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Can We Learn From Cuba’s Sustainable Revolution?

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

Cuban organic urban agriculture. Pedro Munoz, left, and his son David work on the 7,500-square meter plot of land they share with two other families, in the La Lisa municipality of Havana, Cuba. ,In a country shut out from global economy people like the Munozes are spearheading a trend towards organic urban agriculture copied from New York to Sydney, (Photo credit: Bloomberg)

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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Renewable electricity production is still very small, at 4.5% of the national grid. Oil and gas still account for most power generation. In Cuba’s case, what has been more significant in driving sustainable outcomes has been energy efficiency. For example, solar water heaters do not require electricity, and proximity farming reduce demand for transport and refrigeration. There are still many challenges, and Cuba is currently behind its own schedule towards more renewable energy production. On this point, the government had set a target of 24% for 2030.

Let’s imagine if we did that everywhere else. For example, the London School of Economics highlighted that “in the UK households reportedly used around 30% less energy in 2017 than in 1970, largely due to energy efficiency policies”. The report also pointed out criticism of measures having been taken half-heartedly. The two countries have extremely different circumstances; however, the report offers a glimpse into the effect of energy efficiency. What if we seriously committed to this idea?

Cuba has also promoted growing food domestically, including in urban areas. This has involved private farmers, cooperatives, and state actors. This had led to a rise in organic agriculture and brought production and consumption close together. Small-scale farmers from across the developing world have been learning from methods developed in this Caribbean island. This may seem of little importance in the US or Europe, but their work is crucial in feeding and employing hundreds of millions less developed countries.

On this sector, the WWF also produced different reports on various aspects of Cuba’s environmentalist drive. Home to 2 million inhabitants, Havana is also full of urban farms. They “produce between 45% to 100% of its fresh vegetables (various annual estimates), and up to 20% of the national fresh food total”. The wide variance is due to weather events and the prices and availability of imports. Economist Sinan Koont estimates that “more than 35,000 hectares of land are being used in urban agriculture in Havana”.

It is also noteworthy that the island was a plantation colony, where cash crops dominated right into independence and communist rule. In the last 25 years, however, Cubans have committed to reforestation. In 2015, a report pointed out that then 30.6% of the country was covered in forests, up from an estimated 14% around the time of the revolution in 1959. Before Spanish colonisation, forest coverage is estimated to have been 90%.

Britain's Prince Charles (C) next to the Vice-President of the Council of State of Cuba Ramiro Valdes (3-L) cuts the ribbon during the cornerstone laying ceremony of a photovoltaic park at Mariel Special Economic Development Zone in Artemisa province, Cuba on March 26, 2019.   (Photo by Yamil Lage / Agence France-Presse - AFP)

Due to the blockade, Cubans have also been pushed to innovate reusing, repairing, and recycling whatever they cannot source from imports. Note that production is also affected by sanctions, so it is equally difficult for Cubans to create a strong manufacturing sector. Though this proves there is an important potential, conditions are often not ideal. Surely Cubans are fed up with old cars, and could gladly do with newer, more energy-efficient models. In the same line, much innovation takes place in an environment full of hardship and desperation.

Now let us turn all this on its head. What if, instead of being pushed into being more sustainable, we incentivise innovation around the world? Can we take the same ideas into a different context? Surely there are many ways to harness energy. In Cuba they prefer solar given their climate, from panels to water heaters. Elsewhere geothermal, hydroelectric, nuclear, hydrogen or others will be the cleaner, most cost-effective way. Likewise, there are methods for energy conservation such as using building methods to cool down, whereas in other places architects should pursue insulation. Can we imagine the potential of the same effort, but in a developed economy? We cannot just brush aside all ideas and lessons because of Cuba’s form of government. Can we act with the same innovativeness and commitment as ordinary Cubans are doing, out of necessity, before it is too late?

[Elias Ferrer Breda is the editor of an emerging markets blog at Forbes, and previously contributed to magazines such as Le Monde Diplomatique and The European. He has reported from the ground, including visits to Algeria and Venezuela. He graduated in Development Studies from SOAS, University of London.]