President Waheed’s hand “almost impossible to play”: Mike Mason

Former Energy Advisor to President Nasheed Mike Mason has published an open reply to President Mohamed Waheed, following a letter Waheed sent to key international supporters of Nasheed seeking to justify his decisions and establish the legitimacy of his leadership. Mason, a former mining engineer and expert on renewable energy, carbon finance and offsetting, was the architect of a US$3 billion renewable energy investment scheme cut short by the events of February 7. Mason subsequently resigned. This letter first appeared on his blog.

Dear President Waheed,

Thank you for your letter setting out the position as you see it. Let me in turn set out my stall, before replying to the substance of what you say.

As you know, you and I have always had a cordial, even friendly relationship. I have always thought you a reputable and straightforward person and continue to believe in your personal integrity.

It is also the case that I am not Nasheed’s man. I have tremendous respect for him as a democrat, and a man of high principle and great vision, but I have disagreed with him very strongly on issues in the past, and believe he made many mistakes in his Presidency. That said, I suspect my assessment is fairly unreliable as I am sure he had pressures on him, as I am sure you have on you, which were invisible to the outside world.

I hope therefore what I say can be taken as offering you a helpful perspective from an outsider who came to like the Maldives and its people very much, and who made many friends there in the short time I was involved. The information I have about events in the Maldives, therefore, comes not only from the ‘Nasheed camp’ but from a range of sources with quite different perspectives.

Now to the substance of this response.

I have no reason to question that part of your letter which sets out the extent to which you personally were, and continue, to be committed to the Maldives, and democracy – or to the extent to which you put yourself and family at risk to support Nasheed. However I fear that your personal views and beliefs are not the driving issues here. It is the perception, not the reality, which matters more.

The key issues, I believe, are:

  1. The Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) was set up in the hope of setting the record surrounding your accession to power straight, and dismissing the smell of coup and corruption. Unfortunately it failed to do this.Two reasons come to mind: firstly the choice of Judge Selvam does not seem to have been designed to allay concerns about bias. The Burma/Singapore/Maldives/Oil/Heroin rumours and the Judge’s close connections to the ruling elite in Singapore make anything he does look suspect – especially when the former chairman of the STO is quoted in ‘The Week’ as allegedly saying he has friends in Singapore who would have told him if the police were investigating. Whatever the truth, and I cannot judge that, choosing Judge Selvam was guaranteed to create more dissent than agreement. Secondly, the rumours I have heard about the pressures that led to Saeed resigning from the CoNI will not make it easy to see the report as unbiased and complete – even if the substance of the content is correct and the rumours are false.
  2. The second issue is the perception that the courts and judiciary in the Maldives are corrupt and incompetent, and politically tied to their old masters. Judge Abdullah is, I fear, widely seen as a travesty of a chief justice, and if he represents the rest it is not surprising many have lost faith in the system.

Thus the circumstances of the transfer of power as seen on numerous videos, coupled with the handling of the CoNI and the actions of the judiciary, means that I fear there is no way you will ever remove the taint of corruption and coup from this government – however clean, honest and transparent you personally may be. Unfortunately that’s life – perception counts more than reality – whatever the reality is. There is, I believe, almost nothing that you can do as President to heal the country’s ills however hard you try, or however good you are.

Note though that I said “Almost Nothing”. There is, in my humble opinion, one way out of this which would set you up as a President to be remembered – whether or not you win the next election, and it is this.

It is quite clear that, in any future election, the MDP have to be free to campaign as they wish. It is also clear that Nasheed MUST be free to campaign also. Only if he loses a genuine, free and fair, election in which he was openly given every facility to campaign, will the world (and I dare say many Maldivians) put the doubts about the 7th Feb behind them. Indicting him in a court whose authority is being challenged will simply make things worse.

It is also clear that a real leader must recognise publicly the issues surrounding the judiciary, and I suspect some fundamental issues of a faulty constitution and legal system.

A secondary, related issue, is the wide perception that drugs and gross corruption are in some way related to politics in dark corners. Is it coincidence that Burma is a major heroin producer? It will take a brave man to sweep out the taint of past corruption which runs a real risk of becoming a current problem, and even fatally tainting the next election.

Now to something I do really know about – money, oil and energy. The Maldives runs the risk of becoming bankrupted by its oil use – at the very least its economic development will be curtailed and people will eventually become poorer. The solutions are there and both affordable and financeable – or rather they were. You will never attract the level of finance needed to wean your society off expensive oil unless you have an environment where contract law is sacrosanct, the threat of nationalisation is removed, and you have transparent and predictable government and structures. Even the talk of nationalising the airport will set the country’s investment plans back decades.

