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Can We Learn From Cuba’s Sustainable Revolution?

FORBES, August 31, 2023 Elias Ferrer Breda  

Being forced to live with scarce quantities of fossil fuels, it has pioneered different forms of energy saving and alternative energy production. In the last two decades, Cuba has made important achievements in building a more sustainable society

In the last two decades, Cuba has made important achievements in building a more sustainable society, in part because, and in spite of, the many hurdles it faces. Such feats have been the result of efforts, innovation and entrepreneurship from all levels of Cuban society; from state-led campaigns to cooperatives, businesses, organised communities and individuals.

Cuba’s form of government is not the subject of this article, while it may be for many others who wish to discuss it. Instead, the point is to foster debate on the attainments, regarding sustainable development, in a poor country which has also been under heavy sanctions for more than 60 years.

In a context of scarce fossil fuels, it has pioneered different forms of energy saving and alternative energy production. If it were not for the blockade, Cuba could easily be importing oil from the US, as well as other geographically close producers. However, general shipping is restricted: tankers and cargo vessels cannot access US ports six months from docking in Cuba.

Between the fall of the Soviet Union and the appearance of an ally in Venezuela, Cuba’s economy had to learn to function with little oil. It cannot import from North American producers, while vessels that dock in Cuba cannot enter US ports for six months. Even with a friend in the region, it hasn’t been able to import enough to satisfy its needs. This has been especially the case since a full-blown economic crisis and US sanctions have hit Venezuela. Currently, it is importing fuel from Russia and recently also from Mexico, paying a premium for being under the US embargo.

Cuba is itself a producer of oil and natural gas, and new reserves have been discovered in the last two decades. The island however produces around 38,000 barrels of oil per day, but consumes 156,000, according to the US Energy Information Administration, using 2021 data. The country also has many difficulties refining crude, in part due to the US embargo, and also to management by state enterprises.

The Caribbean nation is also one of many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that are hardest hit by climate change. Some scientists argue tropical storms are increasing in intensity, while many areas are vulnerable to rising sea levels. The IMF published a report arguing that “the Caribbean region is most vulnerable to natural disasters and has the highest energy prices”. For different reasons, for years now sustainability has made it to the top of the agenda in Havana.

Projects from the University of Leeds, the World Wildlife Fund, the Global Footprint Network, and the Sustainable Development Index show that Cuba is among the leaders in closing the gap between human development and sustainability. The Global Footprint Network argued that only eight countries met the two minimum criteria for sustainable development, including Cuba. That is, a so-called “high human development”, and resource demand of “1.7 global hectares of biologically productive surface area per person”. The first measure is classification of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), if it is above the score of 0.7. The think tank draws on data sourced by the Cuban government, the United Nations and itself.

In the 2006 campaign, over six months, 9 million incandescent light bulbs were changed free of charge to compact fluorescents. Tungsten filament lighting is more inefficient; a light bulb produces 15 lumens per watt of input power, against 50 to 100 for fluorescents. The latter also have a longer lifespan by ten times. Cuban consumers were offered subsidised, more efficient energy appliances, including almost 2 million refrigerators, over 1 million fans, 182,000 air conditioners, and 260,000 water pumps.

study between US and Cuban academics shows that household electricity consumption rose by 142% between 1990 and 2014, and gross electricity generation by 29%, although gross CO2 emissions fell by 14%. The study was carried out with data from the International Energy Agency, the Cuban National Statistics Office, and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

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