A New Latin American Climate Negotiating Group: The Greenest Shoots in the Doha Desert

Well-worn stories of dinosaurs like the United States and India battling it out in the United Nations climate change negotiations in Doha last week (see my previous post, titled “Doha Climate Change Negotiations: Moving Beyond the Dueling Dinosaurs to Bring Together Equity and Ambition“) continue to crowd out other, more positive stories that need to be told.  Rather than retelling the story of sticking points between the rich countries of the global North and those of the developing South, it’s crucial to see where something new is breaking through.  The greenest shoots we saw at COP18 were from a group of developing countries scarcely mentioned in the media’s fascination with conflict and acrimony between the different Parties and blocs.

This is a “revolt of the middle,” neither the poorest nor the richest, a group of developing countries willing to step out from the Group of 77 and China bloc’s shadow and offer real ambition.  Last Wednesday, six countries—Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Perú, Guatemala and Panamá—with the support of the Dominican Republic announced the creation of a new negotiating bloc, the Association of Independent Latin American and Caribbean states (AILAC). Boldly, the AILAC countries have decided to stop waiting for emissions reductions or financial support from wealthy countries like the U.S., and launch an ambitious case for low-carbon development at home and abroad.

What’s really new here is that these countries seek to break down the North-South firewall that has stalemated the climate negotiations for the past two decades.   As Mónica Araya, a Costa Rican negotiator, told El País “[the negotiations are] always told as a battle of North versus South, rich against poor, but each time this explains less and less of what’s happening.”  She told the leading Spanish daily that the new group shows that “there is an alliance of countries that want all nations to take on binding obligations, and that the negotiations process is adapting to a changing world.”

José Alberto Garibaldi, who advises several Latin American countries’ delegations and has been participating in the UNFCCC for more than a decade, mentioned in Doha how this group, along with other Latin American countries, has been acting informally to mobilize others with similar views in other regions.  Now, they are formally present.  While not a new collaboration, Garibaldi notes, “The group allows [them] to give a fresh view of the fundamental challenges the Convention sought to address, and the need to face them through increased collective action by all.”

AILAC arises from a diverse and fractured region on international climate policy.  Brazil, a pivotal actor at the talks, for years attempted unsuccessfully to lead the region, but then found stronger allies in the other large emerging economies China, India and South Africa (creating the BASIC bloc).  BASIC played a central role in the reorientation of the whole process and the drafting of the Copenhagen Accord in 2009.  The radical Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA in Spanish) bloc made up of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba is pushing for developed countries to pay their “climate debt” and commit to steep emission cuts.  Since Copenhagen in 2009, ALBA has played a role of resistance, at times blocking the negotiations, but also forcefully reminding rich nations of their obligations under the Convention and the importance of procedural inclusion following the U.N.’s difficult rules.  In 2012, some of the ALBA countries have participated in meetings in the newly formed Like-Minded Developing Countries bloc (LMDC) alongside China, India and Saudi Arabia.  The LMDC bloc has spoken firmly on respect for the core principle in these negotiations of “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities”—in this case that the developed countries need to act first, because they have done the most to create the problem of climate change.

Another bloc, the Central American Integration System (SICA in Spanish), is made up of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panamá and the Dominican Republic. SICA has pushed for greater recognition as one of the most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change, focusing on the capitalization of the new Green Climate Fund. A number of Caribbean states also participate in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents 44 island and coastal countries around the world.  AOSIS have loudly called for a 1.5 degree Celsius limit on global warming, which they argue may be the only way to avert the loss of their nations to rising sea levels.

That’s not all.  A number of countries in the region also participate in the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, which pushes for schemes to reimburse developing nations for protecting standing forests.  Another is called the Group of Highly Vulnerable Countries, which fought hard at COP17 to be included in National Adaptation Programs of Action alongside the least developed countries.  Finally, there are some countries like Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay who participate solely in the Group of 77 and China, the powerful developing country bloc consisting of 131 countries around the world, which for years was the region’s only collective voice in the talks. 

But of these splintering groups, AILAC is the most recent, most ambitious and most likely to break something loose in the North-South standoff.  The six AILAC countries have participated actively in an informal discussion group called the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, alongside others on both sides of the North-South divide, including Australia, Ethiopia, Indonesia and the United Kingdom. The group is not an official negotiating bloc, but instead serves as an informal space to hold discussions on how to increase support and consensus at the climate talks.  AILAC nations were encouraged by the fruits of early leadership by the Cartagena Dialogue to step forward as a group and have their voices heard more clearly on the negotiating floor and in its reporting outlets.

One might wonder why yet another negotiating group is needed.  Paula Caballero, lead negotiator for Colombia at COP18 in Doha, commented that setting up AILAC was a natural progression given that the countries involved already share positions on most of the key issues such as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action—the main vehicle for a post-2020 global climate change agreement.  The decision also helps the group have a more powerful and visible presence.

Garibaldi clarifies that AILAC is not designed as a reaction to one group or the other, but rather an effort to create something new: “Their coming together might help stress opportunities, and not only constraints in facing these challenges, while helping to build bridges to achieve further ambition, within a dynamic view of the existing principles of the convention.”

The AILAC countries were tired of waiting for the ambitious emissions reductions that scientists say are needed.  They are going ahead with ambitious actions, with or without financial support of wealthy countries.  However Costa Rica’s Minister of the Environment, René Castro, made clear in his “High Level” speech last week that funding from the developed countries could catalyze the transition to a greener path.  “We need to find a solution to the current silence on climate finance. Many developing countries are engaging in NAMAs [Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions] and adaptation projects, and are deeply worried about the lack of fund-predictability post-2012 when the fast start finance period ends. … [we need] clarity on how the commitment will be translated into a clear, credible trajectory that will build trust in the developing world.”

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a mainstay reporting service for the negotiations, in its summary of the Doha negotiations describes AILAC’s emergence as an indication of a potentially major change: “The evolving negotiating dynamics perhaps herald a new world order on a different level. Developing countries have started to look at the future with different perspectives.”

Mónica Araya described to us how the group’s “objective is to build bridges to be constructive, propositive and open to dialogue” in what are often polarized and unproductive negotiations.  “The point is not to tell others they are wrong. Our objective is to move the 2015 negotiations forward,” she says. The timing for this kind of leadership is ripe.

Qatar’s bleak desert landscape is broken only by green patches where the nation’s many guest workers frequently hose down its manicured gardens or flip on underground irrigation systems.  Likewise, the greenest shoots in the vast granite hallways of the Qatar National Convention Center were from this group of middle-income developing countries that do not neatly fit in the story of North versus South.  For example, the Dominican Republic, ranked 90th in the world with a GDP per capita of just $5,500 a year, made an unconditional pledge last week to reduce its emissions by 25 percent below 2010 levels by 2020.  That such a poor nation is willing to make a commitment that far exceeds that of the United States (with income at $48,000 per person) should jolt them into action.

Back in Bali in 2007, the U.S. was told brusquely by a developing country delegate to “lead, follow, or get out of the way.”  AILAC’s move is a brave “revolt of the middle,” by actors who have offered leadership with ambitious action, without waiting for emissions reductions, pledges or even financial support from others.  This is a courageous move of nations taking an uncertain step towards the long-term goal of low carbon resilient economies and away from old negotiating positions that avoid commitments.  We should follow their leadership with our own bold action and support:  We need to learn from these leaders and water these precious green shoots.