The tiny island nation of Tuvalu, already under threat from rising seas caused by global warming, has vowed to do its part for climate change by fueling its economy entirely from renewable sources by 2020.
The South Pacific nation of 12,000 people is part of a movement of countries and cities committed to going climate neutral. Since February 2008, 10 nations including New Zealand, Pakistan, Iceland and Costa Rica have vowed to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases as part of a goal of reaching zero emissions in the next decade.
None of these commitments alone is expected to make a significant difference in the fight to cut heat-trapping gases. But the United Nations and many environmentalists say the moves can inspire bigger emitters like the United States and China to take bolder steps to limit their carbon footprints.
"In a sense, they are paving the way for medium and larger economies which have to move if we are going combat climate change," said Nick Nuttal, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Programme. It sponsors the Climate Neutral Network, a group of 100 governments, nongovernment groups and companies looking to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. "These smaller economies are out to prove you can do it, and do it faster than some people previously thought."
Major polluters at the Group of Eight nations' summit earlier this month failed to agree on commitments to reduce carbon emissions. That indicates how difficult it will be to craft a new climate treaty later this year in Copenhagen, Denmark, one that would be a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Climate scientists have urged rich countries to reduce emissions from 2005 levels by between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020 to avoid the worst effects of warming, which they say will lead to widespread drought, floods, higher sea levels and worsening storms.
For its part, Tuvalu hopes to replace the fossil fuels that it imports by ship with solar energy and wind power, a project that it expects will cost $20 million.
Tuvalu already releases almost no greenhouse gases. But because of climate change, many South Pacific islands see worsening flooding amid predictions of a large sea level rise this century.
The country is just 10 square miles in size, with most of its land less than a metere above sea level.
So far, Tuvalu has installed a 40 kilowatt solar energy system with the help of Japan's Kansai Electric Power Co. and Tokyo Electric Power Company, both members of the e8, an international nonprofit organization of 10 leading power utilities from G8 countries.
"There may be other, larger solar power installations in the world, but none could be more meaningful to customers than this one," Takao Shiraishi, general manager of the Kansai Electric Power Co., said in a statement Sunday.
"The plight of Tuvalu versus the rising tide vividly represents the worst early consequence of climate change," he added. "For Tuvalu, after 3,000 years of history, the success of UN climate talks in Copenhagen this December may well be a matter of national survival."
The Tuvalu government is working to expand the initial $410,000 project from 40 to 60 kilowatts, and will extend solar power to outer islands, starting later this year with the commission of a $800,000, 46 kilowatt solar power system for a secondary school. The Italian government is supporting the project.
"We thank those who are helping Tuvalu reduce its carbon footprint as it will strengthen our voice in those international negotiations," Public Utilities and Industries Minister Kausea Natano said in a statement. "And we look forward to the day when our nation offers an example to all — powered entirely by natural resources such as the sun and the wind."