In summary – I think you have an almost impossible hand to play. There are some cards you can play – but I fear that your advisors and political colleagues may hold you back from the rather brave decisions needed to play them. Play them, though, and the world will sit up and notice.

I wish you all the best,

Your friend,

Mike Mason

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


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.


Climate experts and celebrities converge on Maldives for Slow Life Symposium

Luxury Maldivian resort Soneva Fushi is currently hosting a three day ‘Slow Life’ symposium bringing together big names in business, climate science, film and renewable energy to come up with ways to address climate change.

Attendees at the Symposium include famous UK entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Empire; actress Daryl Hannah, star of films including ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Splash’; Ed Norton, star of films including ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American History X’; Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project; Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed; and an array of climate experts and scientists including Mark Lynas and Mike Mason.

Richard Branson

Branson described how six years ago former US Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore arrived at his house “and made me realise I had to make changes to the way I was doing business in the own world.”

Among other initiatives, Branson described his creation of a “Carbon War Room” funding scientific work into both climate education and the development of a renewable alternative to jet fuel.

“Ethanol was not a good idea because it freezes at 15,000 feet,” Branson noted. “So we’re investigating alternatives such as algae, isobutanol and fuel created from eucalyptus trees,” he said, adding that Virgin would be making a significant announcement on the subject next week.

Big business had the ability and prerogative to break down market barriers to the development of low carbon technologies, he said. Inefficient shipping, for instance, wasted US$70 billion a year, and led him to create a website allocating ratings to the most efficient vessels and ports, that had attracted interest from large grocery chains.

Branson also outlined his US$25 million prize for the development of a commercial technology capable of removing carbon from the atmosphere, an idea he said was inspired by the 1714 prize offered for developing a means of measuring longitude on a ship, and had attracted thousands of innovative ideas.

President Mohamed Nasheed

Speaking at the symposium on Saturday, Nasheed said it was “very clear, that regardless of whether you are rich or poor, too much carbon will kill us.”

“For us, this is not just an environmental issue. We need to become carbon neutral even if there was no such thing as climate change, simply because it is more economically viable. We spend more than 14 percent of our GDP on fossil fuel energy, which is more than our education and health budget combined.”

The most important adaptation measure, Nasheed said, “is democracy. You have to have a responsive government to discuss this issue. When I do something people do not believe in, they shout at me. But they are not doing this on this issue.”

The government had reformed its economic system and introduced new taxes “so we can fend for ourselves. We cannot endlessly rely on the international community.”

Since last year’s symposium the government had launched its renewable energy investment plan, and contracted an international firm to process waste at Thilafushi, Nasheed said, as well as introduced a feed in tariff which would make generating solar “more profitable than a corner shop.”

“If you are buying electricity at 40 cents a kilowatt hour you can sell electricity to the state at 35 cents. Soneva Fushi is going to be able to produce electricity with solar at 15 cents. We will be able to finance households as a loan to pay back from savings they are making. If you do the sums in the Maldives it is really quite possible, and I’m confident that households will see the commercial viability.”

Ed Norton

Meanwhile Ed Norton, star of films including ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American History X’, linked sanitation and waste management to human development, noting that more people had cell phones than toilets. As a result, Norton said, 1.7 million people died yearly of preventable diarrheal diseases – 90 percent of them under the age of five.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that for every dollar spent on sanitation, $3-34 is returned to the economy,” he observed.

Ocean dumping of sewage was standard, he noted, while septic tanks could leak and contaminate groundwater. He proposed a greater focus on using waste water for fertiliser and water recycling, rather than thinking of it simply as a matter of waste disposal.

Jonathan Porritt

UK environmentalist Jonathan Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, observed that just by attending the Symposium he had contributed four tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

He referred to a colleague who was “so overwhelmingly conscious” of his carbon footprint that he weighed his attendance at such events by “the gravity of the audience, the quality of his speech and the effectiveness in lobbying and networking.”

However, he noted that travel and tourism was, overall, a “force for good in an increasingly troubled world.”

“We live in a world where governments invest US$1.4 trillion a year in war. We live in a world where US$4 trillion is invested in the war against terror, a world were fundamentalism is rampant and aggressive nationalism is all over the place. Many countries taking a lead on the issue suffer from a deep sense of exhaustion. Against that backdrop, hands-on [tourism] is a way to bridge the divide,” Porritt said.

At the same time tourism was driven by the balance sheet, and that while there was a great deal of ecotourism initiatives much of it was “marketing, with no credibility.”

“There is a focus on green rather than sustainable tourism, and no real understanding of what it means,” he said. “There is a reluctance to engage on socio-economic issues.”

