The Bartlett


Paradox island

The Energy Institute’s Island Laboratory is helping island nations worldwide chart possible sustainable futures as they're confronted by the challenges of climate change and resource shortages.

An aerial view of a largely undeveloped 'paradise' island, with white sand and surrounded by clear blue water
The image of an island paradise is strong in our imagination. So much so, that even literature warning of the vicissitudes of living surrounded by the sea chooses to illustrate messages of precariousness with photos of clear turquoise waters, white beaches and swaying palms. See the United Nations’ website on ‘Small Island Developing States’ for examples of the paradox. It’s much harder to find pictures of Harris or the Falklands during a wintry force-nine gale.

Some of the sunny gloss is understandable. Tourism is the biggest source of income for many islands, so they are habitually pictured at their best. Most are beautiful – even Harris, on a sunny day. Their biggest problem is trying to keep them that way. Rising sea-levels, a consequence of climate change, have already claimed thousands of islands. The Carteret Islands, part of Papua New Guinea, are just one-and-a-half metres from submersion and evacuation has already begun. Kiribati’s 33 atolls in the Pacific Ocean could become uninhabitable by 2030.

Climate change is the man-made disaster that gets most attention with respect to island futures but there are others, including waste disposal (both local and international) and the consequent degradation of fishing zones. These problems are not just for beauty spots or poor places, either. Several islands around the world have been abandoned or will have to be – even the Tangier Islands in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia – a US territory – have been shrinking since 1850 and may become uninhabitable in 50 years’ time, according to Nature magazine.

For poorer island economies such as Kiribati, whether independent or related to a larger landmass, considerations about how to survive have to be taken carefully because their means are far more limited. This is where The Bartlett’s Energy Institute’s new Islands Laboratory comes in. The team of mathematicians, economists, engineers, lawyers, geographers, environmentalists and physicists helps island authorities work out how to tackle the greatest challenges to their people and economy. “People come to us with their problems. They know what they are and they have a lot of information on them. But they don’t know how to solve them,” says Dr Catalina Spataru, Associate Professor of Global Energy Resources at the Energy Institute and the founder of the Islands Laboratory.

No island is an island

Spataru’s team models scenarios for clients’ particular dilemmas in order to help them select the best changes for the future. So far, 360 case studies have been made, of which approximately 200 are focused on energy, while 160 study the resource nexus. This brings together land and water usage, commodities and minerals, because on an island, policy change tilted at one resource invariably affects all others.

Take desalination. Plenty of islands need more reliable sources of drinking water, either because there are few fresh sources (such as on Cabo Verde, Aruba) or because their aquifers are at risk from sea flooding (e.g. the Marshall Islands). Tourism and agriculture – the most common island industries – are thirsty consumers. 

Converting seawater is technically possible and tempting to those entirely surrounded by it. But even filtering seawater through a membrane (reverse osmosis) takes energy. Few islands have this combination of abundant energy and scant water. So the Islands Laboratory models for authorities where desalination makes sense in the context of all their competing demands for energy and freshwater. 

As an introduction to the energy and resource nexus, the Islands Laboratory has developed an interactive map of the world’s populated islands, including definitively non-tropical getaways such as Anglesey (North Wales) and Sheppey (Thames Estuary). The map gives a casual searcher the basic facts on population, income, energy expenditure and water consumption on all these islands. But Spataru warns of the gap between information on the map and the complexity of the case studies:  “Most islands around the world are at various stages along the road to evolutionary energy efficiency, transport and resources development processes, which are characterised by different views about ownership and use, for example, and driven by different policy- and decision-makers’ models,” she says.

This leads to the promotion of different measures at different points in time: snapshots from the map don’t reveal the whole story. For island leaders, their communities and external donors such as the World Bank and United Nations, it is the scenario-modelling in the case studies that is so valuable in deciding which path they take for the future. 

A good example would be the research the Islands Laboratory undertook on the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, Crete and Skyros in Greece, where the local authorities recognised that their power supply could be improved but needed some estimates and technical expertise to put figures on that possible improvement. As an EU Member State, Greece has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. Yet austerity has left many worthwhile projects in energy adaptation unrealised. Although less than 12% of the country’s population live on islands, they emit more than their fair share of polluting gases because much of their energy is supplied by old-fashioned diesel and heavy-fuel power stations. This is a common predicament for islands remote from plentiful sources of energy – such power stations have the advantage of autonomy, which means they can be relied upon in any kind of weather (in contrast, the Greek government has put a 30% limit on wind energy’s contribution to the local grid because of its intermittency). But burning diesel doesn’t help Crete, Skyros or any other island meet national commitments to sustainability. There is also the fact that energy on the islands is subsidised by mainlanders. They might prefer to pay less for their insular peers to use cleaner power.

Modelling transition

In 2017, Island Laboratory researchers Eleni Zafeiratou and Catalina Spataru modelled how much electricity cables from the Greek mainland, connecting the Aegean islands to cleaner energy production, would cost and how much they would save.They factored in Business as Usual (i.e. maintaining the existing power stations). Crucially, they also calculated energy efficiency.

The headline conclusion was that savings of up to €17.8bn could be made between 2015 and 2040, subject to demand growth and fuel price costs. The carbon footprint could be up to two-thirds lighter than the Business-as-Usual case. Under one optimistic scenario, energy from renewables will actually get exported back to the mainland – turning subsidy into benefit.

But there are significant other aspects to energy transition, which go even beyond the resource nexus. For example, the architecture of the Cyclades islands is recognised around the world for its white buildings, occasionally topped with blue domes on ecclesiastical buildings. The sight of solar panels nearby would diminish this view. Hence, the Energy Institute researchers recommended flat panels on larger (modern) hotels in the Cyclades, given that hotels account for up to 40% of electricity use on tourism-dependent islands.

Similar considerations have to be made for wind turbines – suitable for much of the Cyclades but arguably not in keeping with the image of these places as ‘unspoilt’. For many islands, Zafeiratou and Spataru have measured where best to place new turbines for optimal efficiency but also in keeping with existing regulations and planning expectations. The latter interact with local sentiment for change to their landscape – the pros and cons.
This brings us back to the paradox of paradise islands, forgotten by civilization and better for it, according to our romantic imagination and the tourism industry. The reality can be quite different for the local population. So many young people have left their native Greek islands to seek better opportunities abroad that the Islands Laboratory has had to include new modes of transport for an ageing population in its research there. Such a holistic approach has been acknowledged by the Global Islands Partnership (GLISPA), which works at a governmental level to share knowledge, best practice and funding mechanisms for sustainable and resilient communities.

Funding and governance matter greatly, according to Spataru. “Despite the fact that numerous islands have presented and introduced plans to advance renewable energy deployment, the policy design and execution is frequently behind,” she says. “More emphasis needs to be given to the sustainability of energy investments, business models and financing modalities that provide ownership and to the contribution of consumers and other stakeholders. This requires a strong role for commercial banks and lending agencies. Testing business models in practice and putting solutions into effect should be at the top of the pyramid of priorities for the islands.” The world has a duty to assist island inhabitants with testing these new models and solutions – for all kinds of reasons. Islands’ relative isolation means that they host far more biodiversity than large land masses (the Philippines has twice as many endemic species as the US, for example). But the vulnerability of some islands to climate change means they need help fast. Pacific Islanders who have already fled their sinking homes to plead refugee status in richer countries have seen their claims turned down. These people were not responsible for their loss of land but international law has so far rejected climate change as a justifiable basis for forced departure from paradise and the search for refuge.