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OPINION: After Paris – A shift in Colombia’s climate change conversation  

Colombia is possibly one of the most vocal, expert and committed governments internationally, in the fight against climate change. Has anything changed after the Paris Agreement last year? What does the future look like? Claudia Martinez, CDKN’s senior strategic advisor for Colombia, talks with Miren Gutierrez about the outcome of the Paris Agreement in her country. This is part of a series of developing country perspectives:

The Paris Agreement created an ambitious mandate for the global community. Does it change the national conversation in Colombia about action on climate change? If so, how?

The Paris Agreement was a big incentive to change the conversation about climate change in Colombia.

First, Colombia has had an office of climate change since 2000, earlier than many countries in the world. Colombia has a National Institute of Environmental Information and Meteorology (IDEAM), which has followed the process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in terms of producing accurate information on climate change. IDEAM developed the new climate change scenarios (2015) as well as the new emissions estimates to produce the business as usual (BAU) model. Understanding emissions and making robust greenhouse gas abatement curves to support decision-making processes has been very important.

Second, based on accurate data, the Colombian INDC process involved a cross-sectoral participatory process where all the main economic sectors were convened to understand the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and to work together on new options to reduce them. This joint work ended in developing Sectoral Action Plans for Mitigation with concrete options. The following process of committing to an INDC built upon this previous work, and presented three different scenarios for decision-makers. The final decision involved high level discussions, leading finally to the chosen target, which is logical for the country and the world: to reduce emissions by 20% below projected BAU emissions by 2030.

The strong technical capacity, the skill to translate science and numbers into comprehensible commitments and the political will to continue leading the importance of the climate change negotiations were certainly an asset in building the INDC. Colombia is the first country in South America to release a consistent INDC adopting a wide emissions reduction target for the first time. The conversation has changed because there is an evident commitment that sets the future actions for the private and public sectors in Colombia.

But what will it take to get from ‘intended’ to ‘implemented’? What are the big opportunities and challenges?

Colombia’s NDC target to reduce emissions by 20% by 2030 could get to 30% below BAU, with international support. The country also provides clear adaptation goals, reaffirming the need to work hard on understanding vulnerability and strengthening sectors and territories in their adaptation pathways.

The NDC depends on the understanding of the commitments by all sectors and subnational authorities and the willingness to act accordingly. At the sectoral level, Colombia is promoting the development of departmental plans including opportunities for resilience and low carbon economies. Colombia is also undertaking a climate finance strategy in order to assure concrete investments to implement the NDC.

There are three big challenges. The first is to assure that all sectors understand their commitments and use public resources in an efficient way in order to make clear choices to lower emissions in a cross-cutting manner. The second is to start making agreements with the private sector with strong commitments that are most effective starting with the low hanging fruits. For example, Colombia`s emissions are mostly related to agriculture, forests, and other land uses (AFOLU). Agreements with the big agriculture sectors (palm, soy, coffee, sugar cane, cattle ranging) are needed and they should be made in a pragmatic manner with concrete indicators and financial commitments. On the other hand, deforestation is a big threat that needs strong actions to control the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

Currently, the third most important challenge would be to change Colombia’s long term energy outlook. Colombia`s energy matrix is weighted mostly towards hydropower. However, because of the El Niña and El Niño effects there has been, during 2016, a big challenge to assure energy security. In this context, there is big pressure to start using coal to power and other thermal options. In that scenario, it would be difficult to assure energy security and at the same time lower emissions. Therefore, assuring energy security and allowing the expansion of more alternative energies in future energy scenarios is a big challenge.

The Paris Agreement calls for limiting average global temperature rise well below 2C, as close to 1.5C as possible. Colombia’s emissions are not huge, but they are growing – what hope is there to see economic growth and human development with lowered emissions?

Colombia is passing through a peace negotiation process with strong emphasis on rural development including food security and economic development. The negotiations place a strong emphasis in land tenure equity, and alternative options for the most vulnerable communities. However, climate change factors or sustainability options have not been part of the peace dialogues. Therefore there is a big challenge to start understanding that the long term, sustainable, productive options depend on understanding the future realities of climate change, preparing communities to adapt and respond to the climate of the future.

