Sustainability and Environmental challenges

Jamaica is already being affected by climate change. Both North and South coastal zones of the country have to deal with the consequences of sea level rise. Rainfall is increasing over the centre of the island and decreasing over the eastern and western parishes. Increases in temperatures are most likely to happen in the interior region and could reach 0.82°C to 3.09°C by 2100. Droughts are predicted to become more extensive and intense by the 2030s, while hurricanes are expected to become less frequent but more intense (Jamaica NDC). Furthermore, climate change is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in the region.

Jamaica ranks among the top three most exposed countries in the world to multiple natural hazards. It has the second highest economic risk exposure to two or more hazards (96.3% of GDP) with 96.3% of the national population and 94.9% of the national territory at risk (GFDRR)The areas most exposed to and least equipped to deal with hazards such as floods and hurricanes are along the coast, where most of Jamaica’s capital towns are located. Unplanned settlements in environmentally sensitive lands (flood plains and unstable slopes) add to the risk of natural hazards becoming disasters and the levels of damage possible. Earthquakes are also a risk, as the island lies on five major fault lines. Major infrastructure along these coastlines equally increase vulnerability to hazard impacts, particularly as most infrastructure was not built to withstand disasters.

Jamaica lacks not only a comprehensive legislative, regulatory and institutional framework but also the technical and financial resources to adequately manage waste (GOJ, 2018 a). Approximately 10-30% of surface water and groundwater are polluted by improper disposal of waste, saline intrusion, untreated sewage, and industrial effluents. Groundwater pollution mainly comes from nitrate contamination from sewage; saline intrusion, and discharge of agro-industrial wastewater (GOJ, 2019; GEF Crew, 2017). Further, a weak national sanitation network and up to 80% non-compliant sewage treatment plants also drive pollution. The estimated per capita waste generation was estimated to be about 1.2 kg/day, which is expected to increase to 1.5 kg/day per person subject to the influence of factors such as population increase and changes in consumption patterns (GOJ, 2018). Pollution is pervasive and illegal dumping is common place in some communities with large volumes of wastes being dumped in gullies and rivers leading to flooding and pollutants in marine environments. Air pollution is affected by emissions from the transportation sector and well as from burning of waste.

Overexploitation of natural resources also poses a risk to the Jamaican environment as well as its ecosystem services and biological diversity. Forest lands have slightly increased in the country over the last decade, from 558,000 to 593,000 hectares (FAOSTAT), however, wetland areas (mainly swamp forests) experienced a loss of roughly 95% for the 1998-2013 period. Overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices have resulted in declining fish stocks and declining reef health. Jamaica’s coral reef health index, which is currently rated as “poor” reached an unprecedented low in 2020 (2.0) after steadily declining over the past decade (NEPA, 2021).

Jamaica achieved absolute decoupling of economic development from raw material consumption for the 1990-2015 period. While national GDP grew 300% during this period, the material footprint grew only 40%, denoting a downward trend in the economy’s material intensity. Notwithstanding, material productivity in the country has not shown great advances since the turn of the century: estimates indicate that the nation currently generates USD 0.50 per kilo of raw material extracted, against a rate of 0.60 USD/kg in 2000. Most of the escalation in raw material extraction reported in the country was driven by foreign demands (UNEP SCP-HAT).

Reliance on fossil fuels is also a key challenge though the country has made positive strides in renewable energy solutions. In 2014, 80% of energy was based on imported fossil fuel (World Bank, 2020), which is slowly decreasing (from 86% in 2008) as investments are being made in renewable energy solutions. By 2019, 16% of installed capacity consisted of renewable energy, with wind power making up the largest share. Another challenge is low agricultural productivity, evidenced by a decrease in output per hectare between 2001 and 2017, while it increased by 28% worldwide and by 4% for small Caribbean states.

Analysis of drivers of environmental degradation

The key drivers of environmental change in Jamaica are:

  • Population Growth
  • Economic Growth 
  • Food Production
  • Water Needs 
  • Climate Change/Variability and Natural Hazards.

Overall, with a relatively stable population, Jamaica’s demand for natural resources and generation of waste would also be expected to be stable. However, more than 58% of Jamaica’s population lives in urban spaces and, further, internal migration to urban areas continues to increase, placing high levels of stress on urban areas and nearshore ecosystems.

