Letter from America: no man is an island

Small Island in HawaiiAlastair Harper is head of politics at Green Alliance. He participated in the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Programme on climate change. This is the final report of his trip.

My visit to the United States ended where the current president began; Barack Obama grew up just a few miles north of Waikiki Beach, his parents meeting at the University of Hawaii. I find his effortless cool more understandable now I’ve experienced the sea turtles, basketball courts and island-time attitude of his old neighbourhood.

Like the president, Hawaii has serious ambitions to act on climate change. Shortly before my visit, the State government passed legislation committing to achieving 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2045; and its renewables policy has been changed from a sustainability focus to one of economic development. Electricity in Hawaii is the most expensive of any state in America which is unsurprising, given it is the most isolated State in the Union and suffers considerably from the Jones Act, which constrains non-US ships from trading at US ports. When you are an island in the mid-Pacific, closer to Japan than to California, that restriction shoves up costs considerably.

But the spread of islands in the State of Hawaii offers a unique opportunity for energy independence. It generates geothermal energy from volcanoes on the Big Island. Wind on isolated cliff-tops. All new homes on the most populous island, Oahu, must make use of the obvious capacity for rooftop solar. The broad range of energy policies and the State government’s ambition has been encouraged by a thoughtful and pragmatic local NGO, the Blue Planet Foundation, who campaigned strongly for the 2045 target.

No peace in paradise
However, the transition to renewables is not without its challenges; despite the widespread optimism and ambition, there is little peace in the energy politics of paradise. Oahu’s solar is over-productive, and saturates the grid. The population of the Big Island itself is small, and must fund the considerable cost of the network via its bills, so they currently pay the highest prices for electricity. There is only one utility in charge of both generation and transmission, so agreeing the new windfarms that will challenge the fossil-fuel monopoly is inevitably a long and legalistic process.

Solving one big problem would ease a lot of these challenges: each of the islands of Hawaii now operates on its own separate grid. There have been attempts in the past to hook them up, but all have failed so far, for reasons partly to do with cultural attitudes and partly connected to the utility’s priorities. Hooking up the Big Island to Oahu would both reduce the cost of the grid and stop it being saturated by solar power, but neither state official, nor NGO, nor private business sees this as being a likely step, any time soon.

Sharing experiences from around the world
It was a good story on which to conclude my trip. Domestic, bottom-up ambition is necessary to achieve effective climate action around the world, but we can start to overcome cost and social barriers only once we manage to collaborate. I may have written solely about America, but I feel as though I’ve been in many different countries over the past few weeks, travelling with twenty-one people of twenty nationalities. We have traipsed together like bovines, onto buses, from sweltering streets and into freezing air-conditioned offices. We have heard from scientists, politicians and businesses about what the US is doing; but in the evenings we’ve shared a beer and a curry, and heard from each other. The examples from home and comparisons have made the experience of the trip more nuanced and helpful than any one national perspective could hope to be.

Each of us talked about the distinct challenges to decarbonisation in our own countries. In Ghana, it is persuading the private sector to offer capital at a low enough interest rate to support renewable investment. In Trinidad and Tobago, it’s acknowledging that the national economy’s reliance on fossil fuels will not last in the long term, and starting the transition to new industries. South Africa has been in the grip of load-shedding (or blackouts) for most of the year, which has been an opportunity to push the renewable mix. One entrepreneur is trying to grow the circular economy in Turkey. In Iceland, the delegate’s family’s whale-watching business is pressing for the use of hybrid boats.

Like the islands of Hawaii, my fellow delegates’ countries aren’t waiting for a mythical ‘magic moment’ to start acting, they’re already well underway. One, perhaps obvious, thing that my trip to America has taught me is that each nation may have its own problems, solutions and expertise; but far more can be achieved through international collaboration than by nations working alone. My fellow delegates and I share a wholehearted hope for good agreement at the UN conference in Paris this year, and a belief that all of us will achieve more with it.

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