A cleaner Pacific fleet needs Green Climate Fund backing

by Peter Nuttall | The University of the South Pacific
Thursday, 6 April 2017 07:18 GMT

In this 2000 file photo, a fisherman and a young boy retrieve their nets at sunset as a container ship arrives at the Suva docks in Fiji.

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Investing in low carbon alternatives could help drive change in shipping

Every fortnight MV Mataliki makes the 500-kilometre voyage from Samoa to Tokelau, laden with food, drink, medicine and fuel.

The ship offers a critical lifeline for the tiny nation, a floating supermarket bearing anything from spaghetti and coconut cream to sugar, milk and beer.

Shipping lanes are the arteries of the tiny islands spread across the Pacific. Tokelau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Solomons, Tonga and Tuvalu rely on imports for 90 percent of their needs.

In 2015 the total fuel bill for the region was calculated at around $6 billion.

According to the Tokelau government shipping is “easily” the largest consumer of fuel, burning much more than land vehicles, and this comes at a cost. 

Fuel imports are a crippling strain on weak economies, vulnerable to the whims of the global oil market, bleeding money from indebted governments with few sources of income.

Many islands are stuck in a vicious circle: ships are often old, inefficient and poorly maintained. When they break they’re replaced by another vessel nearing the end of its life.

Treacherous weather conditions, narrow reef passages and small harbours add to the risks facing seafarers, forcing governments to subsidise operations further.

Development agencies have traditionally focused on land-based, climate and electricity projects on land, kitting out Tokelau and Kiribati with solar panels, managing coastal defences in Fiji and Samoa.

Ignoring the vital role ships play in ensuring life - and morale - remains high across island communities is a mistake.

Investing in low carbon alternatives could set a global trend for a maritime industry that has been slow to respond to the climate challenge Pacific communities face on a daily basis.

As a 2015 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) illustrated, innovative designs for wind and solar-powered maritime freight transport already exist.

Many were pioneered in the 1980s before a glut of cheap oil hit markets, including a retrofitted 274 ton sail/diesel hybrid trialled in Fijian waters, saving 30 percent off fuel bills.

Plans were prepared for a fleet of sail-powered multihulls to meet Tuvalu’s transport and fishing needs, wiping 60% off its fuel costs, while UNCTAD has an online toolkit to assist island states wanting to decarbonise shipping.

For traditional banks these are seen as risky projects with limited payback, for development banks they’re often too niche for teams used to dealing in multi-million ventures.

That’s where my team at the University of the South Pacific thinks the Green Climate Fund could make a profound difference: small investments can have a global impact.

So far the GCF board - which meets this week in Songdo - has steered clear of shipping. But this is a massive opportunity for the organisation.

Proven advances in technology show major fuel/emissions savings are available at attractive investment rates of return and a minimal investment in R&D.

Commitment to a network of green shipping pilot projects would form the basis for research into a cleaner maritime sector across the developing world. 

The Marshall’s has committed to leading, agreeing to host the Micronesia Sustainable Transport Centre in Majuro, part of a plan to become the first low carbon island nation.

Investment in this Centre can help deliver major fuel savings at a fraction of the current investment in electricity projects and pave the way for scaling by the private sector.

And importantly, GCF support for a Pacific maritime project would tackle the twin threats to these stunning but vulnerable islands: economically crippling fuel dependency and climate change.

Peter Nuttall runs the Sustainable Sea Transport Research Programme at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji