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Where does Hawai‘i rank on a list of eight factors of sustainability? The study included 52 islands with populations of over 50,000.

Hawaiian Island Sustainability

An insight into how we rank among other island communities

How can we tell if an island is sustainable or not? All islands are net importers, meaning residents depend on external resources to survive, so they tend to be less sustainable compared to a self-sufficient continent.

To get a handle on island sustainability, a UH study group developed a database of 52 islands with populations in excess of 50,000. Island rankings for eight important factors are shown in the table. More factors are at play but there are no data for them.

Gross domestic product (GDP) represents economic wealth within an area–in this case, each island. The higher the GDP per capita, the wealthier the island is. This works well for sustainability because if some resources are scarce, then the island with a higher GDP has funds to purchase them. Oahu is doing well with a ranking of fifth; Maui and the the Big Island are in the top 20.

Tourism is a large source of income for islands that are not countries. Island countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore do not make the top 10. Maui is at the top spot with the most tourists per resident, followed by the Greek island of Rhodes. The Big Island and Oahu also make the top 10.

Infrastructure length represents that an island has enough transportation to move people and goods. The Big Island makes the top 10 and Maui is close at 14, but Oahu is in the bottom 10 because of its restricted road capacity for close to one million people.

Electricity consumption represents modernization. Maui and Oahu make the top 10 and the Big Island is close at 13.

Carbon dioxide or CO2 represents greenhouse gas emissions. A low amount of emissions is best but only less-developed islands achieve this because they don’t have the incomes and lifestyles that require large amounts of transportation fuels. As a result, Haiti, an impoverished nation, makes the top 10. The Hawaiian Islands are big CO2 emitters. Greenland is ranked third thanks to its extensive use of geothermal (volcanic) energy to generate electricity. The Big Island should be in the top 10 instead of the bottom 10.

Distance from the nearest large port is important to island sustainability. The further away an island is, the more dependent it is on transportation to move people and goods in and out of it. Hawaii’s rank is 40th. We need to work on alternatives that make marine transportation cheaper so we can continue to receive goods at affordable prices. An exemption from the Jones Act, which requires all goods traveling to a US destination to originate from a US destination, be carried on a US ship and be manned by an American crew, is a good start.

Last but not least there are factors for the basics: food and water. Land area of agriculture per resident is important: The more of it, the better the ability to produce food. The Big Island and Maui are in the top 10. Oahu’s agriculture has all but vanished, and a major effort is needed to protect what’s left.

In terms of renewable water (not from desalination), the Islands are in the middle. Desalination is in Maui’s foreseeable future, and also, perhaps, the Kona side of the Big Island.

With a sustainability score of 300 being “very good” and a score of 30 being “very bad,” Oahu scores 140 and Maui scores 180. The Big Island scores 170 and can improve to 200 with all-geothermal power. Overall, Hawaii’s population-adjusted score is exactly average at 150, so its sustainability profile has a lot of room for improvement.

Panos Prevedouros is a professor at UH-Manoa in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is a specialist in transportation engineering and traffic analysis and simulation, who continues to work with HDOT to solve Oahu’s traffic issues.