Economic challenges potentially decrease the prioritization of environmental advances by, for example, postponing necessary investments in green infrastructure, such as in the generation of renewable energies.

Furthermore, the current economic crisis is likely to affect the country’s ability to manage the high costs associated with adaptation and mitigation efforts to accommodate for climate change as well as people’s ability to build up coping mechanisms to deal with future hazards. This relates strongly to the economic marginalization of certain groups as well.

Food production in Jamaica is characterized by a myriad of realised and potential environmental impacts due to the agricultural sector’s dependence on natural resources. These impacts, exacerbated by adverse hydrometeorological conditions, are mainly related to unsustainable practices on domestic small farms that result in soil erosion (e.g. hillside crops such as yams), agricultural runoff from chemical loads, declines in fish stocks, land conversion and loss/degradation of habitat including marine ecosystems, increased emissions from burning, animal production and energy use in aquaculture, increased waste, reduced productivity and reduced resilience.

Positive trends for the environment are seen in the decline of the sugar industry, which historically have contributed to the occupation of prime lands; reduced on air quality related to cane-field burning and bagasse furnaces; pesticide and fertilizer use; cane wash water and contamination water resources from the use of dunder for irrigation. For crops where production increases, it is expected that environmental impacts will also increase especially in the absence of sustainable practices. Considering the low productivity currently being experienced in the sector, coupled with economic challenges, environmental impacts could also increase with the resulting unsustainable increases in farming and fishing efforts.

According to analysis by NEPA, current levels of water allocation indicate a ‘heavily exploited’ state (fraction of water allocated over the total exploitable potential). “The amount of water allocated increased steadily for all sectors through the 2014-2017 period, especially for the industrial sector (31% increase). Water production also increased (+8%) in the same period and the amount of water supplied per capita in 2017 was slightly higher than in 2014. This trend of increasing water demand is also reflected in the number of water abstraction applications processed and approved, which increased by 113% and 78%, respectively.”

Jamaica is vulnerable to climate change and prone to several hazards, including floods, earthquakes, landslides, and droughts. Climate change has the potential to exacerbate food insecurity, water stress, natural disasters, human health risks and harm the productivity of economic sectors reliant on a stable climate (GOJ 2015). While the country has experienced decreasing per capita CO2 emissions there is also a continued trend in warmer and drier conditions. For the 2014-2017 period departure in air temperature was 0.6˚C above the climate mean and the national average rainfall was 6% below the climate mean, which contributed to normal to extreme droughts, adversely affecting agriculture and aquaculture, food prices, water and energy supplies.

Human-induced hazards (air pollution, oil spills, sewage discharge etc.), which declined from 2013-2017 lead to human (death) and economic costs (storm damage) and have an impact on the state of environmental resources and ecosystems.

Analysis of combined environmental impacts
Life on Land:

The land-based impacts of environmental degradation in Jamaica, all of which are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, are linked to a number of industries including  tourism, forestry, agriculture, manufacturing and transportation. Deforestation and other activities that degrade forests such as agricultural expansion and coastal development due to tourism and urbanisation can severely diminish the services that forest ecosystems (including mangroves) provide, causing a ripple effect that negatively affects the ecosystems to which forests are inextricably linked.

Disturbance of primary forest, which increases erosion and reduces the filtration of water through soils, is closely linked to the degradation of watersheds. Poor road construction, inadequate drainage and mining/quarrying exacerbate the hazards that also lead to erosion and landslides. This is compounded by the effects of unsustainable farming and over-grazing on hillsides along with the release of pollutants from various sectors. The resilience of the island’s watersheds is also susceptible to the impacts of drought, climate change and extreme natural events. These impacts on freshwater result in consequences for public health and for Jamaica’s biodiversity.

Environmental degradation also impacts the physical habitats of Jamaica’s flora and fauna, some of which are endemic species and some of which are critically endangered. In addition to habitat loss, and pollution, terrestrial biodiversity is threatened by overexploitation, including poaching, and invasive alien species. Habitat losses can also be seen in coastal wetland and mangrove ecosystems, which have the added purpose of protecting coastlines from hurricanes, storm surges and saline intrusion.

Land-based pollution is particularly concerning because of its pervasiveness in practically every sector. Further, the incidence of fires in landfills, a contributor of air pollution in the country, is at risk of increasing with the warmer temperature and more severe droughts ushered in by climate change. The transportation and manufacturing sectors are also linked to poor air quality, which in turn is linked to public health, a result that is especially concerning for persons living in urban areas or in places downstream or in close proximity to industrial areas.

