“Where Climate Change and Trade Policy Intersect”: Interview with Dr Jan Yves Remy

Dr Jan Yves Remy, Director of the Shridath Ramphal Centre (left), with Barbadian Prime Minister, Mia Mottley (right)

Why is climate change such an important issue for the Caribbean? How does it affect the region economically?

Firstly, climate change is an existential threat from a geographical perspective, in that it will impact our existence in the next 50 or so years. It’s very much a question of where we will live and whether we will live. I recently visited Guyana, and with all the oil exploration activity happening there, a very real question is ‘will the settlements that are on the river banks of Georgetown need to be relocated to the interior of the country, due to rising sea-levels?’ When we’re talking about the very existence of settlements and whole cities being submerged by water and sea-level rises that overtake the embankments, it’s a question of planning today but also of planning for the future. That’s urban-planning, that’s investment. If we think about the next 10-15 years, all of these developing issues be implicated by the decisions we make today about where we live, and where we decided to invest. And then we have the added question of, for example, where people will go when there are hurricanes coming in rapid succession to these islands. Where will we move to when we are experiencing constant floods? Will we go to North America? Will we go to Latin America? Will Latin American countries house us? So really, I’m talking about things that are relevant to us just existing. Then we’re also talking about real issues confronting policy makers and businesses: for example, where do we plant crops given the impact of droughts and rising groundwater? How drought-resistant and water-resistant are our crops? But there’s also the question of our coral reefs. In a recent IPCC report, one of the things looked at in particular is Smaller Island Developing States (SIDS), like CARICOM (the Caribbean Community). They state that one of the things that is impacting us is bleaching of our coral reefs – that impacts our biodiversity, the hotspots for ocean life in the region. This in turn affects our fisheries and fishery stocks – the livelihoods of many in our communities. Besides community-based activities and subsistence, there’s also the tourist industry which is closely linked to our coral reefs and what’s happening to our beach fronts. If you think of it in terms of concentric circles, there’s a real problem of not being able to even get to issues of economy when you start thinking about the possibility, in the next 50 or so, of some parts of the Caribbean being submerged. Some fundamental economic consequences, however, are the question of how we grow our foods, the risk of hurricanes decimating crops, having to start back again every time that happens, the debt situation our countries are in and whether or not the tourism sector will be robust enough (and green enough) to sustain ourselves.

What is the Shridath Ramphal Centre (SRC), and what do you do?

The Shridath Ramphal Centre is a mouthful because it’s named after a very prominent, eminent Caribbean jurist as well as trailblazer in the world of trade, education and politics in Guyana. He then ultimately made a contribution globally as the second Commonwealth Secretariat’s Secretary General before returning to the Caribbean when he began advising ministers of government and the heads of government on trade-related issues. He was also very pivotal in the non-align movement during the cold war. The centre was really set up at a time in our history in the region when were under-represented in the trade negotiations taking place, especially the multi-lateral trade negotiations. The actual SRC was created about 20 years ago, but since then I think our role has evolved, and I’ve been the director for the last two years. Nowadays, trade is no longer thought of only in terms of negotiating international agreements on a huge scale, and the movement of goods and services. Because of the importance of SDGs, climate change, women’s issues, digital trade, etc. trade has become a sort of master omnibus for dealing with macro issues but also with an importance placed on how that translates to making welfare outcomes accessible to and inclusive of a wider spectrum of people. So I would say we have tried to move with the times. There’s also the question of how to use trade to promote not only regional integration (via CARICOM) but also South-South cooperation. Here at the SRC we have three major pillars of work: firstly (and what we’re probably best known for) is our Masters in Trade Policy. We consider ourselves the premier trade capacity institution in the region for training in trade-related issues (both ‘hard trade’ and the ‘inclusive trade’ I mentioned earlier). The second thing we do is outreach activity. We conduct lots of webinars, we have a monthly column in the newspaper called ‘SRC Trading Thoughts’, we put out policy briefs, and we link up with other entities around the world to talk about the Caribbean perspective on trade. And finally there’s our research pillar. This is concentrated research output that looks at, for instance, climate change and trade or investment issues and trade. In this capacity, we focus on making ourselves relevant to policy makers and the business community on matters of trade.

How does the SRC interact with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)?

