Thursday, 22 January 2009 13:01

Mexico unveils largest wind farm in Latin America

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Mexico recently began generating electricity from the largest wind farm in Latin America, reports the Associated Press:
Mexico is trying to exploit its rich wind and solar potential after relying almost exclusively on petroleum. With oil production down by 9.2 percent in 2008, Mexico now is turning to foreign companies, mainly Spanish, to tap its renewable riches. "If we don't do something about this problem of climate change it probably could become — I'm sure it already is — one of the biggest threats to humanity," said President Felipe Calderon at the inaugural ceremony attended by about 1,000 residents. But the project hasn't been welcomed by some local residents. The mayor of Juchitan, the municipality where La Ventosa is located, attended the ceremony but called for more benefits for the local community. Protesters argue that foreign companies build the turbines, rent the land, run the project and produce the power for companies like U.S.-owned retailer Wal-Mart. "They promise progress and jobs, and talk about millions in investment in clean energy from the winds that blow through our region," a leftist farm group known as the Assembly in Defense of the Land said in a statement. The group is calling on supporters to "defend the land we inherited from our ancestors." But so far it hasn't been able to stop the project. Spanish energy company Acciona Energia, for its part, says the construction of the project created 850 jobs. It will produce enough energy to power a city of 500,000 people while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 600,000 metric tons each year. Esteban Morras, Acciona board member, said the project could be just the start for Mexico. "This country has great potential for wind development and should take advantage," he said.
Paddling against the tide of conventional reporting on the main issues currently hamstringing US-Latin American relations, Andres Oppenheimer, reports on a new energy cooperation deal allegedly being cooked up by President Obama.
Last week, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton elevated the idea to a maximum regional priority during her confirmation hearings. In her opening statement, when she got to Latin America - almost at the end of her foreign policy priorities - her most specific proposal was "taking up the president-elect's call for a new Energy Partnership of the Americas."
The exciting part of this idea is that it could give US-Latin American relations a much needed boost. Latin American governments have been on the sharp end of US diplomacy, as the Bush administration failed to give sufficient attention to the region, and when it did, its knee-jerk policies on illegal immigrants and drugs have created nothing but resentment and frustration.
"There is free trade fatigue and anti-drug fatigue in Latin America,'' a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told me. ``Energy opens a new path to relations with the hemisphere and is consistent with the president-elect's overall energy and climate change objectives."
If President Obama is serious about tackling climate change and energy insecurity, fostering closer relations with Latin American leaders should be a top priority. A number of Latin American countries are trailblazing on climate change and renewable energy and the new president would do well to acknowledge this progress and step up the dialogue on these issues. As early as 2002, renewable energy sources already made up over a quarter of the total energy supply in Latin America and the Caribbean, making the European target of 20% renewables by 2020 in comparison seem rather modest. Given the US President’s foreign policy priorities elsewhere, Latin America may fail even to appear on the radar. However, if Obama really wants to get the ball rolling on climate change and energy insecurity, attending the 5th Summit of the Americas with the aim of creating a regional energy partnership would be a great place to start.
The Think Tank Index published in Foreign Policy makes dire reading for anyone interested in climate change. Even though it is now considered a priority for world leaders, none of the winners have significant programmes on climate change as conventional foreign policy concerns dominate the rapidly warming land of Wonk. In Latin America the situation is identical with the best think tanks yet to develop any credibility on the subject.

It seems counter-intuitive that an issue which has scaled the slimly ladder of global political agendas and gained it’s proponents a Nobel Prize is not yet a major research interest of the world’s best think-tanks.

Given the ongoing debates and complex nature of the problem, climate experts have struggled to effectively communicate climate change into a digestible challenge for those influencing policy. The lack of interest within the think thank community is also because economists and social policy experts have only recently began to get stuck into the debate.

The index’s selection criteria are also biased against fresh issues like climate change. Even though 5,465 organisations were identified, criterion such as a think tank’s ability to retain elite analysts does not represent a fair assessment. Analysts on climate change are so new to their think tank jobs that whether they have found the stationary cupboard seems more relevant than how soon they might be leaving.

Latin American think tanks need to wake up and shift with the raising tide of opinion on global warming otherwise they risk becoming submerged in obscurity.

Firstly, climate change is beginning to position itself as a foreign policy concern for Latin American governments. In 2008 the European Union – Latin American and the Caribbean Summit wedged global warming firmly on the agenda, where as leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Peru reaffirmed their commitment to a declaration on climate change and energy security.

