For much of 50 years, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) has built a country and its people on the fortunes of fossil fuels. And though alarm bells have been sounding for some decades now that the world must move to a more sustainable future, life on the island of Trinidad is perhaps difficult to imagine without an economy that depends on oil and gas.
In recent years, those alarm bells have gotten louder. This may be due in some part to the digital era amplifying the voices of concern about climate change, but the statistics of a warming planet are frightening as they are concerning.
Just last week, the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) observed coral bleaching in Charlotteville, Tobago. This is caused by global warming. Further to that, the weather in T&T has become more unpredictable with the two extremes; violent tropical systems or unbearable heat.
Yet, in a world that is slowly distancing itself from non-renewable sources, moving T&T’s carbon-intensive economy which is largely based on oil and gas, petrochemicals and manufacturing seem like a Herculean task. Why? According to the Central Statistical Office (CSO), by the end of the first quarter of 2022, the petroleum and gas industry, including production, refining and service contractors employed 10,600 people. And while the energy industries tend to make the headlines in T&T, climate change will affect other sectors including agriculture and fisheries. Those sectors employ 24,300 people according to the CSO.
“What it could mean for us as we embark with the world on the energy transition low carbon development, as we displace those carbon polluting industries with cleaner technology, there may be redundancy, there may be social fallouts because of the new job requirements,” Kishan Kumarsingh explained. He is the head of the Multilateral Environmental Agreements Unit of the Ministry of Planning and Development and T&T’s lead climate negotiator for the last 24 years and also leading on climate policy in T&T.
Kumarsingh further explained how coastal communities which rely on the natural amenities that they live in like those who catch and sell fish, crabs and conchs will be affected and how they fall under the protection of the just transition policy.
He stated, “If the water regime for conchs and cascadoo changes then it affects the population of these species. What that would mean is that the people who depend on these sources of livelihood would be impacted because then you have fewer resources to work with, and therefore, they would be disenfranchised from self-employment in this case, and they have to be catered for from a just transition perspective because just transition caters for the eradication of poverty and the creation of decent jobs for all.”
To cushion such fallouts, trade unionists in the 90s coined a phrase called “just transition.” It was created to protect the rights of workers whose jobs may be impacted by environmental policies while also creating decent jobs as economies transition to a low-carbon future.
Last September, the Government published a draft just transition policy for this country which is currently before the Cabinet.
Kumarsingh explained to the Sunday Guardian why, though there will be opportunities for retooling and reschooling in the transition, it is moving slowly.
He said, “What you have to now do is create the job market for it and that is where catalysing the transition would help in creating the demand for these jobs and providing the skills that would be necessary for the future… Also, what needs to happen...there needs to be a recognition of the private sector and its role in the energy transition and clean technology transition. Every set of actors has a role to play in different aspects to catalyse that transition.”
It is a point Mark Loquan, president of the National Gas Company, furthered. He believes T&T must capitalise on the region when it comes to green jobs with various solar and wind projects taking place around the Caribbean.
As the president of an energy company, Loquan is all too familiar with companies and governments’ virtue signalling without any real intention to lower their carbon footprint, but he feels this will not last.
He told the Sunday Guardian, “To avoid this situation where I say I’m doing something but you don’t actually see, you really need to have the measurement and reporting coming in on an aggregate basis. T&T will face this issue. When you go to COP27, COP28, COP29, etc, it’s not good enough to say you’re pledging or this is your target but it would actually mean you would have to have it peer reviewed and in some cases certification.”
Loquan admitted the path toward just transition for a country like T&T that is dependent on the production and sale of oil and gas is a tricky one.
“The challenges will be not only cultural change and changes in these areas of policies and frameworks, but I think it is also money,” he said.
“Money will be required to effect some of these things. Infrastructure will be required, like if you’re going to electric vehicles, you may have the policy, but you still need the infrastructure.
“The challenge will be to align ourselves in different time frames. You have to work on all of these things at the same time but what is in front of us is energy efficiency.”
President of the T&T Energy Chamber, Dr Thackwray Driver feels workers who have to transition from the petrochemical sector to greener jobs will find that their skill set is not outdated. He stated, “I think a lot of changes we’ve been talking about to develop a different type of energy system creates jobs in itself.
“There’s a huge number of jobs that I think can be generated in things like the installation of solar panels in homes, installation of solar water heaters, and retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. These are all areas where I think there are a lot of jobs, and we have a lot of transferable skills in that area.”
The NGC president is of the view that T&T needs an energy roadmap because the changes that are required will not be achieved “next week or next year.”
Instead, Loquan said, in the short-to-medium term, the focus areas that need to be looked at like power and energy efficiency can be prioritised while other aspects which are longer term will also be on the radar.
Change is always difficult, especially when changing from a formula that has brought so much wealth and fortune to this country down the decades but Kumarsingh is adamant that it is imperative, optimistically saying, “The energy transition is a global paradigm shift and T&T as part of the global community has to be on board otherwise, we risk being left behind. It will be challenging, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.”