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The Future's Bright, the Future's Green

Although the islands of the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and the impact of climate change, 'going green' poses a huge challenge to small nations with limited resources and spending power. Nonetheless, the first green buds of a more sustainable future are starting to emerge.

In February this year, Sir Richard Branson hosted a summit for politicians, energy experts and financiers from 13 Caribbean nations to draw up a road map for 'greening' the region.

At the top of the agenda was a discussion on moving away from the expensive and polluting diesel-generated energy that is the norm across these islands and harnessing the power of the year-round sunshine, steady breezes and – on islands of volcanic origin – the potential for geo-thermal energy. All of which are part of an obvious first step towards a more resilient and ecologically-sound tomorrow.

Despite the logic of the argument, the cost of such projects is often prohibitive for nations that already have less than robust economies. Yet, given that the cost of electricity in the Caribbean is typically five times higher per kwh than in the U.S., in the long term using renewable energies would do much more than cut harmful emissions: it would free the islands from their dependence on a volatile fossil fuel market, save hundreds of millions of dollars, and allow the islands to produce goods and services at competitive rates.

Barbados recently announced plans to invest almost $1 billion in wind, gas and solar energy and Dominica, which already produces 30 percent of its energy from hydroelectric power, is now looking into geo-thermal technology, which should reduce electricity costs to the consumer by 40 percent. In Aruba a $300 million wind farm now produces 20 percent of the island's energy and has almost halved their imports of heavy fuels.

Such nation-wide initiatives take years to plan, finance and execute but on many islands the private sector is already responding to widespread demand for ways to both save on utility costs and live more sustainably.

New builds are increasingly incorporating green technologies at the design stage, with solar panels, LED lighting, geo-thermal cooling systems and foam insulated concrete walls all helping to keep energy costs down, reduce emissions, and increase the resale value of the property.

It's not only those building new homes who can take advantage of new, sustainable technologies: solar panels and water heaters can easily be retro-fitted and old appliances replaced with modern energy efficient, or even propane-powered, versions.

The traditionally high cost of keeping cool during the warmest months of the year may yet become a concern of the past: new low-energy alternatives to air-conditioning units – such as closed-loop geo-thermal cooling systems which transfer heat from indoors and release it into groundwater, and heat-pump systems, like the Mitsubishi Electric Cooling Systems offered at Andro Group in Cayman, are far more energy efficient than traditional air-conditioning units.

Alternatives to gasoline powered cars are also now available: Cayman Islands-based Cayman Automotive introduced the first electric vehicles to the region in 2009 and is now assisting The Bahamas, St. Thomas and Aruba to establish greener transportation options.

Other building blocks of a more sustainable future – the ability to recycle waste materials, purchase locally produced goods and be food self-sufficient – may never be fully achievable on these small island nations, but that hasn't stopped eco-conscious entrepreneurs from doing their best.

A number of small businesses on islands where on-site recycling is not possible now collect used aluminium, plastic, scrap metal and other materials which they compress and ship to recycling plants overseas, while office equipment can be disassembled and different components sent away for recycling. The range of ecological, biodegradable and organic products on sale in supermarkets grows year-on-year and small-scale organic farms are springing to life, to meet the demand for fresh, seasonal produce.

Sustainability in the Caribbean is, in many ways, still in its infancy, and switching to greener ways will not happen overnight. The signs are encouraging though: both governments and private enterprises are actively seeking out more sustainable practices and the options for green-minded consumers increase every day.

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