Life Below Water: 

Impacts on marine and coastal resources in Jamaica are mainly linked to activities within the tourism, fisheries, and agricultural sectors. Marine environments are plagued by high levels of pollution and overfishing. These impacts are exacerbated by and partially due to immense pressures from the physical and operational footprint of mass tourism, which are typically located within sensitive coastal areas despite also relying on the good health of these ecosystems to entertain and feed visitors. The current trend towards urbanisation, also puts pressures on coastal areas by virtue of the location of most cities as well as the fact that systems (e.g. waste management), practices (overexploitation), and mentalities are, by and large, misaligned with sustainability and conservation. Poorly planned coastal development also threatens Jamaica’s reefs, mangroves and other coastal ecosystems.

The agricultural sector, including aquaculture and forestry, contributes to the degradation of marine environments when, for example, nutrients and pollutants from farms cause eutrophication, and soil erosion results in sedimentation. More sustainable practices within agriculture are therefore necessary to protect coastal resources. Sea-based pollution from shipping activities, illegal dumping among others, also contributes to the impacts felt by life below water, which are also impacted by disease (e.g. stony coral tissue loss disease) and invasive alien species (e.g. lionfish). Marine and coastal resources are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Climate change, in particular higher water temperatures (leading to coral bleaching), ocean acidification, sea level rise and increasing intensity of extreme events, has been a main factor in the deteriorating health of the reefs (NEPA, 2021). The results over these combined pressures is a marine and coastal environment that is reliant on strong policy and enforcement to protect the natural resources.

Climate Change:

Climate change is compounded by poverty, development in high-risk areas and environmental degradation, and therefore has the potential to exacerbate food insecurity, water stress, natural disasters, human health risks and harm the productivity of economic sectors reliant on a stable climate (GOJ, 2015). Further, the high economic and social costs of natural disasters in Jamaica impede the country’s attempts to reduce disaster risk or build national resilience. 

Climate change is further impeding resilience-building efforts by diverting scarce resources earmarked for development projects to disaster relief and reconstruction, thereby delaying economic growth (Vision 2030). COVID-19 and an active 2020 hurricane season have further added to this issue. Hydro-meteorological events were estimated to have generated approximately USD 128 billion of losses and damages between 2000 and 2017, not including indirect impacts on local societies and national GDP (PIOJ, 2018). As a parameter, hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Dean (2007) - amongst the most destructive for the country in this century – were estimated to have caused 8% and 3.4% of losses on Jamaica’s GDP, respectively (NFM). In 2012 Hurricane Sandy caused losses of J$9.7 billion in direct and indirect damage. Health, housing and education sectors – the cornerstones of disaster recovery – experienced the greatest impact accounting for 48% of the total costs in damages.

Inadequate waste management procedures both in ‘normal times’ and disaster recovery have been highlighted as a barrier to building national resilience and mitigating disaster effects. Accumulated waste prevents rainwater from draining thereby contributing to creating a disaster; becomes a health hazard when collection is hampered by a disaster; and inhibits the recovery process by preventing easy passing of vehicles and residential clear up.

Hydrometeorological hazards such as prolonged periods of drought and periods of excess rainfall not only affect the crop growing season but also create more favourable conditions for emerging pests and diseases and affect farmers’ capacity to bring products to market, worsened in 2020 by the movement restrictions associated with COVID-19.

Data Gaps

Jamaica’s environmental data ecosystem is weak. Continued progress towards free and open access to data and information, facilitated, for example, through and, needs to be prioritized because environmental information is often scattered and disaggregated (UNEP, 2016). Policies, technical capacity, and technological solutions also need strengthening and integrating to achieve cohesiveness in management.

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica, in a 2019 presentation prepared for an Environment Statistics and Climate Change Statistics Workshop, reported the following national challenges:

  • No data available for some environment statistics and indicators.
  • Data was only available for some through surveys and censuses which may be every five or 10 years.
  • No memoranda of understanding with agencies to provide data. Personal contact through e-mails, phone calls or personal visits.
  • No metadata provided with information received from agencies.
  • Some agencies not equipped with staff or other resources to collect data needed.
  • Limited staff available to produce environment statistics.
  • Agencies sometimes don’t see need for data.

