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Latin American climate change politics

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Over the last decade Latin American economies grew impressively, with an annual average growth rate of roughly 5%. High prices for Latin America’s commodities – driven by Chinese demand – were some of the main factors. Now the honeymoon appears to be over. The economic estimates and forecasts for 2014 and 2015 make for sober reading. Latin America’s economies grew on average by only approximately 1.3% in 2014 and prospects this year do not look much better; the IMF and the World Bank forecast growth of 2.2%. According to The Economist, as China’s growth slows, commodity prices have returned to their lowest levels since the 2009 global recession. The drop in oil prices has hurt the oil exporting economies of South America, though of course others in the region who import are benefitting from cheaper oil.

The modest outlook for 2015 also presents a challenge for cash strapped environmental ministries, and for environmental and climate agendas more broadly. There is concern that the issue of climate change may slip down the agenda just at a time when it needs to be firmly on the desk of ministers and presidents. There are some innovative climate and environmental laws and policies now on the books in the region, and ensuring that their implementation is not sacrificed in the interests of improving short term economic growth is crucial.

The troubling outlook for 2015 for Latin America does in fact present some useful opportunities, such as promoting low carbon policies for building prosperity, while challenging the outdated discourse that tackling climate change is a brake on development. Smart policy options such as reducing and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, boosting energy efficiency, and the deployment of renewable energy should be prioritised. These can have important co-benefits, such as reducing urban air pollution and lowering health risks and costs while improving productivity and innovation.

Building climate action outside the UNFCCC

Edwards and Roberts describe the UNFCCC as a unique and frustrating beast, which at times acts as if it is impervious to what is happening in the real world. It is therefore essential to build climate action through other for a in order to ensure real progress that can in turn have a positive impact on the negotiations.

Unlike the old days when the region was closely tied to one colonial or neo-colonial power, Latin American countries have diverse and growing relations with a wide range of international players. In 2015 the region will participate in summits with China, the US and the EU. In early January, the first ministerial meeting of the China-CELAC Forum will take place in Beijing. In April, Panama will host the VII Summit of the Americas, and in June Brussels will host the II EU-CELAC Summit.

These summits are important for two reasons. With the deadline of December 2015 to create a new climate agreement, the summits are important spaces for climate diplomacy and efforts to build trust between countries. Second, taking into account the extensive trade and commercial ties between Latin American countries and the US, EU and China respectively, these summits should focus on attempting to minimise the large (and expanding) environmental and carbon footprints of these partnerships from fossil fuel extraction and mining, while maximising low carbon opportunities that include taking advantage of impressive renewable energy reserves and prioritising low emissions transport in the region.

Latin America is the most urbanised region in the world, with 80% of the population living in cities. According to a number of surveys, the region’s citizens are very concerned about climate change. With a high number of cities in the region located along the cost and threatened by sea level rise – or those facing water shortages due to glacial melt or droughts – these cities are very vulnerable to climate impacts. Latin American cities also present a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from transport, energy, buildings and waste.

The link between soaring rates of private car ownership, increasing emissions from transport, and poor air quality is a major challenge. Across the region, cities are attempting to reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts while improving the lives of citizens. These efforts include Quito’s Climate Action Plan and Mexico City’s Green Plan. As the New Climate Economy report points out, better planning and extensive public transport networks can create cities that are economically dynamic, more resilient and healthier. Cities may not be able to negotiate at the UN, but they are vital areas for leadership and innovation and represent still largely untapped area of climate action.

Legislation on climate change presents a vital means for Latin American countries to build a more democratic response to climate change, while locking in climate action and sending positive signals to the private sector. As former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos recently argued, a coordinated legislative campaign should be viewed as an essential prerequisite for sustainable development in the region. Following the busy election cycle of 2014, new administrations in Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia should work with other political parties and civil society to generate progress on climate legislation. This process should not be about simply creating legislation for the sake of itself, but rather forging the legal architecture within nations to facilitate the transformation to prosperous, low emission and resilient economies, Brookings emphasises.

The significance of INDCs

The Lima conference secured an important agreement on countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which are what they will pledge to do about reducing emissions, adapting to the impacts and supporting developing countries actions with funding, assistance and technology transfer. The INDCs will be a central pillar of a new agreement, and will serve as countries’ national climate change action plans which they are ‘invited’ to share by this March. The World Resources Institute says that the INDCs combine a bottom-up system (where countries put forward their contributions according to their national priorities, circumstances and capabilities) with a top-down system (in which countries aim to bring down global emissions to limit the average global temperature rise to 2°C). Since INDCs cover such broad issues of emissions reduction and adaptation measures, they could lead to significant changes across national economies, especially in carbon intensive sectors. Such climate contributions could be integrated with goals to reduce poverty and inequality, while sending signals to the private sector to invest in these efforts.

Developing and assessing the INDCs have the potential to be a transformative process for increasing climate action in 2020 and ensuring progress along the wat. As UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres said in Lima, the INDCs are a great opportunity to plan for a country’s low carbon future. Many Latin American countries have already declared pre-2020 voluntary emission reduction pledges, so they are not starting from scratch. The successful implementation of these policies between now and 2020 is crucial to create the right conditions for ambitious targets in the next round, likely to be negotiated every five years. Therefore, the INDCs can be an essential means to encourage policy coherence between now and after 2020. They are also very important for connecting the isolated and at times abstract UN climate negotiations with national decision making on climate change. Moreover, in the case of Latin America, with some countries in the region sharing similar characteristics in terms of where their emissions come from and their vulnerability to climate impacts, the INDCs could prove a useful way to increase cooperation between countries.

For the INDCs to succeed, however, carefully managed public consultations are required, to democratise the climate change debate in Latin America. China’s decision to launch a public consultation in support of the design of its INDC on 17 December (running through 31 March) is a laudable step. The principle objective is to receive input, observations and proposals from all sectors of society, including civil society, academia and the private sector, to improve Chile’s INDC proposal. Once completed, the national contribution will be presented to the Council of Ministers for Sustainability and Climate Change with the aim of taking them to the UNFCCC by the end of June 2015. Other Latin American countries and others around the world should follow this important example.

Adapted from a report by Emma McAleavey.



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