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A timely thought on the environment

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As Hurricane Teddy disappears into the rear-view mirror, older readers may have remarked on the increased frequency of hurricanes, both targeting Bermuda and more generally.

Hurricane experts have already named the most recent hurricanes Alpha and Beta, meaning that they have already run through the usual alphabet of names when there are almost six weeks left of hurricane season.

It is not entirely clear why Bermuda is receiving more direct hits than it is used to. It now occurs on a near-annual basis whereas in the previous century, decades could pass between direct hits.

But what is indisputable is that the frequency of hurricanes has certainly increased dramatically in the past 20 years, as has their intensity.

There is a consensus in the scientific community that this increase in frequency is related to climate change and to the increase in sea-surface temperatures — an essential ingredient for both the creation of the storm and its strength.

Past editorials have dealt with the causes of hurricane intensity and there is not space to go into such detail again. But the links between rising sea and air temperatures are proven.

For Bermuda, climate change represents an existential threat, a term that is devalued by overuse. If sea levels continue to rise at their present rates, Bermuda will start to lose substantial parts of its landmass as a result of erosion and of flooding of low-lying areas. Some of Bermuda's wetlands are already being affected by increased salinity, which affects bird life and other parts of the ecosystem. It is not unreasonable to assume that there will be longer periods of drought.

In terms of the economy, Bermuda's tourism season in normal years tends to die on Labour Day and this can be partly attributed to the association of Bermuda — or any island whose name begins with B — with hurricanes.

There will come a time when international companies decide that the inconvenience of power outages, work disruptions and airline cancellations — again, in normal times — are not worth their while and this will be an added reason to place their staffs or their entire business elsewhere.

In the meantime, the cost to Bermuda of remediating flood areas, building up sea walls and the like will continue to grow. Money that could go to other services or simply to reducing our spiralling debt will be spent on climate-change works.

One of the problems for Bermuda is that up-to-date climate-change statistics either do not exist or are hard to find. The last major study on climate change was carried out by the environmental scientist Annie Glasspool in 2008 and has not been updated. Its warnings then were stark. Now presumably they will be catastrophic. Yet Bermuda carries on in blissful ignorance.

There is an assumption that because of its size, there is little Bermuda can do to affect climate change. That does not mean we should do nothing. It is in our self-interest to join the global campaign to reduce carbon emissions and to take other measures to mitigate climate change.

So far none of the political parties have highlighted the environment in their platforms. Certainly, the Covid-19 crisis, the state of the economy, health and education reforms, and other arguably more immediate issues crowd this one out.

Indeed, David Burt was apparently so unconcerned that he voluntarily called an election in hurricane season. And yet, for the second weekend in the campaign, Bermudians were battened down in their homes, as were candidates and canvassers. If nothing shows the immediacy of climate change, surely this does.

In fairness, the Progressive Labour Party has taken some substantial steps during its shortened term. Most importantly, the Integrated Resource Plan approved by the Regulatory Authority envisions a Bermuda that primarily uses green energy such as wind and solar power for 85 per cent of its electricity needs by 2035 and supports a major wind energy farm to be built off the island five years from now. The Government has also moved ahead with the solar farm on the finger at the airport.

It has also continued elimination of customs duty on electric cars and on the installation of solar panels. There was also an unfulfilled promise to eliminate single-use plastic bags from Bermuda.

The Free Democratic Movement and the One Bermuda Alliance have dedicated environmentalists in their ranks who should push their parties to do more to emphasise the environment and climate change in their platforms.

The truth is that much more needs to be done and time is running out. Bermuda cannot rely on other countries to do this work. Donald Trump's shameful withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and his cavalier and industry-driven rollbacks of environmental regulations in the United States proves that the island cannot expect larger and better-resourced countries to do the right thing or act in the world's long-term best interests. The proof is before us.

This newspaper is generally reluctant to encourage government intervention in the private sector. But the threat from climate change is so urgent that it must do so by setting targets for emissions reductions, giving incentives to encourage this to happen and applying disincentives to environmental abuses.

The two leading causes of emissions in Bermuda are energy-generation emissions and exhaust emissions from vehicles. The IRP already has a sound plan for energy-generation emissions, but more needs to be done. Not only does it need to be accelerated — to 2030 instead of 2035, for example — but the ability to produce energy needs to be spread more widely.

In a previous editorial on the economy, this newspaper called for the mass use of the roofs of government buildings, businesses and private homes for solar panels. The cost of this could be financed through a green bond by which property owners would finance the installation through their energy savings, while creating jobs and reducing emissions at the same time.

Similarly, Bermuda should set a target for exhaust emissions and the widespread introduction of electric vehicles. Customs duty for electric vehicles, parts and alternative energy-generating equipment — such as solar panels and wind turbines — is already zero, but the duty on hybrid vehicles could be also reduced from 35 per cent.

The major deterrent for wider use of electric vehicles is the lack of a network of charging stations. Incentives should be provided to property owners including the corporations of Hamilton and St George's to install charging stations in parking lots and on roadsides to encourage their use. At the same time, the Government can move to convert its vehicle fleet to electric propulsion. Not only would this provide huge long-term savings on fuel, it would enable the Government to be an exemplar in this area.

Bermuda can do more to reduce use of single-use bags, plastic bottles, takeout containers and the like. These items are appalling pollutants and require fossil fuels for their production. Some private-sector businesses have taken the lead on this, but by eliminating duties for reusable or compostable items while hiking the duties on single-use plastic bags, bottles, straws and polystyrene containers. The Government could help to push more businesses in this direction. Applying a fee for single-use bags for shoppers — with the funds going to green initiatives — also would be an incentive.

Some of these ideas will be more popular than others. They require a change in the way that Bermuda lives. But the alternative — the gradual destruction of our island home — carries a much greater long-term cost. All three of Bermuda's political parties should demonstrate leadership in this area — Bermuda's existence literally depends on it.

Worrying sight: powerful waves created by Hurricane Teddy hit the island on Tuesday. A higher frequency of hurricanes is now a regular occurrence because of climate change - with rising sea levels another factor that could cause serious problems for Bermuda in the future (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published September 23, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated September 23, 2020 at 2:01 pm)

A timely thought on the environment

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