“Gaps in equity are widening – and the gap between the have and the have nots is widening. Even as tourism contributes economically, because of the gaps resentment about the impact of the industry is rising – especially in a country where access to land, water, beachfront, reef and biomass is being privileged to support growth of tourism industry rather than the interests of local people.”

Tourism, Porritt said, was a microcosm of the local economy, with high end tourism such as that in the Maldives attracting the wealthiest and most influential people.

“For the one percent of the population that control more than 30 percent of the net wealth in a country such as the United States, it is very easy to insulate one’s self from real world by traveling from high security offices to gated communities to privileged, luxury resorts. It is a bubble through which the real world rarely penetrates.”

A state of low carbon with high inequality was “not a judgement anyone should be comfortable with. We should be thinking not just about the need to mitigate carbon impact, but offsetting inequality. I think what we are doing should be from the perspective of social justice as much as low carbon.”

However, he noted, it was easier to educate a few billionaires than the entire population of a country such as the US, distracted from the issue by Xboxes and cable TV.

“Billionaires have a vested interest in keeping the [planet sustainable], because they have enough money enjoy the planet,” he suggested.

Tim Smit

Founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall, Tim Smit, spoke about the need to mobilise people by capturing their imagination – and the responsibility the Maldives has as a symbol of a united effort combating climate change.

“Author CS Lewis said that while science leads to truth, only imagination leads to meaning,” Smit said.

“We are used to talking to halls of middle aged men who want to be inspired. We read the books about affecting change and they have the same language, and it is really dull: paradigm shifts, centres of excellence, leading edge thinking, cutting edge thinking, and when they are very excited, bleeding edge thinking. We don’t write books about the impact of this thinking.”

Incredible things, Smit said, were “being done by the unreasonable.”

“The Maldives has captured the imagination, and the elected political elite are showing charisma and leadership on the issue [of climate change]. The danger is that we listen to too many middle aged white people, and miss the point. I see an incredible moment when the story of Maldives becomes the story of us all – but it needs to be delivered with a pirate grin that says f*** it, we’re going to do this thing. I hate idealists. I like unreasonable people who do things.”

There was, Smit said, a danger that the Maldives would lose sight of its goal, and “lose the moment when the Maldives could become the most important place in world. The goal is open but the moment will be gone, and suddenly the bright future is no longer there, just a job – and not a job in the spotlight.”

The Maldivian people needed to be given the independence to make their own decisions, such as installing solar, and given control so that they knew the impact of flipping the light switch.

“Trust in the people of the Maldives to get excited of a picture of the Maldives reborn,” Smit suggested.

The Slow Life Symposium continues on Sunday.


President appoints Climate Care founder as energy advisor

President Mohamed Nasheed has appointed the founder of Climate Care, one of the world’s first carbon trading companies, to the position of Energy Advisor.

Mike Mason was appointed to the unpaid position at a ceremony held at Oxford University in the UK on FriDAY evening.

A statement from the President’s Office described Mason as “a world expert on renewable energy, carbon finance and offsetting”, who would be “tasked with providing the President and his office with strategic advice on how the Maldives can switch from oil based power to renewable energy, in order to improve the country’s energy security and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. ”

Climate Care was acquired by investment banking monolith JP Morgan in April 2008.


Q&A: Mike Mason, founder of Climate Care

Some of the world’s leading environmentalists, energy experts and economists gathered under a thatched roof, barefoot and in shorts for a conference with a difference.

The ‘Eco-Symposium’ took place over the weekend in Soneva Fushi, a luxury resort renown for its green credentials and the first in the Maldives that has pledged to go carbon neutral – by the end of this year.

Set in Baa Atoll, the 100 hectare resort grows most of its own food organically on the island, has banned any use of plastic, and provides guests with drinking water in re-usable glass bottles, produced in the island’s own bottling plant. Guests pay an additional two percent on their bills to help offset their carbon emissions.

The symposium’s stated aim was  to reconcile luxury tourism with environmental sustainability. Soneva Fushi’s owner, Sonu Shivdasani, a long time environmental entrepreneur, says: “We want to present practical solutions that make both business and environmental sense. The tourism industry must realize that reconciling its business with carbon neutrality is a matter of commercial as well as planetary survival.”

Speakers at the Symposium included Jonathan Porrit, Founder and Director of Forum for the Future, Professor Geoffrey Lipman of Unite Nations World Tourism Organisation, Eric Scotto CEO Akuo Energy Group, Jeremy Legget, Founder & Chairman Solarcentury and Mark Lynus, the government’s Climate Change Advisor.

