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Saturday 19 October 2019
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Invest in Caribbean’s future

UN chief economist on renewable economies

UN chief economist, Trinidadian Elliott Harris at his office in New York. Photo by Carla Bridglal
UN chief economist, Trinidadian Elliott Harris at his office in New York. Photo by Carla Bridglal

Associate Business Editor CARLA BRIDGLAL, in the first of a two-part exclusive interview, discusses with UN chief economist Elliot Harris the future of the Caribbean in the face of climate change, and the region's need to find new sources of energy.

The future of energy is renewables, and the Caribbean, grappling with considerations like the impact of climate change and astronomical energy and fuel prices, needs to adapt.

But for TT – ­and soon, Guyana – with economies and massive revenues based primarily on hydrocarbon output, that continued dependence and focus on hydrocarbons can seem antithetical to the region's need to transition to renewables.

How then, does the region negotiate on a universal policy that balances the needs of the many with that of the few? First comes regional consensus.

Looking at how small the region is in the larger global scheme of things it is easy to fall into despondency and think it doesn’t matter because nobody is even going to pay attention to its concerns, said UN chief economist Elliott Harris.

“And that’s where the regional union becomes all the more important. Here in the UN, each country has one vote. Now, you may assume one vote is equal to the other, perhaps it is when you’re counting, but the weight of each individual country depends (on its influence). But when you have all the Caribbean coming together and speaking in one voice, it’s not just one vote. It’s a whole group, a bloc at one time. And that means people will pay attention to what these people in the Caribbean think,” Harris told Business Day in an interview at his office in the United Nations Secretariat in New York. Harris, who formerly worked at the International Monetary Fund and the UN Environment Programme, is the assistant secretary general for economic development in the department of economic and social affairs. He is also a Trinidadian, so he well understands the plight of the region.

There is a Caricom caucus at the UN to discuss a unified policy position, but ultimately, the final decision is taken unilaterally at a government level.

“I really believe we need to spend more time and effort to make our regional organisations work more effectively for us. I would like to see that in most of the key issues, the ones where we can’t solve the issue on our own, that there is a Caribbean stance, a Caribbean position on these things which we will work out in Caricom – among the governments first – and then we have one message that we present to the rest of the world and that will cause more attention to be paid to (the region). And increase the influence we might have on a global stage.”

Climate change has been high on the agenda, especially among the prime ministers of Barbados, St Lucia and Jamaica, all of whom spoke at the UN’s Climate Action Summit on Monday. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley is also in New York for the UN General Assembly Debates and in his meeting with Secretary General António Guterres on Monday, noted the difficulties small island developing states have with accessing financing to deal with the impact of climate change. Rowley is scheduled to speak at the debates tomorrow.

Even though TT and Guyana will be, at least in the short to medium term, hydrocarbon-based economies (Guyana is expected to begin commercial production next year and TT recently announced the sale of the Pointe a Pierre refinery to the Oilfield Workers Trade Union to restart production) both countries have still tried to implement renewable action plans. TT has made a commitment to use ten per cent renewable energy by 2021. Guyana has worked with the UN Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) to create the Guyana Green State Development Strategy.

Harris said the region has to figure out how to do what is necessary to make sure it gets what it needs more efficiently. “Each of us shouting and screaming individually and nobody hearing us because we are small, or all of us together singing from the same page. Which one is more likely to help us? It’s in our interest to come together and collaborate. It is in our interest to push our needs on a global stage.

"Yes, there are two economies in the region that are heavily dependent on hydrocarbons, or at least, about to, but we need to start preparing for the inevitable future where fossil fuels are phased out.

“I can’t tell you on what day at what time the last coal-fired power plant will be shut down but I know it will happen in my lifetime. And it may happen before I even retire. That’s how much this is picking up. It is true it puts our economies — TT and Guyana ­­– at a bit of a disadvantage because these economies will not be able to make full use of that natural resource but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

The opportunity then is to use the revenues from these resources to transition and invest in more sustainable energy sources and infrastructure. “The earlier we start the easier the transition will be. The longer we wait the rougher, more painful and costly it’s going to be. It is a fact. Whether we like it or not we have to deal with it.”

Any oil producing country has a big problem on the one hand, and a big opportunity on the other, he said. “The big problem is we know there is no doubt in anybody’s mind who knows about these things that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels. It will kill us. It’s as bald as that. It will kill us. And those of us who depend on fossil fuels we’re in a much more uncomfortable place because we have to find something that will substitute for the fossil fuels as the main source of our revenues, the main source of our prosperity. But therein lies the opportunity.

“The world is not going to be able to divorce itself from fossil fuels tomorrow. We have to turn it off quickly to move towards renewable energy, but for now we are still going to be using fossil fuels. Countries like TT, that produce fossil fuels must understand that they have a window of opportunity to take the revenues from those fossil fuels and invest them in diversified sources of economic and social growth.

"And we have to do it with a sense of urgency because we know now that at some time in the foreseeable future, we are not going to be able to generate that kind of revenue from fossil fuels. It’s not in our interest, not in anybody’s interest to delay the adjustment. Let’s start it now. And happily we have the resources from hydrocarbons to invest in other forms of energy and diversified sources of economic growth and social benefit.”

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Carla Bridglal is Newsday’s associate business editor and a 2019 Dag Hammarskjold Journalism Fellow. Until November, she will be reporting from the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

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