From the Bahamas to the Seychelles, Island Nations Fight Climate Change with Better Buildings

A Busy Saint John Street in the Small Island Nation of Grenada. Photo by Kayla Sawyer/ Flickr

Facing environmental vulnerabilities like increasingly high temperatures, more frequent storm surges and a rising sea level, small island states have long been on the front lines of the fight against climate change. This existential threat has made some of the world’s smallest countries big players on the global climate stage. Now they have new weapon: more efficient buildings.

Building efficiency is already a part of the strategies of many island states to curb climate change and adapt to a changing climate. Of 189 nations submitting Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to address climate change, only 57 of them mentioned building energy efficiency, according to a WRI review. However, 12 of the nations that did include building efficiency are small island states.

Building efficiency has big potential to deliver long-term, cost-effective greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but it can also have adaption benefits, reducing the costs of achieving both mitigation and adaptation goals over the long haul. Research shows that every dollar spent on improving buildings saves an average of $2 in energy infrastructure costs—both in developed and in developing countries, like many small island states.

Building Right the First Time

Buildings are long-term investments—they last for generations. Therefore, it’s important to make the right choices when they are built. Building codes can help ensure high-quality buildings, and they are some of the most affordable policy tools that decision-makers can use to reduce operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions from new construction. In addition, these policies can make buildings more climate-resilient by requiring buildings to be elevated (to keep them above flood waters and storm surges) and better ventilated and insulated (to cut down on fossil fuel use, especially in areas where fossil fuels are imported).

For example, the Bahamas has developed an adaptation plan that includes energy-efficient buildings. In its building code, the Bahamas will require new and renovated buildings to use efficient lighting, cooling systems, building materials and construction methods. The country also uses financial incentives for efficient buildings with on-site energy production to discourage energy use from the national power grid and encourage local, renewable sources. These measures will make buildings and their occupants more resilient to extreme heat and energy disruptions that may result from storm surges or other extreme weather events.

Similarly, the Caribbean country of Dominica plans to adopt and provide training for a Green Building Code, and Grenada called for energy efficiency building codes in order to reach its national goal of a 30 percent reduction in emissions from 2010 levels by 2025.

Don’t Forget Existing Buildings

Because buildings last for 40 to 100 years or more, retrofitting the technology in existing buildings is an important opportunity for improving energy performance and resilience. For example, the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, is retrofitting buildings to incorporate rainwater harvesting, solar cells and other sustainable building features. Grenada, Palau and Saint Vincent and Grenadines also listed retrofits within their NDCs as ways they plan to mitigate climate change.

Reducing Emissions, Attracting Visitors

As climate change threatens beachfront resorts that provide a main source of revenue for many island nations, building efficiency strategies can encourage economic growth while also cutting emissions and resource use. The Bahamas plans to promote energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy in hotels and other tourist destinations. According to the country’s national climate commitment, this will lead to a more sustainable tourism industry—a growing selling point for travelers. Grenada also encourages resorts to adopt energy-efficient infrastructure. In fact, the island nation plans to make hotels so energy-efficient that they will cut emissions by 20 percent. The plan includes a tax incentive for solar panels and solar water heaters at hotels.

Furthermore, the 32 national hotel associations in the Caribbean that participate in the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association have recognized the link between a successful island economy and climate change. The association created Caribbean Hotel Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Action (CHENACT), which works to increase the competitiveness of hotels through lower operating costs and an environmentally-positive image. Participating hotels have generated energy savings of 20 – 30 percent with a 5 year payback period. As demonstrated through CHENACT, improving building efficiency in tourism simultaneously strengthens the backbone of island economies, reduces emissions and helps local industries adapt to the effects of climate change.

The Unfairness Factor

Climate change is a global problem, but its effects aren’t felt equally around the world, and small islands are among the most vulnerable places on Earth. There’s an unfairness factor here, since these islands generally have some of the lowest emissions on the planet, even as their citizens and leaders are taking some of the boldest climate action.

This is truly an example of leadership from which the rest of the world can learn. These small island states are demonstrating that, for building efficiency, climate change mitigation and adaptation are two sides of the same coin and that every nation, no matter how large or small, can contribute to solving climate change.

LEARN MORE: For updates on buildings as a solution for cities of the future subscribe to the Building Efficiency Initiative newsletter. For more on what you and your leaders can do, read Accelerating Building Efficiency: Eight Actions for Urban Leaders.

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