Trinidad and Tobago’s ambitions for cutting greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are “not sufficiently bold” and based on “low hanging fruit” according to Dr. Devon Gardner, Head of the Energy Unit at the Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM).
In a conversation with Climate Tracker, Gardner, who is a Jamaican citizen, said that a perceived lack of ambition on the part of the Trinidad and Tobago government could cause other nations to question the region’s commitment to climate action.
“Without Trinidad and Tobago, who is the designated energy leader, it always waters down the case,” Gardner said.
Like every country in the world that is party to the Paris Agreement, Trinidad and Tobago is obligated to communicate plans to cut emissions and address climate change. Countries do this through a plan called Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which must be updated every 5 years.
Currently Trinidad and Tobago’s climate plan is out of date: it was submitted in 2018, but should’ve been updated in 2020. The plan says it will attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 15% across three areas: power generation, transportation, and industry.
Gardner described these goals as “easy to meet,” and added that it “doesn’t require too much sacrifice.” Moreover, he described the pathway Trinidad and Tobago is using to achieve GHG cuts in the iNDC as “low hanging fruit”.
The first pathway, he criticised, is Trinidad and Tobago’s stated desire to achieve GHG emissions cuts by boosting energy efficiency.
“Any improvements in energy efficiency would lead to big cuts because Trinidad and Tobago is probably four times more inefficient than the rest of the Caribbean combined in terms of average,” he said.
Trinidad and Tobago consumes around 44,000 btus per unit of GDP as compared to other Caribbean islands who consumed on average 10,500. This means activities on the island nation require a lot more energy than in other countries.
“It doesn’t take much to reduce something that is already bad,” Gardner added.
The change in technology happening globally would already account for a significant amount of energy efficiency improvements organically, making Trinidad and Tobago’s iNDC “not difficult to achieve,” he added.
The second pathway he criticised was Trinidad and Tobago’s level of commitment to integrating renewable energy sources.
“Trinidad and Tobago is not really committing to an irreversible transition, but rather small amounts of integration of renewables,” he said.
In 2015, the government of Trinidad and Tobago set a specific target to generate 10% of the country’s power from renewable energy sources by 2021.
Speaking at COP26, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley highlighted the fact that Trinidad and Tobago was still in the process of establishing the largest utility-scale solar renewable energy project in the Caribbean, with a capacity of 112 MW that would deliver this 10% of the country’s energy needs.
Dr Gardner described this amount as “chicken feed”, given the two gigawatt capacity of Trinidad and Tobago’s electrical grid. “You have to look at things relative to what they are,” he said.
Stuck with fossil fuels
Trinidad and Tobago is currently the fifth highest emitter per capita in the world, yet it submitted a six page document as its iNDC—shorter than all 14 other CARICOM states (the 15th, Montserrat, has not yet submitted an iNDC).
Despite criticising Trinidad and Tobago’s iNDC, Gardner acknowledged that the country’s extensive investment in hydrocarbon assets made its energy transition uniquely challenging.
“Transitioning to something else would mean almost abandoning a significant portion of that in terms of its use and building something else. And you know, it’s always going to be the question of why should we build something new when we have spent all this money on this,” he said.
Gardner also highlighted the difficulties that Trinidad and Tobago will face in retooling its workforce, warning of a daunting learning curve that could span decades and see multiple changes in government.
This, he said, can cause much of the work to become a political football as politicians often measure success in the short-term.
As a result, Gardner said Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua Barbuda have had to step into leadership roles on conversations about energy transition.
A vulnerable nation
Trinidad and Tobago sits just outside of the Atlantic hurricane belt sparring it from the most destructive effects of the climate crisis in the Caribbean. Its neighbouring Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to the north are depending on the world’s top emitters to take drastic action to cut GHG emissions.
At the COP26 opening plenary, October 31, COP26 President, Alok Sharma, acknowledged that the island of Barbuda was still trying to recover from the loss and damage inflicted on it by category 5 hurricane Irma in 2017.
That same year Dominica was hit by category 5 hurricane Maria—the strongest to ever make landfall on that island. Climate scientists have credited the intensity of both hurricanes to warming seas caused by climate change.
During COP26, Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley said that the cost of inaction on climate change is “measured in lives and livelihoods”.
Gardner said that when Trinidad and Tobago updates its iNDC, the region will be looking out for an indication that the country is ready to take transformative action. “We really want to see something that is indicative of a reorientation and redesigned energy landscape in the country,” he said.