Barbados to become first carbon-neutral small island

by Linda Hohnholz, eTN editor

Bathsheba Beach in Barbados – image courtesy of VisitBarbados

In 2019, Barbados made a bold move – committing itself to becoming the first fossil-fuel free or carbon neutral island state by 2030.

Imagine a flat, 430 sq. km. dot in the Caribbean – sun, sea, and sand included – totally powered by clean energy, a fully green vehicle pool, and solar panels on rooftops everywhere. Barbados will completely transform how it lives, works, and recreates – within a decade. But why such a huge leap? Aside from demonstrating ambitious climate leadership, the country has a complex mix of challenges that necessitates such a transformation.

To start, the island has a very narrow resource base. Tourism is the main export, which accounts for 40 percent of (direct and indirect) GDP. Otherwise, options to generate income are limited. This inevitably increases dependence on borrowing. The island does not produce enough food to meet demand and has very little in the way of oil, gas, or other valuable extractives. So import bills are exceedingly high. This small open economy is, therefore, at the mercy of global markets and trends.

Next, add a yearly guarantee of bad weather from tropical Atlantic cyclones that can and have devastated Caribbean economies, societies, and natural environments – by as much as 200% of GDP in some cases. Then add climate change, which will make these systems much stronger and more common. It is an existential threat that Barbados simply does not have the luxury of ignoring.

A solution is needed that tackles multiple fronts. One that promotes energy and food security, protects the environment, builds resilience to weather and climate impacts, and reorganizes fiscal space to better serve development priorities – to transform the island into the most sustainable version of itself.

The goal is to become carbon neutral while maintaining a protected environment, a stable society, and a sustainable and resilient economy. This commitment is rooted in the National Energy Policy 2019-2030. Over the next decade, Barbados will strive to:

• Substantially expand renewable energy (RE) generation, especially from solar, wind, and biofuel sources and phase-out fossil fuel-based generation.

• Shift society towards greener mobility by encouraging greater uptake of electric or hybrid vehicles (EVs).

• Improve energy conservation (EC) and efficiency (EE) through phase-outs of inefficient lighting and appliances, and establishing standards to promote high-efficiency products.

• Incentivise decarbonization, by providing technical and financial support, and instating fiscal measures (grants, loans, tax rebates and exemptions, import duty exemptions).

• Reform legislation and build capacity to facilitate an energy transformation.

While the island is still early in the implementation period, it can already identify some key driving factors.

A flat tropical island like Barbados is a prime site to harness solar energy. From the 1970s, the island has been a leader in the solar water heating (SWH) technology industry. The island has (one of) the highest rates of SWH installations across the Caribbean, saving consumers between USD 11.5-16 million per year. The SWH legacy and experience provides impetus for the local solar photovoltaic (PV) industry to develop. The burgeoning electric vehicle market in Barbados is also encouraging. Incidentally, the recent surges in oil and gas prices globally have spurred more residents to invest in greener power and transport.

The impact of strong climate leadership and political will cannot be overstated. This is exhibited across Barbadian society but is now most famously embodied within its Prime Minister, Mia Amor Mottley. She has emerged on the international stage, advocating for Barbados and all small island states, in the face of the climate crisis. Her influence and charisma in global dialogue earned her the Champion of the Earth award for Policy Leadership in 2021.

The technical and financial support provided by bilateral, multilateral, and intergovernmental development partners has been instrumental. Since 2019, Barbados benefitted from upwards of USD 50 million in energy investments from these partners, providing critical finance inputs to assist Barbados with implementing policy measures.

To develop the policy, policymakers conducted extensive research, including several rounds of consultations throughout Barbados’ energy sector in 2016 and 2017, and multi-sectoral stakeholder meetings in 2018. They employed a Multi-Criteria Approach (MCA) to capture a wide range of impact perspectives, including potentially competing interests.

The Government’s Energy Division is the coordinating entity for the policy. Because the nature of this ambition requires every sector to be integrated, the policy engages agencies across the public, private, and civil society sectors. Development partners such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the Caribbean Development Bank, and the European Commission are also key to co-financing various components of implementation.

Almost four years into implementation, all of the above activities are underway. Periodic reviews are planned for every 5 years as resources allow to assess progress and make adjustments.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing collapse in international tourism severely depressed local economic activity and significantly reduced fiscal space. The pandemic also exacerbated the debt-to-GDP ratio, constraining the ability to borrow. Further, due to the relative size of the economy and population, Barbados is only a technology purchaser at present, and the unit cost of RE and EV technologies (and cost of capital for climate investment projects generally) remains high. However, the country continues to provide fiscal incentives and other forms of support to promote technology uptake across the island. Barbados is also actively identifying opportunities to access grant financing for specific climate change activities.

There is a need to further strengthen institutions to pursue opportunities, including in training and capacity building. However, both public and private sector entities have implemented tertiary and technical education programs to build RE and EV-related skill sets and to also expand local human resource capacity.

Energy and emissions data are needed in some sectors to monitor and measure progress, and to complete the island’s GHG inventory. While data management remains a challenge, over time, data gaps are being closed. Support from international partners will be crucial to support data management going forward.

While Barbados still has a way to go, it has made some:

• There are over 2,000 independent power producers now generating 50 MW from solar power – reaching almost 20% of potential solar capacity.

• 15+ government buildings have been retrofitted with solar photo-voltaic systems and energy efficient fixtures. Another 100 buildings are planned.

• Government’s procurement policy now prioritizes purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles, where possible.

• Government-owned public transport fleet currently includes 49 EV buses. Plans to acquire an additional 10 buses will increase the share of electric buses in the fleet to about 85%. Over 350 EVs are now on the road.

• Over 24,000 streetlights have been retrofitted with LED lights.

• Government instituted a ban on single-use plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene, or other petroleum base).

• A Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Laboratory and Solar Classroom Village has been established at the Samuel Jackman Prescod Institute of Technology for learning and demonstration.

• At least 5 technical and tertiary-level education programs are available in areas of Renewable Energy Management, PV Installation, PV Design and Practice, EV Maintenance Fundamentals, among others.

• An Energy Smart Fund was established to provide RE/EE support to eligible businesses. The Fund was re-capitalized by USD 13.1 million in 2022 and has embarked on an extensive education campaign via its website and webinar events.

• A Barbados-based RE project was awarded a 2022 Energy Globe Award, and Barbados won 2 awards for Best Energy Efficiency Project and Best E-Mobility Project at the 2022 Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum’s Industry Awards.


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