Although we should always regard these meetings with a little scepticism, the fact that Brazil and Mexico are developing national climate change strategies and Costa Rica plans to become carbon neutral by 2021 suggests this political lip service is more than a passing fad.

Secondly, studies on the economics of climate change and other climate initiatives are being carried out by regional organisations including the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Latino think tanks need to run with these agendas and capitalise on the political momentum by incorporating climate change into their programmes immediately.

Let’s hope by the end of 2009 a new list of Latin America’s best think tanks includes some of those working on climate change or at least the current winners that have subsequently developed new programmes on the transition to a low carbon economy.

In the meantime here is an inexhaustible list of think tanks and research institutes in Latin America working on climate change and sustainable development:

Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza – Costa Rica
Fundación Bariloche – Argentina
Chile Sustentable – Chile
Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia – Brazil
Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano – Ecuador
Latin American leaders appear remarkably uninterested in the international conference on climate change currently underway in Poznan, Poland. Before looking for a brighter way forward, we need to understand why this lack of attention is potentially so tragic. Latin America is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. Rainforests could dry up and die back; semi arid regions like the Brazilian Northeast and much of Central America risk becoming useless for agriculture; hurricanes and flooding increasingly pound Caribbean coasts and villages, leaving roads and bridges smashed in their wake. As the region warms, diseases carried by tropical insects spread to new areas. Urban smog and asthma are multiplied by heat waves. For a half century now, development and progress for Latin American planners meant urbanization and industrialization. The focus on economic growth and poverty reduction is entirely legitimate, and the improvements in people’s living standards were measurable. However climate change could deeply erode these development gains, both by climate-related disasters and by undermining the economies of the region. Rather than “decarbonising” itself, Latin America is headed down a very risky energy path. The International Energy Agency projects that energy demand in Latin America will surge over the next 20 years by 75% by 2030, requiring a 144 percent increase in the region’s electricity capacity. Dams have been a low-carbon source of power for decades, but now public opposition to large hydroelectric projects, combined with water scarcity brought on by retreating glaciers and widening drought, is pressuring governments to seek out new supplies of fossil fuels. Oil discoveries in Cuba and the rapid expansion of oil into the Amazon in Ecuador, Peru and Brazil offer tempting opportunities to meet growing demand without major changes in society. However, investments in fossil fuels made now can ‘lock’ governments and their economies into high carbon pathways for a generation or more. This could make the region and it exports extremely vulnerable to price “fluctuations” and consumer boycotts in Europe and North America. They also potentially reverse Latin America’s successful trend in renewable energy and decrease its ability to move to a low carbon economy. Unfortunately, the global North has not been entirely helpful. The blinkered focus of developed countries on mitigation policies such as the Clean Development Mechanism has ensured that strategies geared towards addressing climate change lack coherence and credibility. Aid for the transition needed has been piecemeal and halting. Without support for coherent national programmes of action, Latin America is ill-prepared to adapt to climate change, and not able to boldly restructure its economies. Another way forward? Christina Figueres of Costa Rica’s Poznan negotiating team sees the broader risks and opportunities brought by climate change for Latin America. As she recently argued, “We can act now with international support, or we might be able to act later with less help. Early action improves our competitiveness, and helps us adapt.” Figueres calls for coordinated action in Latin America to make a shift to a low carbon economy. In order to meet increasing demand for energy while limiting the possibility of a massive jump in carbon emissions, she calls for Latin America to launch far reaching energy efficiency policies while building on the region’s largely positive experiences with renewable energy. The Inter-American Development Bank says Latin America could avoid expensive fossil fuel investments in new power infrastructure by adopting affordable technologies to improve energy efficiency. This could save the region an estimated US$36 billion over the next decade. As a result of efforts made after the 1970s oil shocks, the oil-poor region became a leader on renewable energy. Most famous was Brazil’s national experiment with sugar cane-based ethanol. As early as 2002, the share of renewable energy in Latin America and the Caribbean was already more than one quarter of the total energy supply, making the European target of 20% by 2020 look rather modest. Although the use of fossil fuels continues to dominate, Latin America is in an advantageous position given its successful experience with renewable energy compared to other regions. There is enormous potential for wind power, geothermal and hydroelectric and solar power. The UN Environment Programme’s chief Achim Steiner has pointed out that Latin America can thus act as a bridge between industrialised and developing countries in securing a new climate agreement. By promoting successful policies such as Peru’s renewable energy and rural electrification schemes to reduce poverty, and Costa Rica’s widely respected sustainable forestry policies, Latin America could prove a better guide and partner than richer countries, who are often berated in these negotiations for their hubris and unintelligible jargon. There are clearly obstacles to overcome, not least of which are sparse investment, stable foreign support, and a lack of political backing for renewable energy. But most urgent, perhaps, is the need to change mindsets. With roughly 40% of the world’s tropical forests, the opportunities for Latin America to cash in on the emerging interest in payments for protecting forests and environmental services cannot be overstated. More than 75% of the projects with CO2 mitigation potential from Latin American and African countries are forest-related. One of the leading concepts, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), would entail wealthier countries paying developing countries to reduce their rates of deforestation by implementing a range of policies such as supporting community forestry. There are crucial issues still to be addressed on REDD, especially ensuring land rights for local populations. However REDD could offer large financial flows with some estimates reaching $53 billion per year for halving deforestation rates, dwarfing the current amount available for global conservation and pro-poor forestry initiatives. Global warming risks destabilising the economies of Latin America and rolling back much of the region’s progress. An urgent rethink of Latin America’s development trajectory is required , one which fundamentally assesses its relationship with climate change risks and development opportunities. Developed nations need to step up with sufficient funding to the region to make a difficult energy transition. Instead of being missing in action, Latin America’s leaders could instead lead an international coalition promoting a climate change deal between rich and poor countries. As a Bolivian revolutionary once said, ‘we have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity’. If Latin American leaders wish to rewrite their future, then applying this reasoning to greater action on climate change will avoid the future surge of criticism heaped upon those who say and do nothing. *J. Timmons Roberts is Research Fellow at the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College of William and Mary, USA. He is the author of Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crises in Latin America (2003, Routledge) and A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy (2007, MIT Press).
Tuesday, 02 December 2008 13:31

