The Agenda for sustainable development was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a worldwide partnership for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. Creating and building an awareness around the importance of the SDGs has become a global imperative.

As such, I am humbled and pleased to have been appointed to the UN Business Advisory Group for Barbados, together with other private sectors heads, challenged to examine different SDGs and what Barbados can do to call attention to, as well as focus on the island’s actions to achieve these goals. For the purposes of this article, let’s place the spotlight on SDG 7, which seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Decades ago, climate and environmental concerns were viewed as esoteric subjects, and simply the expressions of ‘armageddonists’ seeking to restrain the pace of global industrialization. Today, there is an acceptance that humans have the capacity to both advance mankind’s progress using science and technology, while also protecting the world we live in for generations to come.

We have reached a level of recognition that sustainable human development and capitalist pursuits can coexist and not be antitheses. In fact, more political leaders and captains of industry have a much better understanding of their responsibility to act and are being called upon by more activists both young and old. Few, if any, corporates or political leaders want to be remembered for their degradation of the planet or ambivalence to the dangers of the climate crisis that is evidently upon us. Thankfully, most of the public postures have reflected increasing political and financial commitments, as well as environmental, social and governance (ESG) pledges.

In Barbados, we have had the honour of being led by a woman who has made it her goal to bring change to the global status quo. Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley has become little Barbados’ big voice, not only on the urgency of climate action but on the concomitant demand for financing to support these necessary adaptations. Prime Minister Mottley has not only pleaded the case for Barbados, but for all Small Island Developing States (SIDS) around the world that face similar challenges.

SIDS can positively impact global policy decisions on how we treat a range of environmental and climate issues. For context, Barbados’ role in drawing attention to sustainable development needs was first highlighted in 1994 when the island hosted the first International Conference on Small Island Developing States, attended by 125 countries. Out of it came the Barbados Programme of Action.

Our island’s profile as a leading voice on sustainable development was again showcased at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD 15), staged here in October 2021. It was attended by UN Secretary- General António Guterres, Prime Minister Mottley, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan. As our Prime Minister reminded attendees, “UNCTAD was formed to give voice and protection to developing nations. If ever there was a time for that voice to be heard on issues of trade and development, it is now.”

The most pressing areas of SDG 7 for us in Barbados relate to the international financial flows to developing countries for renewables, as well as the level and pace of renewable energy consumption. In its status update, the UN said financing to developing states for renewables fell from US$24 billion in 2017, to US$14.3 billion in 2018, to just US$10.9 billion in 2019. And though renewable energy consumption increased by 25 percent between 2010 and 2019, renewables represented just 17 percent of total energy consumption.

Since the compilation of the data above, Barbados has made climate financing a top priority and the impact of the country’s high-level advocacy is bearing fruit. For developing countries to adequately respond and make the kind of commitments necessary for climate resilience, financing is critical. And in her usual forthright approach to issues, Prime Minister Mottley has stressed that, “While we pray, prayer and hope are not strategies to combat this climate crisis”.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF), an agency of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established by 194 governments, seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries and help them adapt to the impact of climate change. Out of those efforts has come the recent Blue Bond Issue, a groundbreaking debt conversion transaction, that has unlocked some US$50 million to assist Barbados in protecting a significant percentage of its marine ecosystems.

The audacious project allows island nations to refinance a portion of their national debt in a way that cuts their debt burden and also funds conservation activities, such as improving fisheries management and climate change adaptation. This in turn helps to improve food security and the quality of life on the island.

Another example of the real impacts from the GCF has been the almost US$40 million in grant financing provided to the Barbados Water Authority. The funding will, among other things, help to upgrade the Bridgetown Sewage Treatment Plant to a tertiary treatment system and install wastewater treatment systems in two Zone A areas of the island to harness water to recharge the underground aquifers and provide agricultural irrigation.

The progress being made at the national level is also translating to greater awareness among the local private sector, with financial institutions placing greater focus on special funding for alternative energy projects. Even more important has been the commitment given by some leading Caribbean businesses to incorporate sustainability as part of their corporate culture and business practices.

This was demonstrated, for example, when the Republic Bank Group recently committed to ensuring a sustainable future and becoming a signatory to the UN’s Principles for Responsible Banking and the Net-Zero Banking Alliance. The regional bank has pledged to lend and invest US$200 million by 2025, to support actions that would help achieve major climate finance goals.

At the culmination of COP 27 in Egypt in late December 2022, Prime Minister Mottley championed a radical global initiative, developed by Special Envoy to the Prime Minister of Barbados on Investment and Financial Services, Professor Avinash Persaud, coined the Bridgetown Initiative. This is a proposal to reform the world of development finance, particularly how rich countries help poor countries cope with and adapt to climate change. The initiative includes three key steps:

- Changing some of the terms around how funding is loaned and repaid. The aim is to stop developing nations spiralling into a debt crisis when their borrowing is forced up by successive disasters like floods, droughts and storms.

- Asking development banks to lend US$1 trillion to climate-vulnerable developing countries at discounted rates, to allow them to focus on building their climate resilience.

- Setting up a new mechanism to fund climate mitigation and reconstruction after a climate disaster.

Encouragingly, at the time of writing, the Bridgetown Initiative is gathering increasing global support and steam.

Also in late December 2022, the World Bank announced that it had agreed to lend Barbados US$100 million in funding, which Prime Minister Mottley advised would allow Barbados to advance its efforts to achieve climate resilience, including continuing our shift to clean energy, which is inextricably linked to Barbados’ economic recovery.

The small physical stature of Barbados is not an impediment to our country making a big impact on the world in which we live. Teenaged Barbadian environmentalist Maria Marshall – a UN Development Programme Future Fest winner in 2020 when aged just 11 – articulated in her UNICEF campaign Voices of Youth, ‘Little Thoughts on Big Matters’, children and adults, no matter where they reside, have “ideas that can make a great impact on our environment”.

Ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth. As Prime Minister Mottley implored in her Opening Ceremony message at COP 27, “We have the power of choice. We must choose to act.”

And we must act without any further delay.

The time is now.