Not a conversation piece to distract us, the topic of diversification is real in Dr Anjani Ganase’s mind. Here’s what we should be doing to ensure that we can protect land and marine resources and communities.
The main purpose of diversifying our economic resources is to be able to withstand the shocks of external disturbances. Since the government of Trinidad and Tobago first started talking about the need to diversify our economy the threat of climate change seemed more like a future retirement plan. Today, climate change is on the doorstep, the world is committed to leaving fossil fuels behind and covid19 has thrown us a curve ball. But diversifying isn’t simply trying to get profit from elsewhere. More holistically it is to build a system of socio-economic resilience, and this doesn’t mean gaining profits for something but making sure we’re also not losing it somewhere else. For small island developing states, the impact of climate change is estimated to reduce our annual GDP up to 34 per cent (high future scenario). Climate change threatens our biodiversity and habitat loss, food security and will erode our social well-being resulting in displacement and higher crime rates. Therefore, how we diversify must be relevant to our climate future as an island nation, and the projects we invest in should not exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of our communities or undermine our natural defences to climate change.
Here are some necessary steps for mitigating climate. While these strategies are not directly income-generating, they can significantly reduce expenditures of climate change disaster. Fundamental to our future success to develop our economy is the aim for citizens to thrive on sustainability rather than continuing to seek perpetual growth that is no longer a reality.
Prioritising our biodiversity
Higher atmospheric and oceanic temperatures will result in mass die-offs of flora and fauna either directly through temperature stress or indirectly through severe weather events, such as drought, forest fires, disease, and flooding. Adaptation strategies for maximising ecological resilience and the conservation of biodiversity includes the protection and restoration of large tracts of connected land and seascapes and ensuring the health of the waterways. Currently, about 1,000 km2 of land and sea areas – nearly 20 per cent of our land mass – have been proposed for protection. Yet, there has been no push by the government to date to pass national legislation for establishing and enforcing the protection of these areas.
Further to this, all citizens must recognise that landowners must bear similar responsibility to prevent downstream ecological degradation of critical wetlands and coral reefs. Gone are the days of owning land free of responsibility: on an island, no man is an island. We must have more regulation and enforcement in our land use and waste management. The avenues to develop include investing in climate research to develop fine-scale climate models based on local data to identify ecosystems and areas of high ecological and socio-economic vulnerability and prioritise for climate mitigation or restoration and management plans. Now is the time to build capacity for ecological restoration as part of the climate disaster plan, remembering that it is as important to restore the natural ecosystems as it is to restore communities. Let us study these areas and know them inside out and then share these national park areas with visitors and use them as sites for scientific research.
Climate resistant urban planning
One of the biggest threats for low lying islands is sea-level rise. Combined extreme rainfall and tidal events will flood coastal regions. In TT, areas prone to flooding overlap with our largest cities Port of Spain, San Fernando and Scarborough with major commercial infrastructure. Additional low-lying areas include south west Tobago, and the east coast of Trinidad; these are prone to sea-level rise. While poor infrastructure planning and building have always plagued us, as seen by a lifetime of annual flooding and property loss, today’s flooding is different. It is more severe, impacting more places, more frequently. Urban planning for a climate future demand firstly the protection of our natural lines of defence against sea-level rise. On Trinidad’s west and east coasts, these are our mangrove wetlands and our rocky and sandy shores. For south west Tobago, these are our coral reefs and seagrass beds.
Secondly, government must prevent disaster through regulation of what can be built depending on environmental vulnerability. Whatever is being built must follow strict building codes to withstand climate change disturbances, such as flooding, coastal erosion and hurricane winds. Along coastal areas we must learn to accommodate the inevitable changes to our coastal environments by adapting to the threats of sea-level rise and flooding by including coastal setbacks into land zone policies. TT has a draft integrated coastal zone management policy framework geared towards mitigating the threat of human activities and climate change to our critical ecosystems. It simply needs to be passed and enacted. For communities that cannot relocate, we must develop an early warning system and evacuation plan for flash flooding and storm events. Prevention is always cheaper that recovery, and we must always be prepared for disaster, while hoping that the investment in mitigation reduces the risk of loss.
Invest in eco-oriented jobs
The jobs of our future need to be essential, resilient, ecofriendly (minimal waste) and sustainable. No longer can we think that the ecosystems work for us without putting in active care for the environment. Future businesses must consider the environment as part of their cost – benefit analyses. As the pandemic is expected to continue to for another couple years, let us use the time to upskill our workforce and pass policies that encourage renewables, improve energy efficiency and energy feedback systems. The government’s role in this is to facilitate energy transitions towards renewable energy and high energy efficiency. Upskill technicians and workers in solar, wind and kinetic energy systems. Technical positions in the renewable energy industry have grown by 150 per cent in the past ten years. Environmental engineers, conservation scientists are in demand for consultation as more people include environmental impacts, sustainability, and efficiency into their regular business plan.
While agriculture is a mainstay for many people, the practice of agriculture is intertwined with the fossil fuel industry which provides a cheap abundance of fertiliser to support large monocultures. Unfortunately, agricultural lands directly compete with nature and biodiversity loss through land clearing and through the pollution of our waterways with the runoff of excess fertiliser. There is an urgent need to revolutionise farming so that it provides a positive feedback loop that keeps the soil healthy and productive. This includes existing strategies of conservation agriculture, such as permaculture and crop rotation that ensure high productivity in smaller areas of land. For TT to be successful in agriculture we need to invest in the science of sustainable agriculture with the use of experts, soil scientists and hydrologists.
In the land of waste, the garbage man is king. The International Labour Organization states that there will be considerable job opportunities in low-carbon jobs in the Americas and will continue to trend upwards, as renewables and waste repurposing become more efficient and mainstream. By relocating labour towards re-manufacturing, recycling and repurposing of metal, paper, plastic, wood, and glass, waste can be a major source of material income that doesn’t contribute to further exploitation of our natural resources.
Climate change is here. We must adapt. The longer we continue with business as usual – dependent on oil and gas to provide whatever money can “buy” – the worse will be the effects when they happen. We can still change; we can still be productive, energised and happy.
Photo 1 – The future of diversification comes with the appreciation and protection of our other natural resources. Nesting leatherback at Grande Riviere. Photo by Anjani Ganase