Poor turn out at the climate disco

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The UN Climate Change Conference, which kicked off yesterday in Poznań, Poland, is a key stepping stone towards securing an international agreement on climate change for the post-Kyoto era in 2012.

The 10,000 delegates attending will attempt to gain consensus on some extremely thorny issues, not least working out commitments to cut carbon emissions and the amount of cash that developed nations are willing to commit to the developing world for dealing with climate change.

These issues are of considerable importance for Latin America for two reasons. Firstly, Latin America is now a ‘middle income continent’, which normally coincides with a rapid expansion of emissions as the new middle classes develop a taste for cars and other luxury goods. Developing countries may now be faced with potential limits on their emissions and subsequent space for development, inflating a very sensitive political issue for Latin American countries which they will be unable to avoid.

Secondly, Latin America is one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change. An increased frequency of El Niño, hurricanes, droughts, floods, food and energy insecurity have the potential to seriously undermine the region’s development prospects. As the region is still largely dependent on external sources of finance and aid for its climate change programmes, Latin America is beholden to the generosity of the industrialised countries of the North.

These reasons suggest that both the physical impacts of climate change and the political consequences of an agreement on climate change should be of immense concern to Latin American leaders. Despite this, Latin American leaders have not really bothered to take much interest in the Poznan conference.

Official lists of participants show that aside from Brazil and Mexico, the majority of Latin American countries are only sending environmental experts and the odd ambassador based in Europe. There are very few ministers or representatives from key decision making ministries such as finance, energy and development in attendance.

Mr. André Odenbreit Carvalho of Brazil - Head, Division for Environmental Policy and Sustainable Development, Ministry of External Relations

Compare this stance with three other countries. China is sending an Olympic team of development specialists and treaty experts. Spain is attending with representatives from the Ministry for Industry, Trade and Tourism. And the UK is sending in Minsters and officials from four key ministries with Nicholas Stern as well for backup.

The stance of some Latin American countries appears to be what José Alberto Garibaldi describes as a ‘shy’ approach where a country is content to take a backseat and watch what happens at the conference. Given the risks facing Latin America, a bold approach of improving alliances, carving out political space and creating new policies, is urgently required. As we learnt as teenagers, staying at home instead of going to the school disco is not only boring but a real mistake for your future development.
Thursday, 30 October 2008 06:20

Rural electrification and solar panels in Chile

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Tuesday, 28 October 2008 11:20

DFID jumps ship as tides rise in Latin America

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Over the next two years, the UK’s Department for International Development will be closing its regional offices in Bolivia and Nicaragua. These regional hubs provide the focal point for most of DFID’s work in Latin America. Yet as persistent levels of poverty and high inequality converge with the growing threats posed by climate change, DFID’s evacuation from Latin America could not have come at a worst time.

