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OPINION: Latin America lacks climate ambition – Experts urge a way forward

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Fabiola Ortiz, of LatinClima, considers: Is it possible to decarbonise Latin America? What challenges will the region face under a 2ºC increase in temperature? She interviewed José Luis Samaniego of ECLAC and others, for their expert views.

The United Nations Climate Summit in Madrid, COP25, failed to reach a meaningful outcome after two weeks of negotiations led by the Chilean presidency. Latin America is still faced with the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, financing a transition to carbon neutrality and building more resilience in the face of imminent climate change impacts.

Although the region emits 8.3% of total global emissions, Latin America must transition from fossil fuels, invest in more renewable sources of energy and take advantage of the potential of its biodiversity to develop a “bioeconomy.” According to experts at COP25, all of this will only be possible if there is a change in behaviour and mentality.

José Luis Samaniego, Director of the Sustainable Development and Human Settlements Division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) contends that the region still lacks climate ambition. “It’s a combination of a lack of ambition with uncertainty and a lack of imagination about what can be done,” he said.

“There are not enough instruments put in place [to deliver a low-carbon, climate-resilient future], a very significant political gap and a knowledge gap.”.

The geographic location of the region offers a competitive advantage, providing the greatest concentration of biological biodiversity on the planet. “We could harness a huge contribution from nature-based solutions to decarbonise our economies. This would allow us to reach (carbon) neutrality if we managed ecosystems in a better way,” he said. According to Samaniego, there is a lack of will and commitment to the alternatives for decarbonisation, but “we have the ability to generate the structural change for decarbonisation to happen.”

Economic growth comes with adverse environmental effects unless it is managed through specific policies. Renewable energy technologies open the space for growth. According to ECLAC, for the region to make its contribution to limiting average global warming to 1.5°C, then by 2030, 67% of Latin American energy supply will have to come from renewables, (0.9 gigatons of CO2 equivalent emissions).

To be on a pathway to 2 °C of global warming, Latin America would need to derive 55% of its energy needs from renewables by 2030 (1.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent).

Currently, the region derives 24% of its energy from renewables, which is in line with a global warming scenario of 4°C. Under this scenario, very severe climate change impacts are expected for the region.

A world with a 4°C increase is exactly what needs to be prevented. According to the World Bank the impacts would be devastating. Predictions describe extreme droughts in the Amazon basin and many densely populated areas. The Andean glaciers will have disappeared by the end of this century, at first the glacier melting will increase the risk of flooding and later it will cause droughts that will affect communities dependent on them for water. And, category 4 and 5 hurricanes could become more frequent.

In addition to all this, the sea level would increase by one metre by 2100, with devastating effects on the Caribbean. (See ‘for further information’, below.)

According to Samaniego, achieving carbon neutrality would help the region immensely and “in Latin America the contribution of ecosystems is key.”

Obstacles to a greener economy

Among the major obstacles in the region are transport and urban mobility. After the railways were weakened in the 19th century, policy was designed to expand private mobility (i.e. principally private vehicles) during the second half of the 20th century. “This is where I see that practically no progressing or very slow progress,” towards decarbonisation, says the head of ECLAC.

The energy grid is another area of importance. Although there are changes in energy supply, they are happening “slower than they should,” says Samaniego. “The entry of renewables into the market is gradually being facilitated, through changes in pricing of renewables, tendering processes and carbon taxes,” he says.

Decarbonisation of the electricity grid in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia would signal a radical change in the region.

Mariana Nicoletti, from the Centre for Sustainability Studies at the Getçlio Vargas Foundation in Brazil says that decarbonisation requires more than reducing emissions in the energy grid. It requires transforming a whole way of thinking and developing society. Nicolleti adds that to decarbonise we must focus on large emission sources, such as energy production, but also on the land-use concerning deforestation and agricultural production. She says: “we need to consider inter-connections: from extraction and energy production to waste destination.”

It might be ‘ambitious’ to think of a carbon-neutral Latin America, Nicoletti says, but it is not impossible. “We would have to change public policy incentives, subsidies and government capital investment in fossil fuels. We are talking about a systemic change that would need to happen in the entire economy. The development of models based on bio-economics and on low carbon technologies.”

Climate change adaptation strategies

In addition to the challenges of decarbonising, the region also needs to adapt to changes. Nicoletti discusses the Regional Network for Climate Change and Decision Making and asserts that the ability to anticipate and respond to climate events must be on the agenda of the region.

Nicoletti asserts that adaptation must take place alongside the decarbonisation process and science has a fundamental role to play if this to happen.

The researcher helped lead the LatinoAdapta Project which sought to identify and analyse knowledge gaps in adaptation affecting the development and implementation of policies and measures related to climate change in six countries in the region – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Uruguay. The project organised a panel (discussion) during COP25 in Madrid.

“We have gaps in knowledge generation, but the major problem in Latin America is more about building communication bridges with public managers who need to access, understand and apply scientific knowledge considering climate scenarios,” Nicoletti said.

Climate justice on the agenda

Analysts argue that the transition to decarbonisation will only be possible if climate justice is understood and is applied.

According to Nicoletti, the concept of climate justice carries different connotations according to who uses it.

“Climate justice for whom?” she asks, “From a historical perspective, countries in the global North would have to transfer resources to the global South and when resources reach these countries, who has the right to access them? These are complex questions.”

In general, the discussion on carbon neutrality has not been guided by the idea of climate justice. “Much of what of was discussed at the Social Summit focused in the need to include traditional peoples and impoverished communities, who are the most vulnerable. It is a call to attention because there needs to be more convergence. We see the voices in power focusing on white elites,” she criticised.

According to Adrián Martínez Blanco from the Costa Rica Climate Route Association, there needs to be a fair transition that is based on a human rights approach. “The content for change must be fair, based on the pillars of human rights.” The issue is that climate actions carry their own negative effects and if people’s rights are not considered, “we will see social conflict and violence,” he says.

Progressing the Escazú Agreement

During COP25, the Costa Rican NGO participated in panels to promote the Escazú Agreement. This Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean was adopted on March 4, 2018. It originated at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20) and is based on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992. The negotiations, led by Chile and Costa Rica, gathered government delegates, public and academia representatives, experts and other interested parties to collaborate actively and equally.

At least 11 states must ratify the treaty so that it can enter into force. In recent weeks, Nicaragua and Panama agreed to ratify the Escazú Agreement. Of the 33 countries in Latin America, 22 nations have signed the agreement but less than a third have ratified it. Panama and Nicaragua join Bolivia, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Uruguay as the seven nations that voted to ratify the agreement.

“Our goal is to position the Escazú Agreement, which is essential for the region, to drive climate governance and the revision of commitments (the Nationally Determined Contributions). In terms of ambition, this must happen through a ‘just transition’, which not only involves changing the hydrocarbon-based development model but includes support for economic sectors that are battling impacts of climate change,” says Blanco.

For further information

Read the full Escazú Agreement on the United Nations website:Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.

For more details of how Latin America and the Caribbean would be impacted under different global warming scenarios, please visit CDKN’s guides that explain the science: IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Ocean and Cryosphere Report and Climate Change and Land Report.

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