That’s an interesting question. To be honest, we would love to do more with CARICOM institutionally! The University of the West Indies (where our centre is based) is an associated institution under the CARICOM legal framework. So it means we have certain alliances naturally within the fabric of CARICOM. We, more functionally, attend some Caribbean Community meetings as an invited stakeholder or associated institution. But really, we train and educate many of the region’s leaders. If you go around the region, many politicians are UWI graduates, and within that the SRC counts many ministers of trade among our alumni. That said, I think we can do much more in terms of being a brain trust on some of the logical, institutional, policy issues arriving in trade. CARICOM is a big machine and we’re nimble – we can provide advice that’s bit off the cuff, which doesn’t have to conform to what any stake holder believes, but is still research-based. On climate change in particular, I think we could do so much more collectively. My piece on WTO negotiations and climate change (“Trade-Related Climate Priorities for CARICOM at the World Trade Organization”) is meant to get CARICOM to start thinking about how to use trade negotiations to advance some of our trade and climate priorities. And it’d be great if we had a more direct, institutional mechanism to feed some of our thinking into some of the broader politics of how these things get translated into policy positions. At the moment, it’s mostly based on pre-existing relationships between our staff and their staff, but I don’t think we’re fed sufficiently into the process to really make use of our skill set.

What are, according to the SRC, some of the most important trade-related climate priorities for the Caribbean at the moment?

In my policy brief, I’ve given a historical perspective into how absent discussion of the intersection between trade policy and climate change is in the space that CARICOM occupies at the WTO. We have a huge amount of presence in UNFCCC negotiations and anything to do with the UN General Assembly. When we have, for example, Mia Mottley talking about moral leadership of the global north and the injustice of climate change, it captures the imagination of the world – we roar in these settings. But then look at the trade side of things and there’s a dearth of voices for the region. And it’s not because of a lack of awareness; I think it’s because there’s a decision taken that maybe this isn’t right form to articulate our needs. I think there’s also a more deep-seated concern (which I hope we can help with), which regards making a connection between what is a trade-related need of the Caribbean in a climate context. But the question you asked is really interesting. Firstly, we can take a look at what climate change has to do with trade, and then what the Caribbean’s offensive interest is here. On the first question, people are increasingly seeing trade not as just part of the problem, in that it increases greenhouse gas emissions due to dirty industries and the transport of goods across oceans, etc. We’re increasingly thinking about how trade becomes part of the solution. For example, how can technology transfer make the green industry more present in different countries, allowing these countries to use cleaner technologies to meet their energy needs? How do we make our services sectors (notably tourism) more green via eco-tourism? How do we think about the duties imposed on electric vehicles versus normal cars? All of these are trade issues. If the Caribbean is not part of that discussion of how trade rules should be part of the solution, then we’re in trouble, because we’re missing out on big opportunities. One of the sunrise sectors for the region that we can really think about offensively is our blue economy. In a lot of our region there is sea grass (and I recently learnt that the Bahamas has some of the largest amounts); this offers great carbon sequestration opportunities for the region.

What do you envision for the future of climate change trade policy? What can we do to support this form of climate change prevention?

We (the Caribbean) have taken a very conservative view to negotiations and, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that’s a lack of intentional policy-making. I don’t think it’s because we’re sleeping at the wheel and it’s happening without us. From my perspective, for the future of trade negotiations and CARICOM in climate change, I think we need a battalion of able lawyers and negotiators in the region who are on the lookout for opportunities to dynamise the Caribbean’s participation. I think there’s a youth energy and there’s a women’s energy. There are a lot of women in this space that I encounter who I’m in awe of, whether it’s women who are representing climate justice movements or women who are lawyers in big law firms that care about the Caribbean’s issues, who can bring that to bear. It’s a very dynamic set of people, but I don’t see that necessarily represented in the formal spaces that we occupy when it comes to policy decisions. There are very able, seasoned hands that represent the region’s interests, but what I’d love to see bursting on the scene is this energy from young people, dispossessed people, indigenous people, women, people who are considered marginalised. And I think that’s unfortunate. For me, the future is very much in representation. I think the Caribbean already has a great story to tell in personalities bursting on the global scene. We have Rihanna, we have Mia Mottley – there is space for that different voice. I think we need to exploit it more, I think we need to be smarter, I think our voices need to be brought formally into the fold.

Interview by Brandon Sambrano. Find out more about the Oxford Society for International Development at oxsid.org.