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Latin America: An Indispensable Region in the Fight Against Climate Change?

Flower growers Juan (L), David, and Elida (R), work in their field irrigated with glacial melt water in front of Huandoy mountain in Yungay valley, September 18, 2013.

With the global climate change negotiations gasping for breath after nearly 20 years, new ideas and leadership are urgently required.  Last month we organized a conference at Brown University to assess whether Latin America might be the region to provide both pioneering domestic solutions to climate change and bold positions in the U.N. climate negotiations.

The conference included speeches by former President of Chile Ricardo Lagos and former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, who spoke about the role of presidential leadership in addressing climate change. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, minister of the environment of Peru and COP20 president, and Luis Alfonso de Alba, former Mexican special representative for climate change shared their thoughts about Latin American leadership on climate change. Representatives from Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom discussed how to break the impasse and what the prospects are for making progress at the U.N. talks.

Our observations are that several key nations in Latin America have been pacesetters in controlling their emissions, and some have made ambitious pledges to reduce their emissions. They have also played instrumental roles at the global negotiations. In 2010, Mexico did a masterful job in rescuing the multilateral process as host of the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16), following the debacle in Copenhagen the previous year. This December, Peru will host the 20th annual U.N. climate negotiations, or COP20, in Lima, where a draft agreement is hoped to be produced.

A Region of Risk, a Region of Action

A recurring theme of the conference was the importance of Latin America when considering global climate change governance. The region has a remarkable endowment of natural resources, including 25 percent of the planet’s arable land and 22 percent of the world’s forest area. The region is also home to important reserves of oil and gas with Venezuela accounting for the world’s largest known oil reserves and major offshore reserve discoveries near Brazil’s coast.

The release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports were mentioned repeatedly. Implementing the transformative climate policies called for by scientists is still possible, but time is running out. Latin America itself is highly vulnerable to these climate impacts, including the potential collapse of the Caribbean coral biome and the intensification of weather patterns and storms. 

Conference attendees agreed that economic arguments need to be better made to inspire action to avoid the potentially severe economic losses in the decades to come with the onset of these severe climate impacts.

Latin America and the Caribbean account for roughly 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with most of these emissions coming from deforestation and other land use. Recently, deforestation rates have fallen, especially in Brazil. But sustained economic growth is driving an increase in Latin America’s energy consumption, particularly from power generation and transport. As the region continues to grow and with an expanding middle class, Latin America’s ability to keep its emissions down presents a thorny challenge.

Most Latin American countries have national climate change policies. But none of them are yet doing enough.  Latin American governments, like all others around the world, have competing priorities that can result in climate policies being undermined—or worse, swept under the rug.

Latin America is an indispensable region in the fight against climate change for three reasons:

  1. Latin American countries’ diverse and crucial roles at the U.N. climate negotiations have been backed up by domestic action. Mexico’s COP16 presidency helped to safeguard the multilateral climate process, but it was also followed up with a major accomplishment: a general law on climate change in 2012. This is a far greater legislative achievement than the United States has achieved to date.
  2. The increasing prominence of the Independent Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean States (AILAC) has the potential to be a game-changer at the negotiations. Made up of Colombia, Chile, Peru, Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica, AILAC supports an ambitious, legally binding agreement with contributions from all countries based on the core UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”
  3. Peru will host the COP20 in Lima this December. It has the task of building momentum and consensus, while also guiding the world towards real solutions to address climate change.  The timing is critical, with a major deadline in 2015 for an agreement and a draft text expected this year in Lima.

The COP20 provides an opportunity for Peru and its Latin American partners to work with other countries to help promote a new phase in global cooperation on climate change. Latin American nations should use this moment to improve cooperation on common challenges like the protection of forests, the promotion of renewable energy, avoiding fossil fueled growth, and building resilience to climate impacts. Latin American countries need to seize this momentum now to ensure COP20 charts a new path towards a global solution to climate change.  

  • Timmons Roberts is a nonresident senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at Brookings, and the Ittleson professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University. He is a leading expert on climate change and development. Co-author and editor of 11 books and edited volumes, and over 70 articles and book chapters, Timmons's current research focuses on equity and why addressing it is a crucial part of confronting climate change.

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