In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the environment would change, by 2100, in ways we couldn’t imagine. And it would not be a change for the better. In 2008, the globe was rocked by the triple crisis in finance, fuel and food. 2012 saw the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Brazil (Rio+20) where the call for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was made. In 2018, the IPCC declared that small islands may all but cease to exist if the world was 1.5°C hotter. The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report declared that biodiversity losses are presently at unprecedented and accelerating rates. At each of these junctures, the scientific community has beckoned for sweeping changes across sectors, in planning, resource extraction, buildings and infrastructure, business and investment. The technology already exists, say the thinkers, and money can be redirected to gain even better outcomes.
Extraordinarily, it was a microbe that wrought the deconstruction of modern life. Sweeping mandatory orders and curtailments, hitherto fore considered impossible, happened worldwide almost simultaneously and were seen as the only way to protect ourselves from the virus. If we wondered what “transformative change” looked like, this is it. Necessity is the mother of invention. As we focus on biodiversity in celebrating World Environment Day, the current level of global commitment to meet and arrest the scale of the threat biodiversity faces is as superficially inadequate as makeup for cancerous tumours. Increased urbanisation, consumption (and therefore waste and pollution) and the globalisation of our consumption patterns are among the indirect drivers of the decline in environmental systems, including biodiversity.
Small islands are microcosms that can find and invent solutions for sustainability to build the much-needed economic recovery and resilience, challenge the status quo, and be replicated and upscaled globally. We do not need makeup. We need reconstructive surgery. Visionary stimulus packages will be characterised by foresight to navigate the new and old crises simultaneously, reconnecting us with our environment on which we depend. For instance, standardised national sustainability criteria as a prerequisite of any infrastructural development and choosing cost-effective green engineering over grey structures can chart the path to climate resilience and energy efficiency in buildings, wastewater recovery and reduced pollution, thereby preserving coral reefs and mangroves - which themselves reduce erosion, provide food and support tourism and fishing livelihoods.
The blue economy is ripe for islands to reap the benefits of capturing “waste” resources such as Sargassum seaweed and fish offal for fertiliser or biogas; or developing public mass transit by sea and expanding interisland maritime trade. The historically low oil prices, while they last, generate a window for investment in renewable and energy efficiency technologies, improving these cleaner skies. Building new community developments with mandatory green spaces would not only encourage social cohesion, but also capture carbon dioxide, mitigate floods and promote groundwater infiltration using artificial or conserved wetlands, and if strategically planned can create wildlife corridors connecting habitats divided by growing urban agglomerations. Yes, bring more wildlife into the cities. Green bonds, blue finance, and impact investment of any other colour are opportunities for the private sector and ordinary citizens to tangibly engage in grand changes to benefit people, planet and prosperity.
Job creation, economic diversification and circularity, digitalisation and e-services, decarbonisation, reduced pollution and waste, and resilience should undergird any sound sustainable recovery and future development strategy. CARICOM’s Chair, the Hon. Mia Mottley, asserted in her recent BBC interview that GDP per capita is a ludicrous metric for evaluating a country’s development and access to external support. So too is economic growth a myopic view of success, hiding poverty, inequalities, climate vulnerability and environmental degradation with a brush stroke. This pandemic vividly demonstrates the capability of the global community to collectively rush into the operating theatre to avert system collapse.
Fundamentally, unequivocally, our endeavour should be to not return to the high consumption, high emissions, high pollution, high waste, high inequality patterns of yesterday. Small steps are only superficial makeup. Having peeked through the curtains to glimpse nature recovering, we should chase it as we burst through the doors and surgically reconstruct a better normal, leaving no one behind but the past.
Head of the Sustainable Solutions and Energy Cluster
UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean