By Hayley Martinez
For many people, the island of Aruba probably generates images of Caribbean vacations and sunny beach resorts. However, those images should also include wind turbines, solar panels and renovated infrastructure, to capture the sustainability agenda that is moving Aruba towards a fossil fuel-free economy.
Last week, Earth Institute Executive Director Steven Cohen hosted the prime minister of Aruba, Mike Eman, for a discussion on Aruba’s Vision for Creating Sustainable Prosperity. The talk was attended by students from a wide range of Columbia’s sustainability programs, as well as local Arubans, several Aruban delegates, and members of the New York City community.
Aruba is a small island, just over two times the size of Manhattan, but has a government that actively examines and improves the political and economic models that guide decision-making on all levels. In his talk, Eman first described the evolution of Aruba’s economy from a quiet, less-developed country in the 1950s through a period of tough economic challenges in the 1980s, when the unemployment rate reached 35 percent. What followed was a jump in the nation’s economy afforded by intensive development in the tourism industry. GDP grew from $415 million in 1986 to $2.9 billion in 2011.
However, although the economy grew quickly in this time period, the economic well-being of the country didn’t translate to the well-being of Aruba’s roughly 100,000 citizens. Measures of happiness and quality of education didn’t meet the same levels of growth as GDP.
The government realized it needed to rethink its whole economic model to better include social measures of well-being. To do this, they opened up political dialogue to the community and organized town hall-style meetings to get input from a wider range of stakeholders. They recognized that physical improvements could affect social changes and create greater opportunities for local citizens. The changes they made revitalized a number of areas, creating public spaces for neighborhood improvement, restoring and renovating historical buildings, and adding streetcars to create access between the waterfront and traditional downtown areas.
Prime Minister Eman and his team placed a great emphasis on the energy pillar of sustainability. Aruba does not produce any fossil fuels on the island, and until recently, it was entirely reliant on imported oil. With the high price of importing oil, it is very costly to generate electricity and desalinate water. For those reasons, Aruba has recently placed great emphasis on sustainable energy production, and announced its goal of becoming completely fossil fuel-free by 2020 at the Rio Earth Summit in 2012. To help facilitate this transition, Aruba entered in a partnership with the Carbon War Room, an independent nonprofit that focuses on accelerating adoption of business solutions to reduce carbon emissions.
Aruba is already well underway to achieving this goal. About 20 percent of the island’s electricity comes from a newly built wind farm. Plans are also proceeding for another wind farm in 2015 and solar park at the island’s airport, which will create shade for cars in the parking lot while generating 5 percent of the island’s electricity. Since beginning these renewable energy initiatives, Aruba has cut its oil imports in half. The government has also promoted greater household application of solar and wind, by reducing duties on renewable energy imports and hybrid and electric cars, to encourage residential use of renewable energy.
In his talk, Eman acknowledged that these goals are ambitious, requiring capital investment that won’t come easily; but they are important for thinking beyond economic growth measures like GDP, to a wider view that emphasizes quality of life for Aruba’s people. Aruba’s goals encompass everything from transitioning to renewable energy and developing a sustainable economy, to creating conditions for stronger communities and protecting the quality of the natural environment. The island is well on its way to becoming the first fully sustainable island on earth.
The prime minister acknowledged that Aruba is small, but “has the stuff” for building a sustainable future; many other islands in the Caribbean are already following Aruba’s lead by switching to renewable energy sources, and like Aruba are starting to feel the health and economic benefits of that switch.
Hayley Martinez is program coordinator in the Executive Director’s Office of the Earth Institute.