In terms of increasing productivity, Colombia is promoting the creation of “Zidres”, which are special interest zones for economic and social rural development. These zones are mostly remote, vast areas that have little infrastructure and need major investments to become productive. In the end, these zones could end up being in the hands of agricultural conglomerates that are willing to invest with little consideration towards climate change or social equity. However, the future of agriculture productivity depends on a strong understanding of climate change, and there is evidence that climate-smart agriculture investments are starting to be a reality, basically due to the dramatic challenges the sector is facing under current climate conditions. [See CDKN’s Inside Story on a climate vulnerability assessment in the Upper Cauca Basin of Colombia, which outlines climate effects in more detail.]

If you check most INDCs from developing countries, their emission reduction targets are subject to technology development, international climate finance and capacity building. What would happen if the means of implementation does not flow?

Colombia will start facing some constraints to implement the NDCs, but has the capacity to act with its national human and financial resources. In terms of climate change finance, Colombia is relying mostly in its internal resources, promoting a financial strategy for climate change (a CDKN finance project) that analyses the flows and efficiency of international resources.

However, technology transfer and innovation is much needed in order to start innovating different options to develop agriculture, transport, energy and waste, as well as making industries more effective and innovative. In terms of capacity building, Colombia counts on strong institutions that are capable of making national decisions on climate change.

Have you any reflections on how the process Colombia went through to come up with its INDC will affect what happens next?

Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, has been a strong supporter of the NDC. He had the last word on deciding from among the INDC scenarios. The fact that there was a strong research and participatory process behind the scenarios helped him in making the political decisions. What happens next depends on the capacity to make the NDC commitments into a process demanding legal or political compliance, and upon putting an internal price on carbon to align with a financial strategy.

The INDC is totally aligned with the 2014-2018 National Development Plan that lays a strong emphasis on working at the subnational level to ensure climate compatible development. In this context, Colombia will continue to develop integral subnational climate change plans including strategic actions on land use planning, management of water resources, climate smart agricultural options and reduced deforestation. There are some cross-cutting goals including education and science and technology to improve innovation and competitiveness.  At the sectoral level, the trend will have to be towards promoting climate plans and innovations that could prove to be cost-effective and even profitable in the medium term.

A climate change law has been prepared and is yet to be submitted for approval by the senate and the president. I see a way forward if the law passes with strong complying commitments that rely on abatement curves and options that where addressed in the INDC process.

It also depends on pushing forward an early action to create pre-2020 domestic target markets align with the capacity to mobilise internal and international resources to implement NDC targets.

The SDGs have many climate-related components, as well as a dedicated climate goal. What are some of the ways that the SDGs will influence the planning and practice of development in Colombia in the coming years?

Colombia is involved in three major processes: Complying with the NDC commitments, developing a green growth plan as part of the pathway towards joining the OECD, and finally, addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were pushed forward by the country, which was a leader on promoting SDGs as well.

Internally, the general public is a bit confused about what the targets and terminology are in relation with these three processes. But at the end, climate change, green growth and SDGs will have to merge in one common agenda with long term goals. The planning and practice of development will therefore need to develop that long term agenda that addresses real indicators at the sectorial and territorial level that can measure improvements on SDGs, and at the same time progress in fulfilling the NDC and green growth actions.

Are there any development initiatives in Colombia that, for you, provide perfect examples of how the country can meet the high aspirations of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs?

At the subnational level, Colombia is developing several climate change plans at the city and territorial levels. Examples such as the CDKN-funded “Cartagena Plan 4C”or the “Huila 2050”* plan have produced lessons learned that will guide new efforts. Currently seven new plans are being developed in different departments, including CDKN-funded project on green growth and CCD (climate compatible development) in the eastern Antioquia region of Colombia. These examples establish the strategies at the territorial level to implement the Paris agreements, as well as provide concrete actions on different territorial priorities that address SDGs compliance.

At the sectorial level there are important advances on the agricultural sector that started to develop a vulnerability analysis of crops in the Alto Cauca region, and can later be scaled up in the rest of the country, with concrete actions that could advance the achievement of the NDC and SDG goals. In terms of the transport sector, the Plan Vias CC, another CDKN-funded plan to adapt the primary road system of Colombia, will make this sector more competitive. The 2014 law on alternative energies also opens the door to include alternative energies in the future energy matrix of Colombia.

In Colombia, initiatives such as these follow the spirit of both the Paris Agreement and SDGs goals, so we are in a good position.


* The departmental government of Huila is developing an action plan for a comprehensive approach to addressing climate change and development challenges, the Huila 2050 Vision for Climate Change, which incorporates the Low Emission Development Strategy (LEDS) with REDD+ and activities on changing land use.


Image: Students in Antioquia, Colombia, courtesy World Bank.

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