The perfect storm that made Barbados a climate leader

By Gonzalo Muñoz and Nigel Topping, UN High Level Climate Champions for the COP25 and COP26 summits | September 10, 2021

It was a perfect storm of circumstances that propelled Barbados to begin driving an exemplary and entirely sensible green energy revolution: a convergence of appealing prices, industry and finance support and favourable legislative reforms.

The Caribbean island nation committed back in 2016 to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030 — setting the most ambitious energy transition goal in the world.

We visited Barbados last month to learn about why it chose to go in this direction, how it’s getting there and the lessons it can share with countries, cities, regions, businesses and investors preparing to make their own transformations towards net zero emissions before 2050.

According to Ministry of Energy, Small Business & Entrepreneurship officials we met, the commitment to go fully renewable in less than two decades was driven by top-to-bottom political will and a strong economic case.

The cost competitiveness of renewables quickly drew utility companies to back the goal, and made it possible for the Barbados Renewable Energy Association to galvanise the private sector. The shift was also supported by policy and legislative reforms of utility law, based on an energy system review conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in 2010. The IDB then provided financial support to the transition, too.

Reaching full renewables by 2030 is expected to cost around US$4 billion – and yield $3.9 billion per year in economic benefits over the 2020s as the country reduces its import of fossil fuels, according to Barbados’ implementation plan.

The plan estimates the country could commission 295 megawatts of renewable capacity between 2019 and 2023, and 80 MW of energy storage. Steps to get there include setting a 20-year fixed-term feed-in tariff to attract renewable energy investment, aligning all renewable energy policies with the promotion of electric vehicles, boosting renewable grid access approvals by 300% thanks to a new digital platform, and applying import duties in a way that encourages clean energy. Barbados is also working with the International Renewable Energy Agency to create a future grid development strategy that includes storage.

The results are already showing. In 2018, Barbados boasted the biggest number of electric vehicles per capita in the world. The energy ministry has recently signed off on 39 licence applications for individuals and companies interested in pursuing clean energy business ventures, and is looking to train and upskill workers for renewable jobs.

This work to mitigate climate change supports Barbados’ economic development and energy independence. But crucially, the country is working to boost its resilience to climate change impacts and protect and restore biodiversity at the same time.

A year ago, Barbados received an IDB loan of $80 million to strengthen its financial risk management of catastrophic natural disasters such as tropical cyclones, flooding and storm surges. About four-fifths of the country’s GDP is generated in high-risk areas such as beaches.

At the same time, the country’s battle with prolonged drought prompted an initiative to plant one million trees across the island nation. This will support resilience to the changing climate as well as food security.

Barbados’ clear intent to lead from the front, and to base its decisions on what makes sense for its economy, public health, safety and resilience, sets an example for much bigger countries, cities, regions, businesses and investors should be tackling their own role in climate mitigation and adaptation.

That is what the UN Race to Zero and Race to Resilience are all about. These campaigns are bringing the private sector and local governments on board behind targets to reach net zero in the 2040s and build resilience for those most at risk in the 2020s.

They’re about setting a clear, ambitious and immediate vision of where you want to go, bringing all policies, regulations and business practices in line with that goal, and moving — the way Barbados is already doing.

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