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Do you remember that groovy 90’s tune by Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton that goes, ““they paved paradise and put up a parking lot…took all the trees and put them in a tree museum and charged the people a dollar and a half to see ‘em.” These words ring very true in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T).
Propulsion toward the world’s generalized version of ‘development’ has seen greater emphasis on the destruction of green spaces and inclination toward skyscrapers and paved roads. This does nothing to help fight climate change. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in particular have at least four natural defences against sea level rise, storm surges, and coastal erosion – coral reefs, seagrass beds, beaches, and our mangrove forests.
We do not need concrete to survive. What we do need is clean oxygen, which is provided by green spaces. Mangroves provide a host of ecosystem services related to climate change adaptation, such as water quality maintenance/pollution control, storm protection, carbon sequestration, and protection against coastal erosion, just to name a few. So why don’t we treat these majestic trees with more respect? Green spaces in our cities are clearly vital for our continuation as a species. However, in Trinidad and Tobago mangroves in particular are disappearing at alarming rates.
According to Rianna Gonzales, National Coordinator of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network- T&T, “for our country, we thrive on the development of the coastlines and this affects our mangroves forests as they are destroyed to make way for ports and tourism-related development. On our western coast, to build one of the four oil and gas companies, mangroves were demolished. This affected beaches and coastal infrastructure which would otherwise protect T&T from some climate change impacts.”
Estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggest that cities are responsible for 75% of global carbon emissions, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributor. At the same time, cities are also vulnerable to climate change impacts.In Port-of-Spain, the capital of T&T, mangrove forests have been ruined. Even though two of our major mangrove forests are protected by the RAMSAR Convention, they aren’t necessarily protected by enforced local law.
“We really need to move from the black and white act on the promises we made to the environment. Signatures on paper mean nothing if there is no action,” Gonzales stressed.
Cities are highly concentrated with people, cars, and buildings. They are busy with activities that need a lot of energy and therefore use more fossil fuel compared to rural areas. Many cities in the world such as Tokyo emit the carbon to as much as 62 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year. Tokyo has more emissions in a year than 37 countries in Africa.
Earlier this year, Paris suffered from haze masking the city’s landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. Only yesterday, Beijing raised a “red alert” warning over smog and the city, from schools to business, has gone on a shutdown to protect its people. However, local government must remember the positive outcomes of long-term engagement strategies for creating and maintaining green spaces in the city. Fossil fuel companies in T&T however, continue to rule at the end of it all.
There are already cities in the world who have started its path to sustainability. Speaking at a side event in COP21 called “Global Covenant of Mayors: Towards carbon neutral and inclusive cities”, Mayor Josefa Errazuris of the city of Providencia, Chile, shared “in order to protect our commune and the sustainability of our territory, we must have efforts to include climate change as part of policies.”
In Trinidad and Tobago, the ‘Ministry of Planning and Development’ is responsible for the environment but the addition of the word ‘Sustainable’ to the title would show dedication to mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change. In a study done by the International Development Bank in 2014, mangrove restoration was identified as a key climate adaptation strategy for T&T, so why are they still being removed from the ecosystems? If climate change adaptation is really a significant for policymakers in T&T then conservation of green spaces in our cities need to be prioritized.
“Climate change, and all of its dire consequences for health, should be at centre-stage, right now, whenever talk turns to the future of human civilizations. After all, that’s what’s at stake.” – Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization
Many Trinbagonians are proud to say that Trinidad and Tobago is one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Is this something to be pleased about?
The title is a reflection of our status as the main exporter of oil and gas in the Caribbean region and the main producer of liquefied natural gas in the Latin America and the Caribbean. We depend heavily on the extraction of hydrocarbons as the main source of income. After all, Trinidad and Tobago is ranked second in the world for its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita, producing an estimated 53 million tonnes of CO2 annually, with 80 per cent coming from the petrochemical and power generation industry. The government needs to find more sources of renewable energy. We emit the most amount of toxic gases into the atmosphere in the Caribbean.
Climate change takes 400,000 lives per year and millions suffer from flooding, diseases, malnourishment, and respiratory problems due to climate change. This is both a threat and an opportunity as it can push countries toward renewable energy. For these reasons, COP21 has seen concern raised by medical professionals regarding the effect climate change has on health. Over 1,700 health organisations are supporting declarations calling on world leaders in Paris to take a serious approach to the escalating climate threats to human health. The demonstration follows a major recent report in The Lancet that warned 50 years of global health improvements could be thrown into reverse by climate change.
From Europe to the Americas and across Asia-Pacific, over 8,200 hospitals and health centers are already walking the talk: divesting their fossil fuel assets, reducing their emissions, and calling for action on climate change. Trinidad and Tobago needs to step up its game. Stop allowing foreign oil and gas companies to infiltrate our economy and reap benefits while the environment suffers. Instead, we must affirm genuine commitment to renewable energy. It simply makes sense, renewable energy is clean energy.
The government’s aim of 10% renewable energy by 2021 is a start but much more needs to be done. We need healthier, more sustainable cities and the most effective way of quickening up the process is for governments at COP21 to make strong commitments on a deadline for a full phase out of fossil fuels, and agreeing to regularly review and increase national ambition to reach that goal.
In Trinidad and Tobago, emphasis needs to be placed on research and development into the feasibility of various sources of renewable energy and implementation needs to occur quickly. Sensitisation of the local citizens is key, as difficulty in transition also comes from the fact that as an oil and gas-producing country, energy costs in Trinidad and Tobago are extremely low. So it should not be surprising that solar, wind, and hydropower energy are catching on in other islands of the Caribbean where electricity is up to six times more expensive than in Trinidad and Tobago.
The world is shifting toward renewable energy, fossil fuels remain in the past. As we look toward development, Trinidad and Tobago should eventually follow the trend set by the rest of the region.
Written by – Dizzanne Billy
Dizzanne Billy, 24, operates in the role of President of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network (CYEN) in Trinidad and Tobago, where she works in the areas of education and public awareness with regard to environment and development issues. She is a climate tracker with Adopt-A-Negotiator and a young advocate for climate change action.