Trinidad and Tobago’s future hangs on a rather precarious balance. We are a hydrocarbon-based economy. Since the early 1970’s onward we have seen the boons of oil exploration pay off, we have witnessed the growth of our little island from what once was a rural, agricultural postcolonial land to a thriving Caribbean powerhouse, floating on a sea of ‘black gold’, oil and gas.

The nature of the oil and gas industry has always been one of a more volatile nature, with price booms and busts coming like economic high and low tides. These tides however, are changing, the climate crisis, and the growing need for a safer, cleaner, greener future is slowly but surely phasing out the hydrocarbon-based energy consumption patterns that humanity has mastered for more than a century. The threat that climate change poses is existential, and for small islands like that of Trinidad and Tobago and by extension the wider region, it is simply not something we can ignore for much longer. However, with a lack of diversity in our economic pursuits, we hang between two realities, to keep investing in and pursuing a slowly dying hydrocarbon industry, as the world shifts to renewables in the face of massive life-threatening climate emergencies, or make the sudden transition away from hydrocarbons, which was never successfully done before in our economy, and which will considerably change our ways of life, consumption and economic capacity. While both these extremes are drastic, there is a sort of middle ground, a gradual phasing in of renewable and environmentally sustainable policies and practices that can, in the long term, help our country to transition to a greener economy, but ‘just transitioning’, might be harder for an economy like ours to weather.

‘Just transition’, a term first used by trade unionists in North America in the 1990’s, was coined to protect the rights of workers whose jobs may have been impacted by environmental policies. Head of the Multilateral Environmental Agreements Unit at the Ministry of Planning and Development Kishan Kumarsingh, explains its importance to Trinidad and Tobago at this time. “The issue of ‘Just Transition’ has been entrenched in the Paris Agreement in its preamble and consistent with The Sustainable Development Goal 8 of decent work and quality jobs for everyone. It focuses on the need to safeguard workers’ rights and the creation of decent jobs as economies transition from carbon intensive industries and high carbon activities to one of low carbon development.”

The development and implementation of this country’s ‘Just Transition’ initiative is critical as our economy is based primarily on the oil and gas industry which involves high carbon emitting processes. Kumarsingh stated, “Trinidad and Tobago as a ratified party to the Paris agreement is also now obligated to embark on a pathway of low carbon development and to do that we have submitted our commitments to the UN on how we intend to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and these emissions are targeted at the power generation, the industrial sector and transportation primarily based on the combustion of fossil fuels. Trinidad and Tobago’s economy is based on oil and gas, therefore, highly carbon intensive. And, many jobs are created in that sector. As a result, any transitioning from this high carbon intensive economy, to low carbon development, will invariably impact on workers.

And to avoid any potential negative fallout, the policy framework is being developed to allow for minimising these impacts, for the retooling and reskilling of workers to encompass low carbon jobs or green jobs. The policy therefore will guide what needs to be considered including through creation of new skills for upcoming generations and the new workforce so that as the country transitions from the carbon intensive and carbon-based economy, largely due to oil and gas towards more sustainable and green growth, that transition will also be smooth for existing workers but also create opportunities for upcoming workforce.”

Transitioning of our workforce is being carefully planned and gives consideration to ensuring ease as we move from one type of economy to another.

“It is important to note that it’s a transition” noted Kumarsingh, “the key word is transition and it will not happen overnight and therefore it’s over a period of time during which the enabling environment, administrative, institutional, legal and policy framework will be set and therefore those that are already in the workforce will be provided with opportunities to re-school, retool and reskill themselves to be employable in the new economy, in the green economy where opportunities can be created.” He also noted that the ‘Just Transition initiative’ also focuses on active creation of these jobs, for example in renewable energy technologies, in electric vehicle technologies and in other clean technologies that may be employed in the industrial sector to reduce emissions. He emphasized that these transitions will take place over a period of time, it’s not a switch, therefore the policy aims to provide for that transition to take place in the least disruptive way that can be managed.

Policy makers recognise that people are key to achieving a ‘Just Transition’ situation.

“That human resource factor resides in many spheres of employment, in the existing technologies, in the existing industries that may be seen as emitting sectors and as well in the new sectors that are to be developed. So therefore the human resource factor in affecting economic change towards low carbon development is perhaps the most critical part of any transition that will give rise to a development path that will contribute globally to achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement which is critical for small-island developing states such as Trinidad and Tobago” noted Kumarsingh.

In order to properly transition, it is the opinion of policymakers and economists alike that the rug cannot just be pulled from underneath the proverbial table, meaning that we cannot transition without adequate warning and preparation. As a small developing state, with a notably vulnerable position on the world economic stage, and a position threatened even more so by climate change, consideration should be taken when analysing what ways would be the best to ease us into a greener future, as effectively as possible and in a manner that is “just” for those affected.