Further, based on an assessment of the national statistical capacity to report on the SDG indicators (Jamaica Voluntary National Report (PIOJ 2018b and STATIN 2018)) Jamaica has less than 50% capacity to produce any of the requisite indicators (with the exception of Goal 3 – health). In general, data to support reporting in environmental areas are quite poor:

  • SDG 6 Water and sanitation: 45% data available
  • SDG11 Sustainable cities and communities: <35% data available
  • SDG 15 Life on land: <30% data available
  • SDG 7 Energy: <20% data available
  • SDG 13 Climate action: <15% data available
  • SDG 14 Life below water: <10% data available
  • SDG 12 Consumption and production: no data available

STATIN further recognises that the need for the development of a National Statistics System (NSS) for Jamaica is essential if it and the other data producers are to respond effectively to the SDGs and other reporting obligations. To that end, the institute has conducted an assessment of the statistical capacity of Ministries, Department and Agencies with technical and financial assistance from the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21). (STATIN, 2018)

Over the years, CARICOM has also supported the strengthening of the statistical and data capacity of its Member States including through the recently completed Regional Strategy for the Development of Statistics (RSDS) for the period 2019-2030 as well as regional workshops for statistical offices and environmental agencies to develop statistics and to build capacity within countries through the production of national environmental compendia. In addition, some Member States and Associate Members have established an inter-agency collaboration at the national level in this area of statistics comprising the relevant stakeholders that can provide the missing data and corresponding metadata on environmental statistics.

According to the “Statistical Capacity Building For The Production Of Key Statistics In The Caribbean Community” CARICOM compiles Environment Statistics and Indicators on twelve indicator themes: Population and Households, Tourism, Environmental Health, Natural Disasters, Energy and Minerals, Land Use and Agriculture, Coastal and Marine Resources, Biodiversity, Forest, Air, Waste and Water. These indicators are disseminated in the CARICOM Environment in Figures publications.

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Source: Planning Institute of Jamaica
Example of Data Gaps by Environmental Theme:


  • Jamaica needs to update and report on a Biodiversity Habitat Index but is limited by resources and access to relevant remotely sensed data.
  • No centralized database for validated biodiversity data.
  • Endemic species lack sufficient data to make valid science-based conservation decisions
  • Insufficient monitoring of invasive alien species


  • In general, there is greater data availability for temperature and rainfall than for sea surface temperatures, droughts and floods and sea level rise.
  • Gaps in Jamaica’s meteorological data coverage, with some parishes (e.g. St. Ann) having inadequate stations to capture its climatic variations.

Environmental Health

  • Insufficient data to assess risk of diseases and losses caused by environmental factors (air quality, contaminated water, poisoning).


  • Insufficient data to calculate the material footprint/capita.
  • Insufficient data to gauge the environmental footprint/impact of the mining and quarrying sector

Fisheries / Oceans

  • The number of monitored coral reef survey sites around the island is limited to 26 sites; data access can also be an issue.
  • No data on ocean acidification a key indicator of SDG 14.
  • Gaps in data on coastal water quality, beach erosion rates and erosion risk at turtle nesting sites.
  • Insufficient data available to properly manage offshore cays and banks


  • Lack of routine data collection and insufficient inter-agency coordination to properly assess the changes in watershed status

Green Economy / Natural Resource Consumption

  • No data on indicator 12.2.1, material footprint, which is an estimate of the net raw materials consumed in a country, taking into account imports and exports.
  • No data on indicator 12.c.1, amount of fossil-fuel subsidies per unit of GDP (production and consumption) and as a proportion of total national expenditure on fossil fuels.

Hazards & Disasters

  • Lack of centralized publicly accessible digital database on indicators relating to hazards and disasters.

Land Use

  • Major data gaps exist in relation to spatial planning
  • Information needed to determine ratio of land consumption to population growth rate in cities (SDG indicator 11.3.1)

Waste & Pollution

  • Lack of consistently reported data on indicator 12.4.2, hazardous waste generated (per capita) and proportion of hazardous waste treated by type of intervention (methodology is still under development).
  • No data on indicator 12.5.2, national recycling rate (tons of material recycled) (Methodology still under development).
  • General lack of comprehensive and representative data coverage in air quality.
  • Data recovery from the air quality monitoring network is variable and inconsistent especially outside of Kingston.
  • A suitable indicator to reflect extent of plastic pollution not yet been developed.
Policy and strategy reponses

Jamaica has a strong institutional and policy framework to address climate change, manage natural resources and ensure adequate disaster risk reduction management. It lives up to its international commitments (Paris Agreement, Convention on Biological Diversity, the Montreal Protocol, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and Cartagena Convention, among others, though it has not signed the Nagoya Protocol.

