“WE are on the front line of the consequences of climate change but we don’t cause it.” That was Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley in the Bahamas, straight after Hurricane Dorian.
Mia got it half-right.
Yes, the Caribbean is in the front line of the climate crisis.
“The warmer waters do what? They fuel the growth and the strength of hurricanes,” said Mia.
And that they do. By Wednesday, the Bahamas government had listed 2,500 missing persons. Many of them will turn up alive, but shaken. But even so, the scale of the shock is barely believable.
And it’s not just the hurricanes. With disrupted rainfall and increased evaporation, Trinidad and Tobago’s reservoirs are still way below normal levels, three months into the wet season.
Stinking mats of sargassum seaweed choke Caribbean beaches. The overheated Atlantic is to blame, as well as an increased flow of nutrients from the Amazon basin where fires burn to clear farmlands from the rainforest.
Heated waters also bring coral bleaching: “This has been the worst I’ve seen it in 22 years,” says a Caymanian environmentalist. “It’s almost as if the ocean has a fever.”
We’re right in the front line. But the “we don’t cause it” bit is only partly true.
Yes, the climate crisis stems from global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And, yes, no small community is responsible alone for that, whether they’re in Barbados, Bangladesh, Brooklyn or Berlin.
But we’re all contributors, and the Caribbean is no exception.
Based on a World Bank database, T&T, in 2014, had the world’s third highest per capita carbon emissions after Curaçao and Qatar. That’s a somewhat unfair comparison—it’s based on the production of LNG (liquefied natural gas), fuel and petrochemicals whose end-users are elsewhere. And the number has come down a bit, with stuttering LNG production and the closure of Petrotrin. But it’s still way too high.
We have Guyana, which still talks “green economy”, but will next year start a new career as a world-class oil producer.
The other Caribbean countries aren’t guilt-free. Many of them churn out as much carbon, per person, as the big, developed countries.
Mia Mottley’s own Barbados has per capita carbon emissions of 4.5 tonnes per person. That’s more or less in line with France, at 4.6.
The Bahamas emits 6.5 tonnes per person. That’s the same figure as Britain.
And T&T? I don’t have a figure which factors out LNG and petrochemicals. But eyeballing the gas-guzzling SUVs and air-conditioning units, I’d guess we’re at least up there with the Bahamians and Barbadians.
Electricity rates less than one-fifth of the Caribbean average don’t encourage consumers to reach for the “off” switch.
Where charges are higher, people develop more careful habits. I heard of some Trini guests who got bawled out bad by their Barbadian host after leaving the air-condition running all day when they went to cool out on the beach.
But the real big one is international air travel. To which we can add the cruise ships. Neither of these is included in the World Bank’s national carbon emissions data.
Aircraft have improved their fuel efficiency. But that won’t be enough. Cutting carbon emissions means fewer long-distance flights.
Naturally, it depends how you do the maths. But based on one handy carbon footprint calculator, an economy class return flight from London to Barbados creates the equivalent of just over two tonnes of carbon emissions, once we include the non-carbon air travel impacts. For a family of four, that’s over eight tonnes.
A first-class passenger has perhaps five times the carbon impact of one in economy class. So that’s more than double the year-round impact of one stay-at-home Barbadian.
Last year, Barbados played host to over 220,000 British tourists, close to 40,000 from mainland Europe and 290,000 from North America. Their flights alone had a total climate impact perhaps two-thirds that of little Bimshire’s permanent inhabitants.
Adding that in would raise the per capita carbon footprint of Barbados from 4.5 to perhaps 7.5 tonnes. That’s before we throw in the cruise ships, air freight for imported goods and those glitzy first-class passengers.
Air travel is not just for tourists. Caribbean people fly, too—to work, to study, to visit friends and relatives or just on vacation.
There’s no practical alternative, other than staying home and doing your travel on the Internet. I plead guilty. I cross the Atlantic at least twice a year.
Young climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed from England to New York, USA, in a high-tech boat with solar panels and hydro-generators for electricity. But the journey took her 15 days.
The Caribbean is hooked on high-carbon air travel. For the future, that doesn’t look good. Other countries will charge higher taxes on long-distance flights—and there will be social stigma for those who take too many long-haul trips. And as northern summers get hotter, a two-week break in the sun will seem a whole lot less attractive.
The tourism-dependent Caribbean is going to have to find ways of boosting economic growth without more hotel rooms and extra air miles. And that one, Mia, is not going to be easy.
—Mark Wilson is an international journalist based in Port of Spain.