Paula Bennett cries, backs renewable energy as Pacific solution to climate change
Mrs Paula Bennett, New Zealand’s minister for climate change has just returned home after a whirlwind trip to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Tuvalu.
What she saw in the Pacific islands reduced her to tears.
In the Kiribati village of Betio, “I sort of sat in the car and had tears – it was incredibly sad to be honest,” she told media.
“I walked through the village, and my goodness, it was literally thousands of people and it was staggering to see how they were living.”
She was with Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Murray McCully and EU Commissioner, Mr Neven Mimica on a joint New Zealand-EU official visit looking at expanding support and development assistance to the Pacific islands.
On 3 June, Mrs Bennett walked past Betio Hospital, functional but, previously, had been evacuated due to flooding. Now, nothing but a wall stands between it and the sea with a future outlook of more evacuations as sea level continues to rise due to climate change.
“This has been a dose of reality,” Mrs Bennett said.
Su’a William Sio, on the same spot in March this year saw the same thing, listened to the people’s fears about uncertain futures and party to their isolated reality as he looks across Kiribati’s 3.5million sq. kilometres Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
As a cabinet minister, Mrs Bennett went on to say that New Zealand’s aid program is aimed to make a difference by focusing “our efforts on projects to bring more renewable energy to the region, which is good for the environment and helps isolated communities become more self-sufficient”.
Prioritising renewable energy, getting electricity out to the most isolated communities could well be that positive agent of change Mrs Bennett is hoping for. And according to a study conducted in the Philippines, released earlier this month, Mrs Bennett could well have the answer to climate change.
Titled Lighting Up the Last Mile: The Benefits and Costs of Extending Electricity to the Rural Poor, the study suggests the benefits of rural electrification may be significantly high, even in the very short run.
“…we find that electricity does not increase employment, suggesting that increased labor force participation is not the relevant mechanism. Rather, increases in agricultural income [22 per cent] appear to account for a meaningful share of the income gains from electrification. These findings suggest that the benefits to rural electrification may be significantly high, even in the very short run,” according to the authors.
The parameters of the study and physical environments between the Philippines and low-lying islands of the Pacific will need to be compared to assess the relativity and relevance of the findings to Kiribati. But the expansion of electricity from fossil-free fuels, i.e. renewable energy, is what drives development along the decarbonized pathway stipulated by the Paris Agreement.
The path and focus for New Zealand’s aid program Mrs Bennett and Mr McCully say is the best way to protect Pacific islanders “very ability to exist”.