The world’s small islands inspire green action

Scotland is aiming to advance island leadership, in a project to establish not one but six carbon-neutral islands, a Scottish government spokeswoman has said. The Scottish government sees this as an opportunity for island communities to “lead the way” in the country’s wider journey to net zero emissions.

“The Carbon Neutral Islands project is intended to benefit all Scottish islands and, where possible, to highlight carbon neutrality good practice which may also be relevant on the mainland, through the exchange of knowledge and sharing good practices,” she said.

Elin Slätmo, senior researcher at the Norwegian research center Nordregio, and her colleagues have studied dozens of eco-islands in the Nordic region, find different levels of success. The most effective initiatives, she notes, are those that directly involve island communities in transitions to renewable energy systems or other green programs.

However, there is a lack of research on whether these relatively small projects have a positive impact on society at large, she adds. Slätmo points out that eco-island solutions don’t even translate easily from one small island to another.

“We have to adapt it to the structure already in place of societies,” she says. Projects must adapt to existing electricity networks, recycling and waste treatment infrastructures, transport needs, etc. In other words, small, organized communities of all kinds might be able to take the push towards carbon neutrality or zero emissions into their own hands – but the same approach won’t be possible everywhere.

For Hermansen, this is not a big stumbling block. Size is not necessarily a barrier to carbon neutrality – Japan is a country that aims to lead the way in this, he says. The small islands are just the first forays, a bit like petri dishes where people can test ideas for the future, he says.

And there are still opportunities for people who live on the mainland to take a hyperlocal, island-inspired approach to carbon neutrality. “If you live in an apartment building, why not have solar panels on the roof? And electric chargers in the garage?” adds Hermansen.

As Trøst, Mayor of Bornholm, says, what matters is that pioneers step forward, wherever they live. “Somebody has to step in and take the lead,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s Bornholm or the United States, as long as someone does it, it shows other people the way.”

All of this raises an interesting, much larger question: to what extent should the push for lower emissions and a greener society be led by small groups of motivated people, on a case-by-case basis, versus national governments adopting radical policies?

In practice, successful projects often have an element of both. The islanders of Samsø have benefited in their plan from a subsidy for renewable energies who made their turbines more economically viablefor example.

Ultimately, the island mentality is both enticing and, by definition, limited.

“The islands are different,” admits Cecil. “They have a long history of being left behind and being left behind and not being supported. They have to do things themselves.”

We may not be able to easily transplant specific island-based solutions to other locations, but that may not matter. Whatever the odds, Rathlin’s fighting spirit is what we really need.

As Cecil says, “It is up to every member of society to make some effort.”

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