MALE (Reuters) - The Maldives on Wednesday said a budget crisis will keep its president from attending landmark U.N. climate talks, the results of which could have a huge effect on the future of the low-lying archipelago.
Famed mostly for its high-end luxury resorts and white-sand atolls, the Maldives has also made a name for itself as an advocate for mitigating climate change — because rising sea levels are forecast to submerge most of its islands by 2100.
President Mohamed Nasheed has canceled his trip to the talks in Copenhagen in December as a measure to cut government expenditure and reduce a yawning budget deficit worsened by low tourist numbers during the global downturn.
“We will engage with Copenhagen as much as possible without the president traveling there,” presidential spokesman Mohamed Zuhair said.
The Maldives’ $850 million economy, based almost entirely on fishing and tourism, saw its budget deficit nearly triple to 14 percent of GDP last year, due to substantial increase in government spending, figures from the Maldives Monetary Authority showed.
The global downturn has also cut into tourist arrivals.
Nasheed drew global attention shortly after his election last year when he said the Maldives would start looking to buy land in other countries to resettle people once the seas rose, but later acknowledged it was not financially feasible.
This year, Nasheed said the Indian Ocean islands would swap fossil fuels for wind and solar power over the next decade, and buy and destroy EU carbon credits to offset emissions from tourists flying in to visit its luxury vacation resorts.
In 2007, a U.N. climate change panel predicted an increase in sea levels of 58 cm, which would submerge many of the Maldives’ 1,192 islands by 2100.
U.N. scientists have warned global warming caused by high atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) will lead to rising seas, big storms, mass heatwaves and droughts.
The current climate pact, the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2012 and countries are scrambling to negotiate a follow-up deal that many hope will include the United States and commit developing nations such as China and India to cut greenhouse gases.
Negotiators in Bali agreed to start two years of talks to be concluded with the signing of a new treaty at the U.N.’s 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Nasheed last year unseated Asia’s longest-serving ruler, 30-year incumbent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in the islands’ first multi-party presidential election. Gayoom has become a vocal advocate for mitigating climate change.
Writing by Ranga Sirilal; Editing By Bryson Hull and Alex Richardson