Friday, 25 January 2013 13:55

The Politics of Climate Change in Latin America: Leaders and Laggards Featured

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Yesterday, I spoke at an Anglo-Ecuadorian Society event at the Casa Ecuatoriana in London on Latin America and climate change. Latin America is a key battleground and laboratory for confronting climate change and decisions taken in Latin American capitals and by their negotiators at the UN climate change talks could have major implications for the UN climate regime and the region’s development options this century. Here are a few extracts from the talk.
The impacts of climate change in Latin America The impacts of climate change are already being felt across Latin America. Guatemala’s former president Alvaro Colom was brutally honest when he said at COP16 in 2010, “How many deaths do we have to report? How many people have to live in shelters…before some parts of the [UN] Convention recognize that Guatemala is a developing country and highly vulnerable to [climate change]?" Climate change is having significant impacts on the region’s economies. The Inter-American Development Bank (2012) comments that estimated annual damages in Latin America by the impacts associated with a temperature rise of 2 degrees are estimated to be over US$100 billion. Latin American Diversity on Climate Change As former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos suggests Latin America is a microcosm for the difficulties confronting the global climate change talks. The diversity of its economies and societies, disparities in nations’ vulnerability and emissions, the diverse ideological positions, and memberships of various regional and international groups, all drive the highly divergent positions. It is little wonder that Latin American countries have never spoken with one voice in the climate negotiations, but rather through various formal and informal groups. Different Latin American and the Caribbean countries are part of a dizzying number of negotiating groups in the climate talks, such as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), BASIC, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), the Like-Minded Group, the Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC) and the Central American Integration System. The roots of Latin American countries conflicting negotiating positions offer important insights into what is driving them to act both at home and at the negotiations. Latin America’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions The Inter-American Development Bank (2012) points out that Latin American greenhouse gas emissions for 2010 are estimated to be 11% of total global emissions. On a per capita basis and in proportion to the size of its economies, Latin America contributes more GHG emissions than China and India. The World Bank (2009) states that the region’s emissions are dominated by emissions from deforestation, which constitutes 46 percent of Latin America’s total. The share of CO2 energy emissions in the region’s total emissions is 26 percent which is much smaller than at the global level. The remainder of the region’s emissions about 28 percent are generated mainly in the agricultural sector but also from industrial activities.  Roughly 85 percent of the region’s emissions are concentrated in six countries, with Brazil and Mexico accounting for almost 60 percent of the region’s total GHG emissions. Another 25 percent of LAC’s emissions is accounted for by Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. National climate policies and pledges take off In recent years Latin American countries have announced various policies, strategies and pledges to combat climate change. In 2008 at COP14, Peru became the first developing country to offer a voluntary emissions reduction target. Peru’s pledge includes reducing the net rate of deforestation of primary forests to zero by 2021. In June 2012 former Mexican President Calderon signed Mexico’s General Law on Climate Change, which includes targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020 and by 50% by 2050, while acquiring 35% of Mexico’s energy from renewable sources by 2024. As time evaporates before the 2015 deadline to secure a new global treaty on climate change, every country needs to make emissions reductions based on Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities to keep below the 2 degree ceiling. These pledges demonstrate the willingness to act and lead by example and push others at the UN negotiations to increase their own actions. Latin American country actions on climate change are aiming high but implementation remains a sticking point. In a flagship report on the state of public policies on climate and development, the Latin American Platform on Climate emphasizes the lack of implementation of climate change policies in the region and the marginal importance that they occupy. Global perspectives and the international politics of climate change in Latin America Here I discuss some of the potential opportunities for Latin American countries to build on the progress made with three of their principle economic and political partners: the U.S., China and the European Union. U.S. – Latin American relations: During President Obama’s second term in office, there is a chance that U.S. – Latin Americans relations will be dominated by issues such as the war against drugs. This issue of course needs a massive rethink as the current strategy appears to be failing. However, following Obama’s inaugural speech which cited climate change as a priority during his second term, there is a timely opportunity for climate change to become a key pillar of U.S. – Latin American relations. President Obama’s flagship initiative, the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, which aims to bring countries together to accelerate the deployment of clean energy, has been well received but has achieved limited results. Beefing up the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas to encourage a major increase in clean energy investment in Latin America by U.S. clean energy companies is vital. Latin American countries should be assertive in their climate diplomacy north of the Rio Grande and should be bolder with their U.S. counterparts (and others across the world in Europe and Asia) by promoting their own efforts and success stories at home. Mexico’s Law on Climate Change and Costa Rica’s bid to become carbon neutral by 2021 illustrate how the region is willing to lead by example. The U.S. should pay far greater attention to these efforts and do considerably more itself. China and Latin America: Chinese policy toward Latin America has been focused primarily on securing natural resources and commodities. China’s 2008 Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean does mention cooperation on climate change but so far few official exchanges have taken place. This raises important questions on whether the lack of cooperation on climate change between China and Latin America and the focus on natural resources is inadvertently helping to lock some countries into higher-carbon pathways of development. There are many areas of potential cooperation between China and Latin America such as building sustainable cities, promoting investment in clean energy and at the UN climate negotiations. European – Latin American relations: This week Chile hosts the EU - Latin America and Caribbean Summit. Since the fifth EU-LAC Summit in Peru in 2008 climate change has increased in prominence within the bi-regional partnership. European – Latin American relations represent the strongest bi-regional partnership on climate change. The potential of this partnership to bolster climate action is yet to be realised. However, over the next three years there is a crucial opportunity as the next three annual UN climate change conferences will be in European and Latin American countries. This year Poland will host COP19, in 2014 Peru will probably host COP20 and in 2015 it will likely be France’s turn. The EU and some Latin American countries are in favour of a new ambitious and equitable global treaty on climate change. The coincidence of the next three COPs landing in these countries should not be missed as achieving continuity and consistency in the negotiations is a rare but invaluable commodity. As a result the EU-LAC Summit in Chile this week should look at ways of increasing cooperation on climate change to make the most of this coincidence. Looking ahead towards 2015 Some Latin American countries are constructive and assertive at the UN climate talks. Their actions have changed the course of events at the negotiations and they may prove to be a key ingredient for creating a new global treaty. Latin American countries are already relatively low-emission economies due to the dominance of hydropower in the region’s power mix. The global challenge is not just to de-carbonise, but how to achieve prosperity while avoiding hikes in emissions. Latin America offers a vital perspective to other developing regions that want to avoid locking into outdated growth models that render climate protection as incompatible with development. Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos’s statement to the UN General Assembly in 2010 that ‘Latin America must be a decisive region in saving the planet’ may sound overly dramatic; but the region is a game-changer on climate change and may well become a globally recognized leader in the years to come.
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Guy Edwards

Guy Edwards is a Research Fellow at the Center for Environmental Studies, Brown University, where he manages a research project on the politics of climate change in Latin America. Along with co-author, Professor Timmons Roberts, he is currently writing a book on Latin American leadership on climate change for MIT Press. He has also written various academic papers, policy briefs and op-eds for a number of different publications. As co-founder of Intercambio Climático and formerly co-editor of the website, Guy has worked closely with the Latin American Platform on Climate and the Latin American office of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. He has also worked for the Overseas Development Institute, the consultancy River Path Associates and as the resident manager of the Huaorani Ecolodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon.