

After the sold-out audience had seen the film, the ensuing discussion revealed their concerns about the effects that political turmoil would have on the Maldives’ environmental ambitions.

Current President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan recently reaffirmed his commitment to environmental projects during his opening of the People’s Majlis, and also at a ceremony celebrating a renewable energy project supported by the Japanese government.

“We have been campaigning for the last couple of years that we would like the world community to come to an understanding, an agreement, to reduce emissions so that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere would be reduced to 350 parts per million,” said President Waheed.

“We will work with other small island countries, and low lying countries, to keep the low carbon development agenda at the forefront of the international developmental discourse over the next years as well. Our commitment to this will continue to be strong and unwavering.”

Lynas however expressed great concern to Minivan News about the likelihood of similar investments in the Maldives continuing to flourish in the current political climate: “Donors will turn away because of the political instability, and investors likewise.”

Such opinions appear to be supported by the Economic Ministry’s unexplained decision to halt any new Public Private Partnership (PPP) schemes one week ago.

Lynas lamented the negative effects the change of political power has had on such projects.

“Back in February we were literally days from signing a major investment plan with the World Bank before the coup happened – this would have leveraged potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, and we were about the begin the process of transforming several islands towards renewable power from the sun,” said Mr Lynas.

“This whole unfortunate saga could set the country back 10 years or more, and undo most of the work that we have all devoted years of our lives trying to pursue.”

Nasheed is hortly to head to the United States, where the film’s release is sure to draw significant media attention to the Maldives political problems as much as its environmental ones.

In an article posted on the website of the NGO Responding to Climate Change, the author posits the question, “Could they have chosen a better time to release this film?”


“This coup will not be the last word”: Mark Lynas

Ousted President Mohamed Nasheed will not stop promoting democracy and freedom of expression in the Maldives, writes Mark Lynas in UK’s Guardian newspaper.

A former climate change advisor to Nasheed, Lynas warns that governments who value democracy “should not be under illusion about what has just taken place [in the Maldives.]”

“The first democratically elected leader of a 100% Muslim country, [Nasheed] swept away the 30-year dictatorship of Maumoon Gayoom in national elections back in 2008. Now the Maldives sadly sees its spring being rolled back: a leader elected through the ballot box has just been deposed by street violence and intimidation,” writes Lynas.

Lynas suggests that progress achieved under Nasheed was the fruits of an uphill battle which included multiple arrests and even personal torture.

“The former dictator Gayoom and his forces never accepted the outcome of the 2008 elections, and their networks of power and influence were increasingly threatened by Nasheed’s campaign against corruption in the judiciary. Indeed, this crisis was sparked by the arrest of senior court judge who had repeatedly refused to prosecute corruption cases in order to protect powerful allies from the former regime. Recently the opposition had begun to use inflammatory antisemitic and jihadi hate-speech to falsely accuse Nasheed of undermining Islam,” Lynas writes.

Lynas goes on to state that Nasheed’s efforts to make the Maldives “the world’s first carbon-neutral country was typically ambitious” and had seen progress, however “all bets are now off.”

Meanwhile, environmental NGO launched a petition early this morning calling for leaders world wide to apply diplomacy to ensure the safety of Nasheed “and the Maldivian people.” The organisation has called Nasheed a leading figure in the movement against climate change.

Expressing uncertainty over the Maldives’ current trajectory, Lynas concludes, “If I know the man at all, this coup will not be the last word.”

Red more on The Guardian.


Maldives’ sustainability adviser calls for global eco-reassessment

“I think the green movement needs to take a step back and reassess what it is trying to achieve and how,” Mark Lynas, an adviser to President Mohamed Nasheed on sustainable and environmental issues, has told the Ecologist publication.

In an interview for the ecological publication, Lynas, a British journalist and environmental activist, believes that amidst growing controversy in adopting so-called greener technologies, economies like the Maldives require an ‘engineer’ rather than a ‘propagandist’ to succeed.

Talking of his advisory role to President Nasheed, the journalist claims he aims to try and be practical, rather than idealistic, in pursuing green commitments to help the Maldives meet its ambitions to become carbon neutral by 2020.

“When I’m advising the president of the Maldives, I can’t really say to him ‘Our first job is to confront power and smash corporate control’,” Lynas tells the Ecologist. “I have to say to him, ‘OK, let’s look at getting this amount of solar power on these buildings, this amount of wind on the grid in the capital city, let’s work on this kind of building code for energy efficiency’.”

The full Ecologist interview can be read here.