Hawaii is especially vulnerable to climate change. “We’re on the forefront of climate change impacts,” Scott Glenn, head of the state’s environmental quality office, tells Fast Company. “We experience it directly and we’re a small island. People feel the trade wind days becoming less. They notice the changes in rain. They feel it getting hotter. Because we are directly exposed to this, there’s no denying it.” Glenn adds that the state’s political leaders are “unified in acknowledging that climate change is real and that we do need to do something about it.”
This month, the state’s legislature passed, and Governor David Ige signed, three pieces of legislation that seek to make Hawaii carbon neutral by 2045. One bill establishes the carbon neutral goal, another will make the funds derived from carbon offsets available to plant more trees in the islands, and the third requires new building projects to consider sea level rise in engineering decisions.
One of the biggest challenges for Hawaii is transportation. It can control emissions from the cars and trucks on its roads but has no direct control over emissions from ships and airplanes — both of which are essential to the state’s economy. “Those are global transportation networks that don’t have easy substitutes right now,” Glenn says.
“That’s one of the reasons why we really want to pursue the carbon offset program, because we know we’re going to continue to be dependent on shipping and aviation, and if they continue to burn carbon to bring us our tourists and our goods and our supplies and our food, then we want to try to have a way to sequester the impact we’re causing by importing all this stuff to our islands.”
One way of approaching the problem is to make the islands more self-sufficient when it comes to the food its people eat. Right now, around 90% of the 6 million pounds of food a day residents consume comes to the islands on planes or ships. Governor Ige is proposing to double local food production by 2030.
Hawaii may become a laboratory for other states as they seek to trim their own emissions. “There’s a lot of innovation and research happening across the Hawaii island right now,” says Glenn. Each island has a standalone electric grid, unlike the mainland US, where everything is interconnected. The grids are also of different sizes and use different forms of renewable energy. That makes Hawaii a good place for companies to see how clean tech ideas work in different conditions.
The lessons learned by Hawaii may lead to improvements in low and zero emissions technology that can be adopted by other states. “We’re small,” Glenn says. “We’re a rounding error to the emissions that California has. But [others] say, if Hawaii can do it, we can do it. If an island in the middle of the Pacific can make this happen, then we can make it happen. That’s what we try to do. That’s the role we see ourselves having within our national dialogue.”
Mahalo nui loa, Hawaii.