Although many countries in the region are now considered to be in the Middle Income category, poverty in Latin America remains stubbornly persistent. Out of a population of 550 million, roughly 49 million live on a dollar a day and over 14.7 million are chronically poor ensuring their suffering and often easily preventable deaths seldom go noticed.

The majority of Latin America’s poor now live in cities where the impact of climate change and lack of development fuse to create a hostile environment of food insecurity and water scarcity, exacerbated by rising sea levels and a greater frequency of hurricanes.

Development experts argue that unless strategies to tackle climate change can be mainstreamed into development processes; any chance of success will be severely undermined. This is why DFID’s untimely exit is misguided.

DFID projects in Latin America, such as those working with regional organisations on governance issues, have been very successful. But just as they have begun to yield results, they are being shut down.

At the same time, DFID has been expanding it work on climate change. A new DFID report outlines the prospect for providing £50 million for research on climate change and poverty in Latin America and Asia.

DFID should therefore, combine the development success stories in Latin America with its growing capacity on climate change by maintaining a strong presence in Latin America.

Without it, DFID will struggle to successfully channel its expertise on low carbon growth and adaptation to climate change into Latin American policy making and to civil society. It is in a better position to liaise between regional organisations than any of its UK NGO partners, and could better coordinate these NGOs with Latin American regional organisations.

As the effects of climate change disrupt the lives of Latin America’s poorest and most vulnerable, the need for experienced development practitioners in Latin America may actually be increasing. Prioritises elsewhere may appear to be of greater urgency, but DFID staff themselves would concede that the job in Latin America is far from over. With climate change becoming ever more critical, it might just be beginning.
Monday, 20 October 2008 11:55

Andes face glacial meltdown

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This article was first posted on the Guardian's Comment is free Glaciers in Peru are melting so quickly that by 2015 almost all of them may have disappeared. This is not just a problem for Peru but for the whole Andean Community of Nations, including Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. These countries generate around 73% of their electricity from hydro energy. Ironically, this renewable source of energy risks disappearing because of melting glaciers caused by climate change. The report, Climate change knows no borders, provides a chilling reminder of the catastrophic impacts of climate change on the Andean region. The evidence predicting the rapid loss of glaciers and a fiercer, more frequent El Niño effect, where ocean temperatures rise along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, causing droughts and floods, reveals an uncertain and potentially destructive future for the region. The El Niño of 1997/8 had a devastating impact, leaving thousands dead or homeless, crops ruined, roads and bridges left smashed. The bill ran into billions of dollars. If this wasn't enough, climate change could lead to further losses of up to $30 billion a year by 2025 in the Andean region while the effect of melting glaciers could place 40 million people at risk of losing their water supply. It seems ironic that the highest number of the Kyoto Protocol's clean development mechanism projects in the Andean Community relate to the resource facing the greatest threat – water. The climatic stresses causing the loss of glaciers, and in turn jeopardising what many regard as a key constituent of rural development through electrification, may result in a vicious cycle. The loss of this vital resource, combined with high prices and scant political enthusiasm for other renewable options – geothermal, wind and solar – may result in countries resorting to an increase in the use of fossil fuels. Considering the region's minor contribution to the world's greenhouse gas emissions this would be extremely counter-productive. It might also run the risk of undermining what has so far been a progressive stance on climate change at the international policy level. In 1993, Ecuador became the first developing country to ratify the climate convention. Although scientific evidence and past experience of extreme weather conditions have provided grounds for a strong rhetorical stand on climate change at the international level, Andean governments have been reluctant to integrate climate change strategies into the fabric of development policy. Peru did not establish a ministry for the environment until May 2008, exposing a pattern played out regionally of weak state institutions, unequal access to natural resources, a lack of political will, non-existent funding, insufficient information and deficient infrastructure. The challenge of integrating development and climate change agendas is, therefore, critical. The Andean Community is skating on thin ice as the longevity of one of its most important sources of renewable energy is thrown into doubt. The question remains whether or not the world will act, and if the ice will remain thick enough to support Andean sustainable development for the future.