A Caribbean strategy to cope with climate change

The Caribbean has been buffeted by an exceptional number of intense storms and hurricanes this year. In the space of just a few days, Hurricane Irma has been followed by Hurricanes José and Maria, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Hurricane Irma formed near Cabo Verde towards the end of August and, according to the US National Hurricane Center, was the strongest hurricane on record to form in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Caribbean is the most tourist-intensive region in the world, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. This makes Caribbean economies particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of Mother Nature. Most Caricom countries(1) have at least a 10% chance of being struck by a hurricane each year, according to a 2013 study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that is cited by the UNESCO Science Report. The probability is even as high as 24% in Jamaica and 20% in the Bahamas. Even moderate storms can reduce growth by about 0.5% of GDP. For example, winds that were well beneath hurricane strength took a toll on the small economies of St Lucia, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines in December 2013.

The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts that the Caribbean will become the most at-risk tourist destination in the world between 2025 and 2050. In 2015, the UNESCO Science Report observed that ‘the region would be hard-pressed to deal with a major meteorological disaster,’ and urged it to ‘take climate change adaption more seriously.’

Caricom has mandated the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre to mainstream climate change adaptation strategies into the sustainable development agendas of Caricom states and to help them switch to renewable and cleaner energy sources and reduce their vulnerability to the impact of a changing climate.

The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre has produced an implementation plan for 2011–2021 and undertaken a number of assessments. This work has been supported by the region’s specialists, who have produced models for climate change and mitigation processes in Caribbean states and who play a major advisory role to the divisions in ministries responsible for climate change, such as Jamaica’s appropriately expanded Ministry of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change.

High energy costs contributing to vulnerability

A vulnerability to hurricanes and overdependence on tourism are not the only challenges Caricom countries face. According to the UNESCO Science Report, high energy costs are also having a negative impact on the economic competitiveness of Caricom countries and the cost of living. In 2008, over US$ 14 billion was spent on importing fossil fuels, which provide over 90% of energy consumed in Caricom countries, according to estimates.

In 2013, Caricom approved its Energy Policy and the accompanying Caricom Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS). Under this policy, renewable energy sources are to contribute 20% to the total electricity generation mix in member states by 2017, 28% by 2022 and 47% by 2027. A similar policy instrument is being developed for the transportation sector.

In July 2013, stakeholders participated in a resource mobilization forum for the first phase of C-SERMS. The forum was hosted by the Caricom Secretariat, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).

Considerable potential for renewable energy

The IADB has since provided the University of the West Indies (UWI) with a grant of over US$ 600,000 to develop capacity in sustainable energy technologies across the region. One area of interest is the utilization of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in managing energy and training in sustainable energy technologies, with an emphasis on enhancing the involvement of women. The participation of energy giants such as General Electric, Philips and the Scottish Development Corporation augurs well for technology transfer.

The region has considerable potential for hydro-electric, geothermal, wind and solar energy which, once significantly exploited (as opposed to sporadically, at present), could make a huge difference to the energy resilience of Caricom countries. Some of these resources are being exploited to a limited extent.

The machinery needed to generate fossil-fuel-based electricity is obsolete, inefficient and expensive to run. Jamaica has approved construction of new gas-fired electricity generation plants, to deal with this problem.

The efforts of Caricom countries to adopt sustainable energy technologies are contributing to implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. First adopted in Barbados in 1994, this programme was updated in Mauritius in 2005 then again in Samoa in 2014.

A Plan to nurture innovation and creativity

Like the small island developing states of the Pacific, the countries of the Caribbean are embracing ‘regionalism’ to reduce their vulnerability to economic and environmental shocks. As Ralph Consalves, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, put it at Caricom’s 40th anniversary in 2013, ‘it is evident to all responsible persons of discernment that our region would find it more difficult by far to address its immense current and prospective challenges, unless its governments and peoples embrace strongly a more mature, more profound regionalism’.

One of the central aims of the first Strategic Plan for the Caribbean Community, which covers the period 2015–2019, is to reinforce socio-economic, technological and environmental resilience of Caricom states. The overarching objective is twofold: to stimulate the productive capability of domestic firms and correct the current mismatch between training and the specialized knowledge and skills required by the market, in order to drive growth and combat rising levels of unemployment among the young, in particular. The plan outlines strategies for nurturing innovation and creativity, entrepreneurship, digital literacy and inclusiveness and for making optimum use of available resources.

With the exception of Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, which have significant hydrocarbon or mineral reserves, most states are small with too limited natural resources to support rapid economic development.

They will thus need to look elsewhere for wealth creation. The Strategic Plan focuses on the following areas: creative, manufacturing and service industries, with an initial focus on tourism; natural resources and value-added products; agriculture, fisheries and export development, to reduce dependence on food imports and foster sustainable fisheries; resource mobilization; ICTs; air and maritime transport infrastructure and services; and, last but not least, energy efficiency, diversification and cost reduction.

The two key enablers identified by the Strategic Plan for improving the Caribbean’s resilience are a common foreign policy, in order to mobilize resources effectively, and research and innovation.

Caricom governments currently commit little of their resources to science. The sluggish economic growth observed in the Caribbean in recent years offers some explanation but even the more affluent Trinidad and Tobago spent just 0.05% of GDP on research in 2012. When annual economic growth hit 8% in 2004, Trinidad and Tobago still devoted just 0.11% of GDP to R&D. Thus, poor economic performance alone cannot explain the extremely low commitment to science of Caricom governments.

The Strategic Plan for the Caribbean Community: 2015–2019 proposes using advocacy to mobilize funding for business research from state and private sources, creating an enabling legislative environment for research and innovation, identifying opportunities for cooperation and devising national school-based programmes that drive, enable and reward research and innovation.

Importantly, the collective aspirations captured in the Strategic Plan to 2019 are similar to those of major national plans. For example, Trinidad and Tobago’s Vision 2020 (2002), Jamaica’s Vision 2030 (2009) and the Strategic Plan of Barbados for 2005–2025 all share a common aspiration to achieve socio-economic development, security, resilience to environmental shocks and an engagement in science, technology and innovation to improve the standard of living. Like the Strategic Plan for the Caribbean Community, these national plans accord central importance to science, technology and innovation in realizing these aspirations.

Caricom countries(1): Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago.

Source: Ramkissoon, H. and Kahwa, I. (2015) The Caricom countries. In: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030