Climate Crisis: A call to power down

Addressing the National Energy Commission (NEC) on the 15th May 2013


My name is Zaheer Allam and I am known to many in different ways. I am someone’s son, someone’s brother and a friend to many. To scholars, I am a colleague and to stranger’s ears, I am an anonymous voice from the shadows who has been fighting to be heard. Today, I come to you, not as any of the above. I come to you as a concerned citizen of our island, hoping to address an issue that is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that we, as a country, will be facing this century. I believe we are face to face with our tipping point. Our actions today will determine the fate of our island.

The history of mankind is fraught with tales celebrating the spirit of human resilience, the power of human dedication and the sublimeness of human devotion to its creator. There are times when a single thought turned conviction or a single action defying convention has changed the course of human history. Nowadays, we cannot help but admire the tenacity of Rosa Parks, who sparked the civil rights movement and the dissolution of racial segregation by merely refusing to give up her seat on a bus. What about Mother Teresa, whose personal convictions, helped give a face and a home to the poor in India ? We, however, need not to look far to find such examples of human feats. Our own Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who advocated for independence is such a figure. He challenged complacencies and old habits and rose to a challenge that was previously thought to be an impossible win. This is such a moment. Our nation is being called to join the green movement and help save our country.

Our economy is in dire shape and the climate crisis, is worsening- much more quickly than predicted. Not later than earlier this month, the 4th of May 2013, the U. S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that the Observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii registered a new record of Carbon Dioxide emission in our atmosphere, a record exceeding 400 ppm. While, this number has shown a rate of increase from 0.7 ppm in the 1950s to 2.1 ppm per year during the last decade, it is believed that it will rise up to 700-1100 ppm in 2100. It is not just a mere number on a chart ! Modelling experiments in the United States has shown that a rise of this magnitude can lead to soil drying of 30 – 50% in certain areas. Such prediction of our future is terrifying.

Most of us are distantly familiar with the concept of global warming in this era : such as sea level rise, weather pattern fluctuations & ecosystem disruptions, we, however possess no knowledge of its impact on our immediate surroundings.

Should we look closely at the unfortunate consequences faced by the Indian Ocean, we can see that this phenomenon reaches another level by threatening the food safety of our neighbors. According to the report ‘Ocean-Based Food Security Threatened in a High CO2 World’, produced by global ocean protection NGO Oceana, countries in the Indian Ocean such as the Maldives, Comoros, Madagascar & Mozambique rank among the most vulnerable to climate-change related food security threats, due to their near total reliance on fish for protein. Maldives is being called the ‘Ground Zero’ of global warming, not only due to the threats to its food security but also due to its imminent flooding from the sea water level rise. Alarming fluctuating weather patterns in the area that have been recorded by the Physical Oceanography Division from the National Institute of Oceanography in India, demonstrate that the frequency of tropical storms is directly related to the changes in a couple of atmospheric parameters over the north Indian Ocean during the global warming period.

While we can consider ourselves lucky to be a remote island in the Indian Ocean, implying that on a macrocosmic perspective we live in a low density area, those results are nevertheless alarming as they delineate the drawbacks of global warming in our immediate vicinity in parallel to the rise of global CO2 levels. This is accentuated in the Mauritius Environment Outlook Report of 2011 where it is mentioned that summer temperatures became warmer by 1.0 °C and water scarcity will eventually aggravate. Furthermore, there is an increasing number of consecutive dry days and a decreasing number of rainy days.

Local serious cognizance on this issue has only been emerging a few years ago but this is by no means a new problem for it has been predicted decades ago. In the 90’s two groups were formed to take a stance on fighting on behalf of low-lying coastal countries. They are ; Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Alliance for Small Island States (AOSIS). Those groups form a coalition of small islands and low-lying coastal countries that share similar development challenges and environmental concerns, in particular their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climatic change.

Following the 2009 Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, the 21st September of the same year, AOSIS made a declaration in New York which embodies their alarming concern that scientific evidence shows that the effects of human-induced climate change are worse than previously projected and poses the most serious threat to our survival. AOSIS called on the international community to take urgent action to reduce their emission of all greenhouse gases, to undertake fast action strategies and underscored that adaptation must be an urgent and of immediate global priority. As Mauritius is seen to form part of such an international coalition, we should show leadership and set an example to follow.

If we take time to ponder on Mauritius to identify where our main Carbon Dioxide emissions originate, we would be surprised that, as per the Energy Observatory Mauritius report of 2011, the energy industry is solely responsible for 60.3% of our national Carbon Dioxide emission. Since there is a growing consensus that our energy demand might be on the increase, it leads to the conclusion that the CO2 emission linked to energy production will show a similarly linear increase. It is therefore imperative to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel such as Petroleum & Coal and shift towards more renewable sources of energy. The decision to go forth with an additional coal power plant of 110MW at Point aux caves therefore comes on a bias that is not only in conflict with our vows towards our international coalition against global warming threats but also blatantly defies our local Maurice Ile Durable (MID) initiative which advocates for sustainable development.

