Cuba Has Lessons for Canada’s Energy Minister

An Open Letter to the Prime Minister
by Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff

Cuba’s environmental revolution gets top grades.

Dear Prime Minister Chrétien:

While in Havana a few weeks ago we had the chance to talk briefly with External Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy. We told him how in 1989, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba was hit with an ominous energy crisis. Suddenly their energy supply was cut by over 50%. They responded swiftly and creatively by putting over two million bicycles into use for transportation, by converting to organic agriculture, and by investing in renewable energy. Sounds too brilliant to be true.

Back in Canada the media carried a story about how Environment Minister Sergio Marchi is frustrated that Anne McLellan, Canada’s Energy Minister, has been too slow to address the global problem of climate change. It’s refreshing that a fellow Cabinet member is calling a spade a spade.

Minister McLellan may think that by avoiding the problem it will go away, but the globe’s weather patterns are already re-acting to climate change with growing turbulence and serious changes in the ice pack and permafrost in the Arctic and Antarctic. Scientists around the world agree that something has to be done, and fast.

Clearly, much more needs to be done in our country, and without delay. It’s unacceptable to not meet our international commitments to reduce CO2 output. As one of the worst, if not the worst, per capita contributor to climate change, we can only guess that Ms. McLellan is either being blocked by powerful private interests (namely the fossil fuels lobby) who are trying to pre-empt the public good, or that she suffers from a lack of inspiration.

We suggest that you send Anne to Cuba.

We know of no other country that has been as quick or effective at addressing energy issues.

Renewable Energy

After the drastic oil cuts Cuba began a massive campaign to invest in renewable forms of energy. Photovoltaic systems to generate electricity from the sun have been built, thousands of windmills have been installed to generate electricity and pump water, and waste from sugar mills is being burned to produce electricity. Small scale hydro plants have been installed to meet the electricity needs of over 30,000 Cubans.


For transportation Cubans now rely on buses and bicycles. In the early 1990’s Cuba imported over a million Chinese bicycles and established six bicycle factories to build hundreds of thousands of their own models. Now, in cities and towns, bicycles are used for everything from getting to work to transporting goods. Bicycle taxis are everywhere on the streets of Havana.

Organic Agriculture

Along with the energy crisis came a reduction of more than half of the imports of fertilizer and pesticides, both petroleum products. Out of this crisis Cuba began the largest conversion to organic farming of any country on Earth.

By switching away from heavy machinery and towards animal traction, air emissions are lessened and soil compaction reduced. And in moving away from chemical fertilizers and pesticides has reduced water pollution from agrichemical run-off.

Cuba’s organic agriculture initiatives aim to build up the soil’s natural health and resistance to pests using natural rather than synthetic means. Crop rotation, companion planting, biological pest control and worms help to restore healthy soil as well as naturally decompose organic materials. There has been a renewed interest in urban gardens as well.

CO2 Reduction

Cuba’s ecological accomplishments are impressive. Since 1988 the nations of the world have been wrestling with the question of how to change our ways and address the problem of climate change. It is generally agreed that we must collectively stabilize, and then reduce by 20% initially, and finally by 60% our emissions of greenhouse gases. These gases are the by-products of burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

There has been much handwringing and complaining about how hard it will be to reach these targets. Yet somehow each Cuban survives on less than 4% the energy of a typical North American. (We consume 59 barrels of oil per person per year. Before the crisis Cubans consumed four barrels per person, and it’s now down to two.) This in a country that is 96% electrified.

Perhaps a visit to Cuba would show Minister McLellan that when a country actually has the best interests of all its citizens at heart, regardless of its GNP, it can do amazing things and resolve a crisis. Ms. McLellan was one of the cheerleaders for giving billions of dollars in tax breaks to the tar sands industry so that operations would expand. How about a few billion to make it more attractive for cyclists to ride in our cities, to expand organic agriculture, or to increase the number of renewable energy projects like the windmill farms in Pincher Creek, Alberta?

If Canada was to attempt even a fraction of what the Cubans have already accomplished, the whole world might be inspired. Canada has committed to action at numerous international meetings. Enough talk: it’s time to act. And with an election in the wind, Mr. Prime Minister, you might even impress a few of your own compatriots.

We await your reply.

Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff


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