The Caribbean has great projects and ideas to turn the region into a renewable energy powerhouse and meet its commitments towards net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.
This is perhaps the simplest way to sum up what was discussed and presented at last week’s Caribbean Sustainable Energy Conference hosted by the T&T’s Energy Chamber.
Positive examples include plans for two major solar power generation plants in Trinidad which are being developed by a consortium of bp, Shell and Lightsource. Or Barbados government’s idea of installing solar panels on the rooftops of poor households to help generate clean electricity and income for residents. And Guyana is seeking to walk the tight line between maximising revenues from its newly found hydrocarbon fields and implementing a green agenda.
There are also some exciting ideas like using wasted or renewable sources of energy to produce hydrogen from water or municipal waste. We could even produce hydrogen from the massive and untapped geothermal energy under eastern Caribbean volcanic islands such as Dominica, especially as lower carbon intensity hydrogen is one of the few viable options to replace the high levels of conventional energy required for shipping, or as an alternative feedstock for our petrochemical plants.
This is all good news, exciting and vital, especially as the Caribbean is particularly exposed to the dangers of global warming, as sea level rises will be devastating for island states.
At the conference, the Planning Minister, Camille Robinson-Regis, stressed that the Government is committed to meeting its carbon emission pledges and making the country a renewable energy centre for the region.
That is good. But Ms Robinson-Regis also mentioned something critical if T&T is to make it happen: the need for us to have the right workforce with the right skills.
This will be critical if we are to become as central to the region’s green energy sector as we are for hydrocarbons, and to claim our fair share of the 22.5 million new jobs that, according to an IDB report, this transformation is expected to create in Latin American and the Caribbean.
For the transformation to be successful, though, we all need to get our act together, especially as this same study from last year by the Inter-American Development Bank suggests that the process will also lead to some 7.5 million jobs being lost, with a shift that will be a lot broader than some may think.
When cars first arrived, the entire supply chain linked to horse-based transport took a hit–from animal feedstock providers to breeders, and from the breeders themselves all the way to blacksmiths and groomers, who were replaced by car mechanics.
A shift to electric cars, for instance, will make the current car mechanic (and the whole chain that feeds their operation) potentially redundant unless they learn how to fix electric motors, instead of a combustion engine.
That, in turn, will do away with those who develop, produce and distribute things like pistons, sparkplugs or gearboxes, whilst expanding the supply chain for electric motor parts and batteries–though the reality is that electric motors need a lot less maintenance and have a lot fewer moving parts that can wear out or be damaged.
But the loss of car mechanic jobs will be offset by new jobs in areas like installation and maintenance of electric vehicle charging points in homes and offices, or the installation of solar panels on rooftops.
So, what should we be doing when it comes to developing and retaining the right skills for a net-zero Trinidad and Tobago?
First, we need to better understand the kind of jobs we need and want so that we can help shape our education and employment policies, together with a robust skills gap analysis to see where the pinch points are. This must be led by the Government but strongly informed by civil society, especially employers.
Once we know where the gaps are, we can develop a programme to encourage the development of the required skills across critical sectors such as energy, construction and transport, without forgetting the small and medium-sized enterprises that usually struggle to have the funds and capacity to develop training programmes.
This is also a great opportunity to reduce gender imbalances by creating specific programmes designed to increase the number of women working in STEM–science, technology, engineering and maths–and beyond. According to the IDB, more than 80 per cent of the new jobs expected to be created will be in currently male-dominated sectors.
None of this will be easy. As the same report points out, the number of workers who receive some form of training in Latin America and the Caribbean is only 15 per cent, whilst OECD countries average 56 per cent. And, unsurprisingly, our training spend tends to be skewered towards those in full-time employment and higher initial education levels.
For T&T, getting the transition right is more critical than for many other Caribbean countries as, in the longer run, we risk losing the jobs and revenues generated by the oil and gas industry without replacing them with green jobs.
We simply can’t get this wrong. However, if we don’t change course, we will.
We need a radically different school curriculum to develop the right future workforce. We need a skills policy and the necessary funds to retrain and retool the current workforce–from car mechanics to oil riggers. We need to reform our labour laws to ensure we enshrine key worker’s rights whilst creating the conditions for a dynamic and adaptive workforce because, as things stand, we will face a union-led paralysis which will take us to a transition to nowhere.
The whole world is looking at how this transition to net zero takes place and countries that drag their feet are going to pay heavily for their mistakes.
Our success will depend on how workers, unions, businesses and the Government act now and over the next few decades. The reinvention of our economy is the only option.