Studying our consumption patterns, the same report later reveals that our energy consumption for sectors such as manufacturing, commercial and household summed up to 419.8 ktoe, which equates to nearly half of our energy consumption pattern and the other half is almost entirely due to fuelling our transportation industry. While half is directly due to our Built Environment and the other is to our urban networks. It is very sensible to assume that an intelligent & sustainable urban planning could be seen as a plausible solution towards reducing not only our energy consumption but, in parallel, our carbon dioxide emissions.

As we slowly strive towards green development and promote the creation and reinforcement of connections between the populace and its place of residence, between people and nature and between the infrastructure and its environment, scientists, environmentalists and architects are consumed by the pursuit of the perfect ecological design in the erection of new buildings and in the process, sadly neglect and ignore our existing infrastructure. Existing buildings inevitably comprise the majority of current building stock. In most developed countries, they represent 98% of the stock. By contrast, new construction account for 1 to 1.5 percent of properties at any one time. Moreover, statistics imparted that 85% of buildings will still be standing in 2030. Such figures clearly delineate the importance of old buildings in our ecosystem. New constructions, no matter how sustainable or environmentally sensitive cannot, on their own, contribute a significant change towards our national energy reduction. This might be one of the reasons as to why, according to the World Energy Outlook of 2012, four-fifths of the energy efficient potential in the building sector and more than half in industry, remains untapped.
Latest research and practice in the field of Ecological Architecture, such as those initiated by Davis Langdon, show that it is ultimately more expensive not going green. This is highlighted by the fact that while a green building might represent a more expensive initial investment, it is however more cost effective in the long run. This is mainly due to the fact that it can decrease its energy consumption by up to 80%. This challenging number has been, moreover, voted by the European Parliament in March this year as they signed on cutting the energy consumption of buildings by the same 80%. If we base ourselves to the figures in the CEB Annual report of 2009, this system if implemented could, theoretically, provide an opportunity to cutting nearly 40% of our total energy consumption which implies a saving of 4 Billion Rupees per year.

Efforts should be made to perform this in a cost effective manner so that we tailor it to our current market, excite the attention of the mass and also set an example for others.
Throughout my research in sustainable and Utilitarian urbanism, I have had the honor to share ideas with Prof. Nikos Salingaros from the University of Texas San Antonio. He is a holder of numerous international awards and honors and ranked the 11th best Urban Thinker of all times and ranked among the 50 visionaries that are changing our world today. He graciously agreed to share his views on certain issues pertaining to our local context and in March earlier this year, he animated a teleconference with the press in Mauritius entitled “A sustainable Energy future for Mauritius”. While asked “How does coal-powered plants fit in a small island like Mauritius ?” his reply underlined numerous issues that we certainly did not contemplate.

“It doesn’t fit at all. Mauritius is a tourist destination and you don’t want to ruin that industry by generating smoke like we see today in Chinese cities. Sure, you can clean the smoke by using technology, but that isn’t cheap, and then you become dependent upon imported high technology. Neither is coal energy sustainable. Where do you mine it ? How expensive is transport to the island ? Do you have guaranteed sources at an affordable price for the next several decades ? Suppose China doesn’t have enough coal for its own power plants… can you compete on price with China ? Will your source sell coal to you or to China ? Questions that are embarrassing, because they reveal an underlying uncertainty and fundamental unsustainability.”
Throughout this enlightening exchange, Prof. Salingaros explained that a better design of our cities can create a healthier relationship between its inhabitants and its urban fabric as well saving enormous costs in the transport industry. He warned that we should not lock our energy policy in such a way that we cannot change it should better options come along. Therefore if the country needs 20-30MW right now, we can invest into a power source. We then patiently wait for our next energy demand in a few years and subsequently, from observation of the market trends, we invest into the newest and cheapest energy source available. This progressive elaboration system proves to be a safer investment choice rather than directly tying our fate to coal for the next 20 years.

Moreover, he explained that while renewable energy might seem expensive now, this industry is making rapid progress, and as the demand for renewable energy grows, its costs will continue to fall. During a speech in March earlier this year, the US Energy secretary, Dr. Steven Chu, declared that “The unsubsidized cost of renewable power produced from solar and wind energy will be no more expensive than that from oil, natural gas, and coal by the end of the decade.” Let me give you one revealing example : the price of the specialized silicon used to make solar cells was recently as high as $300 per kilogram in 2008. But prices now can be seen as low as $40 -$50 per kilogram and prices can drop even lower for contracts. The same phenomenon was seen to happen with computer chips – also made out of silicon. The price paid for the same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months – year after year, and that has been occurring for more 40 years in a row.

We do have the resources and intelligence to turn towards cleaner and renewable sources of energy. It is time to realize and acknowledge our responsibility in this process. For my part, I will never forget the words of Prof. Salingaros as he said ; “Here is a chance for a small country to be more advanced than larger ones, by re-defining what “modernity” really means within the context of sustainability, and not tied to catastrophic consumerism.”
This chance at our disposal, is a generational moment ; a moment when we collectively decide our own path and draw the face of the future. I am asking each and every one of you, to join our nation’s cry for help and build our destiny : one that truly strives for what is true. If we have your support, we would be able to lift our nation from the pending doom that threatens us and reach a goal that will not only inspire but also change the face of our history.
Thank you.


Photo credit: Hubert61, Deviantart

Leave a Reply