Economic change often takes time to occur.
It has become a part of the modern lexicon to refer to this current period as the fourth industrial revolution.
One in which the internet and the internet of things increasingly impact our lives and where we have seen how digital technology and digitalisation allow countries to make major leaps in efficiency and the way in which their economies operate.
In T&T, the government has talked about its plans to digitalise government and to make the public sector more efficient.
There is no doubt that the digitalisation of our economy will improve our competitiveness, help in agriculture production, allow our citizens greater opportunities to conduct their business from the comfort of their homes or offices, and result in a better performing economy.
T&T must therefore embrace this industrial revolution as we face the herculean task ahead of transforming a failing economy.
There have been several events that occurred over the last month that may appear to have little to do with each other but if we consider them as one we will see that T&T is in a place where we need to understand that decisive and focused action is needed since what has passed for management of this economy over the last 10 years has failed to get the desired results.
The first was the IMF report which predicted improved economic performance for T&T in 2021, with the country’s real gross domestic product expected to grow by 2.1 per cent this year.
Previously the IMF had predicted that T&T’s real GDP would have grown by 2.6 per cent.
The IMF is also projecting a stronger recovery in 2021 and 2022 for the global economy with growth projected to be six per cent this year.
There has since been a dust-up of sorts between Finance Minister Colm Imbert and UWI economist Dr Roger Hosein about the projected growth figures and the size of the economy when issues of inflation are factored in.
This is the kind of thing that shows the extent of the challenge we face. The fact is no matter how we look at it, no matter what we say, the T&T economy has over the last decade performed poorly, declining in eight of the ten years, with two years of anaemic growth.
The reality is when crude prices were high, we wasted a lot of our money spending on transfers and subsidies and not enough saving and spending on projects that would have yielded a return.
Even when we did spend on capital projects there was so much cost-overrun, mismanagement, and yes corruption that those very projects may never make a return for the country. This led to increased debt, increases in recurrent expenditure, and an unsustainable level of public spending.
The second event is the visit to China by US President Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry who has become the highest-ranking official of the new US administration to visit Beijing since Biden was sworn in almost three months ago.
Kerry’s trip is being seen in the US as proof that it considers climate change a crisis that the world has to face together and that despite the trading of words between the Americans and Chinese in a recent meeting in Alaska the Americans are hoping they can get co-operation from China, the world’s second-largest emitter of global greenhouse gases.
It’s another example of the US’s determination to lead the climate change issue.
T&T has to plan for a new energy world. One in which natural gas is the transition fuel to a renewable energy future.
It is the intersection of climate change, leadership and technology that is seeing the cost of renewables significantly reduced, where wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric are taking front and centre and where US citizens in the energy sector are being told it is time to retool themselves and prepare for new energy jobs, green energy jobs. Unfortunately, these are not discussions we are having here.
With Easter just finished it is perhaps apt to recognise that there are some who, like John the Baptist, are crying like voices in the wilderness, if only we will listen.
If Biden’s strategy is successful it will reduce, over time, the demand for crude oil and eventually natural gas. This is sure to then lower the value of these commodities significantly as they become less and less important to our daily lives.
The timeline that most people are looking at for the transition to renewable energy is 2050. This transition has already begun and while for some 2050 may seem a long time from now, just consider someone who is today entering university will be in their late 40s then.
For T&T the challenge is two-fold. The first is how do we transform an economy that is not only reliant on the energy sector but which goes hard at ensuring we reap all the rewards from the very energy sector that we are walking away from?
The second is how do we build a new economy that is not reliant on the forex and earnings from the energy sector?
I have said in the past we need to fix the challenges in the energy sector. We have to do all we can to find, develop, produce, and earn maximum revenue from the energy sector.
I am aware these are not easy asks but there must be a sense of urgency and the additional revenue that we may yet get from the sector must be used to in part prepare for the economy of the future. That means investments in education, training, research and infrastructure.
Another important development is that today the Hydrogen Congress for Latin America and the Caribbean is continuing for its second day. It is the first of its kind and Philip Julien, the son of Prof Kenneth Julien, is part of one of its panels.
Speaking at this year’s Energy Chamber’s renewable energy conference, Julien noted that T&T has an established and integrated hydrogen market that is supplied exclusively by the steam methane reforming of natural gas. He said his NewGen project is centred on the development of what it believes will be the world’s first industrial-scale carbon neutral/green hydrogen production facility, which will produce energy-efficient and green hydrogen for the petrochemical sector, via the process of water electrolysis.
Julien hopes that his project will lead to green ammonia, which will attract a higher international price.
It is this kind of innovation and investment into the future that could help traditional industries remake themselves. We must look at all the possibilities and ideas if we are going to move forward as a country and remove ourselves from the continued false premise that being in government makes us brighter and have more answers than others.
As Energy Minister Franklin Khan told me in a recent interview, when negotiating with the world’s energy majors, he has had cause to remind them that “we too went to university, we too have degrees.”
I am sure Minister Khan will also tell his colleagues, on behalf of many in the wider population, that we too went to universities, we too have ideas, and we too can find solutions.
Will they listen to anyone but themselves?