The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), established in April 2001 as an Executive Agency under the Executive Agencies Act, is the primary government agency responsible for managing the country’s natural resources and environment. NEPA operates under the following acts: Executive Agencies Act; The Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act; The Town and Country Planning Act; The Land Development and Utilization Act; The Beach Control Act; The Watersheds Protection Act; The Wildlife Protection Act; and Endangered Species Act.

The two development banks working in the region, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the Caribbean Development Bank (CBD), also contribute to environmental governance and financing of sustainable development in the region (UNEP, 2016). Further, the private sector, civil society and NGOs in Jamaica have sought to raise awareness of key environmental issues and have also participated in the management of natural resources such as marine sanctuaries (special fishery conservation areas). They also provide much needed funding and environmental grants. These players include the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ), The Nature Conservancy, and more recently Recycling Partners of Jamaica.

Jamaica has been robust in its efforts to implement the Paris Agreement, despite being a developing nation that has contributed little to the climate crisis (2015 per capita GHG emissions were 45% below the global average). In June 2020, Jamaica was the first country in the Caribbean to submit a tougher climate action plan (GOJ, 2020). The new plan incorporates emissions from the land use change and forestry sector as well as a further decrease in energy sector emissions, projecting 25.4% emissions reduction relative to business-as-usual levels by 2030, or a further 28.5% reduction with conditional international support. Climate change and disaster risk reduction are also prioritised under National Outcome #14 ‘Hazard Risk Reduction and Adaptation to Climate Change’ in Vision 2030 and also in the National Climate Change Policy of Jamaica (2016).

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Mangrove Planting 2015: People Planting Young Mangrove Plants In Port Royal, Replanting Of Areas, Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR/UNEP Jamaica

There have been several milestones in the efforts of the Government to advance the National Waste Management Policy and reduce the pervasive pollution problem. Of note is the well-received “Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica” public education campaign led by the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET). Further, a fire suppression system was installed at the Riverton Disposal Site to mitigate the effects of a fire and a UNEP Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI) project was launched in 2015 to promote more efficient fuels and to stabilize emissions and reduce air pollution (GOJ, 2018 b). Of note, are efforts by the NSWMA to promote waste separation for organic waste/compost which are currently underway as well as the action and creation of the Recycling Partner of Jamaica, formed by public and private partnership, with the Government of Jamaica, under the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, and several private partners.

On a policy level, Jamaica submitted its instrument of ratification to the Protocol Concerning Pollution from Land-Based Sources and Activities under the Cartagena Convention and continued implementation in other agreements. Jamaica also introduced a single-use plastics ban in 2019 banning the importation, manufacture, distribution and use of single-use plastic bags (of certain sizes), plastic straws and polystyrene foam (‘Styrofoam’) for use in the food and drink industry. In 2020, the ban was extended to cover the domestic manufacture of these items. The ban is complemented by a Plastic Waste Minimisation project, which is supported by the Sub-Regional Office, UNEP.

As a means of safeguarding its natural resources, Jamaica has 126 forest reserves; totalling 1,862 hectares protected exclusively under conservation purposes. The proportion of forest area under a long-term management plan increased from 17.1 % in 2000 to 18.9% in 2020. In October 2019, the country launched the “National Tree Planting Initiative” to plant 3 million timber, fruit and ornamental trees over three years and further the Forest Policy for Jamaica (2016) support the conservation of all forests to achieve no net forest loss in the country, in alignment with targets 5 and 7 of the CBD (GOJ, 2019).

The National Strategy and Action Plan on Biological Diversity in Jamaica (NBSAP) was updated in 2016, promising significant enhancement of the effectiveness of biodiversity protection. Additional strides have been made to protect Jamaica’s biodiversity including implementation of initiatives such as the Jamaica Iguana Recovery Program.

Despite participating in a range of environmental policies and agreements as well as integrating good governance strategies, Jamaica faces several challenges when it comes to environmental governance.


Bianca Jo Young, Consultant

UNEP’s Latin America and the Caribbean Office


Specific documentation from the country
DataViz - Iframe