When going green, make haste slowly
Although the Government’s Speech from the Throne has been criticised for being long on rhetoric and short on substance, the environment received more attention than usual — and it’s about time.
This may have been driven by the speech being delivered in the same week as COP26 in Glasgow; but that does not mean the Government’s attention on this issue should be begrudged.
Walter Roban, the Deputy Premier and Minister of Home Affairs, who has responsibility for most environmental matters, has also proved to be more of a champion of green issues than many of his predecessors, which is also welcome. Interestingly, Cole Simons, the One Bermuda Alliance leader, was the best environment minister when his party was in power.
That the environment gets so little focus normally is understandable and disappointing in equal measure.
During economic downturns — and Bermuda has been struggling economically for most of the past 12 years — jobs and growth tend to push environmental concerns to one side, regardless of the long-term consequences.
And most environmental issues only develop slowly — this newspaper has long held that climate change poses an existential threat to the island, but when that threat is measured in centimetres per year, there will be always another, more immediate crisis to tackle first.
Tied in with these conceptions is the notion that the environment is a “first world“ problem, which is more of a preoccupation of the wealthier and, often in Bermuda, White segments of the population. Black Bermudians, who make up a disproportionate segment of poorer classes, have more pressing problems such as making sure they can put food on the table and pay the rent. Being concerned about the environment is a luxury for those who can afford the time to think about it, or so the argument goes. As a result, the environment has rarely carried much political weight in Bermuda.
That’s too bad and reflects a dangerous short-termism. Of course, this is not limited to Bermuda, but to the world.
Assuming that an overall rise in global temperatures and sea levels will lead to major changes for everyone, the sight of different nations kicking the can down the road on carbon emissions is mind-boggling.
On that basis, it is up to all countries to do as much as they can to make a difference, regardless of their size or impact. Bermuda is no exception.
There are also good economic and sustainability reasons to force change. Bermuda spends millions of dollars a year in foreign exchange on fossil fuels, both for electricity and for transport.
Transitioning to alternative energy and making use of the natural supply of sun and wind would reduce that spending, even if the initial investments were high. Mr Roban has said he wants to get Bermuda to 100 per cent renewable energy, although the formal targets are lower than that.
But this needs to be accelerated, both by the transition of energy production to solar and wind power from gas and oil, and by moving transport to electric vehicles as quickly as possible.
There is now a wider range of electric vehicles and hybrids available at a range of costs that these are no longer exotic but commonplace. To encourage their purchases, the Government should keep them duty-free while imposing a surcharge for customs duty on vehicles that used gasoline or diesel, with the fee rising depending on their miles per gallon.
At the same time, the Government needs to encourage the movement away from fossil fuels for electricity production. This can be done by maintaining a fuel charge for the use of fossil fuels while providing further incentives for those who produce solar power and put it back in the grid. Most importantly, this needs to be made more accessible to more people. Further incentives should be offered also to encourage utility-scale wind power.
Much has been made in the Throne Speech about better protecting Bermuda’s waters while at the same time exploiting our exclusive economic zone, which extends out 200 miles in all directions from the island. This is an altogether more complicated area in which the need to balance environmental quality has to be offset against the right to diversify the economy.
Various attempts to balance these often conflicting desires have ended in paralysis, and now the Government is trying again. At the same time, plans are continuing to develop a shoreside fish processing plant for local production and export. Certainly there is room to use technology to police the EEZ and to make sure foreign fishermen are not exploiting this resource, or to tax them when they do.
But enormous care needs to be taken to both avoid depleting fish stocks or doing harm to the ocean; the long-term consequences could be fatal. Where Bermuda can be successful is in continuing to encourage scientists to use Bermuda as a real-life laboratory for measuring climate change and mitigating against it. To that extent, the idea to make Bermuda a test bed for alternative-energy technology is a good one, although it needs to be carefully thought through.
Similarly, the movement towards a single-use plastic ban needs careful consideration as well. This newspaper supports the elimination of single-use shopping bags and the reduction in items such as single-use plastic bottles, along with much more aggressive promotion of recycling.
But businesses are right to warn against Bermuda getting too far ahead of the technology. After lagging behind for years, taking a great leap forward is rife with danger. Better to see what has worked in other countries rather than trying to become a world leader would seem to make more sense.
Indeed, the Progressive Labour Party’s relatively new-found eco-enthusiasm is welcome, but as with all new arrivals to a case, there are dangers when idealism and energy are not tempered by experience. Never has the need to make haste slowly been more vital.