They spoke on issues including surviving climate change and profitable climate solutions, the living building challenge and improving the transportation footprint. Special guest President Mohamed Nasheed spoke on the plans to make Maldives carbon neutral by 2020.

Minivan News spoke to Mike Mason on the sidelines of the eco symposium, following his presentation on ‘Carbon neutral Maldives: foresight or folly’.

Mason is considered a world expert in environmental economics and renewable energy technologies. He is the founder of Climate Care, a voluntary carbon offset company based in UK, which he recently sold to investment bank JP Morgan. For the past six months he has been supervising an Oxford student’s Masters thesis on energy consumption in the islands of Baa Eydhafushi and Baa Maalhos.

Aishath Shazra: When you discuss going carbon neutral with Maldivians from all walks of life, you have said the most you get from them is “that’s interesting”, or “it’s a policy that will come and go.” In lieu of this, how can you change mindsets?

Mike Mason: Nobody wakes up thinking “I want to destroy the planet today.” But a lack of knowledge about low carbon technologies, and in poor countries in particular, a lack of capital, means people find it difficult to switch to renewable technologies. A poor person can’t afford to invest in something [such as solar panels] unless is gives an immediate financial return.

A two part strategy is needed to tackle this. One is by providing the best technical advice to those in power: the government, ministers,island chiefs and so on. And secondly, providing things to win hearts and minds of people, so that local people demand change.

AS: What have you learned from the data collected from Maalhos in Baa Atoll, and what does it suggest in terms of harnessing wind and solar energy?

MM: In the study of Maalhos we learned that we absolutely can make the transition to renewable energy without increasing people’s energy bills. Moreover, we can make people’s lives better in the process, by improving their fridges and cooling their houses.

We have to integrate energy and tax policies. For example, a typical fridge in the Maldives uses 10 times as much electricity as the very best fridges currently available in Europe. This costs the household money, wastes government money in electricity subsidies and damages the environment. The irony of the fridges example is that the cost to the government of changing someone’s fridge is less than the cost of subsidising the electricity the old fridge wastes.

The second thing we learned from Maalhos concerns the choices you need to make in order to provide cheap renewable energy. For example, if you only want 30 percent of your electricity to be renewable, you can do it mainly with wind, rather than solar. But if you aim to power an island with 90 percent renewable energy, you need to use all solar and very little wind.

We have to understand these issues, and work out what targets we want to hit, before we spend a lot of money on equipment.

Participants at the Eco-Symposium, including Mike Mason and President Mohamed Nasheed

AS: Will the scattered islands of Maldives make it a challenge to use renewable energy or can we have a one-size-fits-all solution for the islands?

MM: The scattered islands of the Maldives are not a problem in going for renewables. Renewable energy is naturally distributed and there are so few advantages to connecting isolated islands. Each island can generate its own renewable energy.

However, there are exceptions, such as where islands are densely populated, and there is no room to put up all the energy harvesting equipment that is needed, such as solar panels. In these cases we have to go for an off-island solution and possibly an electricity grid [connecting islands to one another].

Male’, for instance, should have a grid linking Thilafushi, Vilingilli, Male’ and Hulhumale’. There may be other areas in the Maldives where an electricity grid is advisable.

AS: There is no income tax in the Maldives; the government imposes import duty on goods. You have said that this could prove to be our greatest national asset on our road to carbon neutrality, how is that?

MM: Everyone in the world who is an expert in this area says one has to tax the ‘bad’ and not the ‘goods’. The Maldives has an interesting tax regime that can be used to steer people towards buying better equipment, by varying import duties depending on whether an appliance is energy efficient or not.

AS: You have said that the Maldives’ most immediate danger is not climate change but our acute vulnerability to oil price shocks. Can you explain that?

MM: In the next 10 years, the world economy is likely to grow by the same amount as it did in every year until 2010. China, India, Indonesia… these countries are experiencing tremendous growth. Economic growth is always accompanied by oil demand and oil prices have risen 10 times over the last 40 years. We have now discovered most of earth’s oil, and we are unlikely to discover new oil as fast as new demands grow. When demand exceeds supply, prices rocket. What happened two years ago [when oil prices reached US$150 per barrel], was a warning for what could happen in the future.

AS: What are the benefits for ordinary people in a country going carbon neutral?

MM: Shifting to renewable energy means you are no longer exposed to the risk of oil price shocks. It means the Maldives no longer has to worry about going bankrupt because of oil price spikes. This is as much a benefit for the government as it is for the people. Put environmental considerations aside; the Maldives should go carbon neutral for economic and energy security reasons.