Tiny Pacific islands make big plans for climate resilience

The South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga (population 106,000) doesn't have the loudest voice at the climate change negotiations, and it isn't known for pulling stunts like underwater Cabinet meetings to draw attention to the grave threats islands face from global warming.

But over the past five years the archipelago of 176 scattered islands with less than one-third the surface area of Rhode Island has done something analysts say will have a far more lasting impact. Quietly and methodically, the Tonga government has transformed its bureaucracy to become a model for attracting -- and smartly using -- millions of dollars in clean energy aid. Now, leaders said, it hopes to use that same model to prepare for climate change.

"If you have a good plan, people will put money into it," said the Honorable 'Akau'ola, adviser to the Tonga Energy Road Map Government Committee. It helped reorganize the government approach to clean energy and created a path for winning millions of dollars in international funding.

"What we are trying to suggest, rather boldly, is that this tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific has used this Tonga Energy Road Map which can be applied to climate change," 'Akau'ola said. At meetings with other island nations, he said, "our colleagues say to us, 'How did you get this?' It's not because people love Tonga or we're so good-looking. We got this through hard work."

It is, to be sure, unsexy work: coordinating ministries, conducting sectoral analyses, writing grant proposals. But before sea walls get built, reefs are restored or any of the other labor of preparing communities for the onslaught of climate change can happen, Tonga officials said the lesson they have learned is how important it is to be prepared bureaucratically.

With an avalanche of climate change dollars on the horizon -- $100 billion annually by 2020, assuming the promises of wealthy nations materialize -- experts say it will be up to recipient countries, often poor and understaffed, to figure out whether available funding truly meets their national needs and, when necessary, have the fortitude to say no. Tonga, many say, is ahead of the curve.


"There's so much work on climate change in the Pacific and on small islands now that in some instances it's very prone to people coming in and actually doing something that someone else has already done," said Taniela Faletau, safeguards officer of the Pacific Subregional Office of the Asian Development Bank. "The country needs a strategic program to build capacity and coordinate efforts on what's really a priority for the country. We're trying to do a lot with limited resources."

Weaning itself from diesel oil

The country's transition began in 2008, when an oil crisis peaked just as democratic reforms swept through the islands. With imported petroleum accounting for 75 percent of the country's energy supply and prices spiking with every passing day, just running the schools and hospitals was nearly wrecking the country's budget.

Under enormous pressure to make changes, leaders set a clean energy target of having 50 percent of electricity from renewable sources within three years.

"It had no meat behind it," 'Akau'ola said of the ambitious target. Not an energy expert himself but rather a self-described "problem-solver," 'Akau'ola said he helped the government launch an examination of the country's energy sector.

What they uncovered was stark: Tonga had received more than $50 million for renewable energy over the previous 40 years but didn't have a single kilowatt coming from renewables.

Realizing that more than 70 percent of the money coming in was actually going toward software and feasibility studies -- with a few rooftop solar panels here and there -- government leaders came to see their energy problem as an aid management problem.

In constructing a new energy strategy, the government took the unusual step of opening up its books to the public. It streamlined energy work that previously had been spread out over seven ministries and opened the government up to an honest assessment of weaknesses and strengths.

Most importantly, government leaders said, they designed an entirely new process whereby any government or entity that wanted to donate or invest in Tonga's energy sector worked via one plan, under a uniform set of standards, managed by the World Bank.

The new goal: a 50 percent reduction in diesel imports by 2020 and half of all power supplies coming from renewable energy sources by that year as well.

"When we started this process, it was very scary and extremely embarrassing for the government," 'Akau'ola said. "But the actual results speak for themselves. Where in the past we had a project developed but nobody looked at how it was going to contribute to our energy goals, now we have this definitive goal, and every energy project that we look at, we consider how it will help the 50 percent target."

Last year Tonga celebrated the opening of the country's first solar farm, a $7.9 million project funded by New Zealand. It is expected to provide about 1.8 megawatts of electricity per year and meet about 4 percent of the main island's electricity demand, reducing annual diesel consumption by 470,000 liters. It also is working with Masdar, the clean energy firm of the Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, government, to build a 500-kilowatt solar photovoltaic project on the island of Vava'u, projected to provide about 13 percent of the island's energy requirements.

Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank and Australia are funding a $6.8 million plan to develop solar power systems for nine of Tonga's outer islands that currently rely on oil and kerosene.

"They may not meet their goal, but Tonga has figured out what its systems need. Now they can say to donors: 'This is the plan. If you want to get involved in our energy sector, this is how you get involved,'" said Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow at Chatham House in the United Kingdom who has worked extensively with Tonga.

Protecting food supplies from storms

She said Tonga's ability to streamline and prioritize its energy funding, and help others to do the same, is critical because South Pacific island nations are in the spotlight like never before.

"As the world becomes increasingly multipolar, small island nations that were marginal are now pivots," Paskal said. Calling the small islands "weather vanes of geopolitical systems," she argued that energy funding has become a major new component of political engagement in the region, with China as eager to offer aid as traditional Western donors, often in exchange for backing on issues at the United Nations.

From writing grant proposals to organizing bureaucracies, Paskal said, "Tonga has been very generous about sharing that information, because Tonga understands it has a large value of being a leader in the Pacific because there they can deliver the Pacific bloc of nations."

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether Tonga can do with climate change aid what it's done with energy. Recently the Asian Development Bank held a series of consultation workshops to help the government identify priorities for funding in what will become its Strategic Program for Climate Resilience. That's a pilot program under the World Bank's Climate Investment Fund, and Tonga is one of only three Pacific Island nations selected for it.

"At the moment we are dealing with land erosion and dramatic changes in the climate which affect our food supply," said Natalia Latu, an economist in Tonga's Ministry of Finance. "If we were hit by a cyclone tomorrow, we stand to lose 50 percent of our resources."

But she said Tonga has learned the value in acting deliberately and hopes to apply that same method to climate change -- especially because in addition to the burgeoning Green Climate Fund, there is a dizzying array of other climate change funders.

"We need to decide what's going to give Tonga the biggest impact," Latu said. "Then we'll focus maybe on accessing just one or two."

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