Latin American Countries at COP20: Reflections and Outlook for 2015

The United Nations climate change negotiations live to fight another day, and Latin American countries have played important roles in their advance. The results of the Lima climate conference, or “COP20,” last December are generally considered a success—albeit a very limited one.  

The host nation Peru pulled one out of the bag at the talks—while a serious breakdown seemed imminent as time ran out, a last minute agreement was produced two days after the conference was scheduled to finish.

The negotiations now enter a final stretch, with the Paris climate meeting in December looming ever closer—this is the deadline to produce a new agreement which is scheduled to come into force from 2020. The Lima Call for Climate Action is a step in the right direction, but most of the hard decisions are yet to be tackled. This year is going to be a fascinating but extremely tough year in global climate politics.

Despite the Lima deal being weak, as Michael Jacobs suggests, it managed to achieve its two primary goals while also representing a fundamental breakthrough for the global response to climate change. The meeting was charged with adopting an outline of a new text to be agreed in Paris. A vast document was produced, with a plethora of options that countries wish to see in the final agreement. Yet nothing was actually decided on; the difficult decisions on what will stay and what will be scrapped will begin this year.

The second goal was to reach agreement on how countries will devise and submit their national pledges this year (called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” or INDCs in the U.N. lingo), which include information on how countries will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The major breakthrough was that all countries have to reduce their emissions, based on their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR+RC) in light of different national circumstances.” This language is cumbersome, but each word turns out to be extremely important, since the phrase balances traditional agreements that the developed countries would “go first” in their emissions reductions (CBDR+RC), and a new universality, that all countries will act (but according to national circumstances). This represents a significant shift, since previously only developed countries had mandatory obligations while developing countries were required only to make voluntary efforts.

In the case of some Latin American countries and others, they have been pushing for this shift for some time based on the idea that all countries need to act, according to their different responsibilities and capabilities. The fact that this breakthrough happened in one of those countries that has been collectively pushing this position with its partners is fitting.  

The Peruvian presidency of the COP, led by the charismatic Minister of Environment Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, was widely credited for its commitment and hard work to ensure a successful outcome in Lima. The Peruvian delegation was thoroughly engaged throughout the buildup to and during the conference itself. Despite the modest outcome and the COP20 having one of the largest carbon footprints of any U.N. climate meeting, the COP wound up as a diplomatic victory for Peru.

A Spotlight on Latin America

The Lima conference was also noteworthy given the unprecedented number of events related to Latin America, both inside the official venue and throughout the city. Of course, the location of the COP largely explains the number of Latin American focused events, but their diversity and caliber were very impressive, and indicative of a new, heightened level of activity on the issue in the region. Some particular bright spots for the region announced during the conference include the following:

  • Eight Latin American countries (Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, El Salvador, Chile and Costa Rica) announced plans to replant up to 20 million hectares of forests by 2020
  • Chile launched its National Adaptation Plan
  • The Economics of Climate Change in Peru report was launched
  • Costa Rica submitted its Third National Communication to the UNFCCC
  • Four Latin American countries have now pledged funds to the Green Climate Fund. Panama pledged $1 million prior to the COP, while Peru ($6 million), Colombia ($6 million) and Mexico ($10 million) announced their pledges in Lima.
  • Peru was awarded $11.14 million for its urban transport Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA) by the German and British NAMA facility.
  • The Inter-American Development Bank announced Peru will receive a $750 million package of loans for the Lima Metro.

In the following sections are some reflections on Latin American climate change politics in relation to what happened in Lima and what we should be looking out for in 2015. They focus on the economic slowdown in the region, building climate action outside of the U.N. climate talks, the significance of the INDCs, the participation of civil society groups in Lima, and why discussions about regional cooperation on climate change in Latin America matter. Finally, we provide some brief closing remarks.  

Despite Slowdown, Low Carbon Policies Are Essential

Over the last decade Latin American economies grew impressively, with an annual average growth rate of roughly 5 percent. 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 around 1.3 percent in 2014 and prospects this year do not look much better; the IMF and the World Bank foresee growth of 2.2 percent. 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 troubling economic 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.

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 economic 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 prioritized. 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 of the UNFCCC

For observers of the U.N. climate talks, it sometimes feels like the Andean glaciers are melting faster than the rate of progress one sees in the negotiation halls. The UNFCCC is 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 fora 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 neocolonial 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 U.S. 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 U.S., EU, and China respectively, these summits should focus on attempting to minimize the large (and expanding) environmental and carbon footprints of these partnerships from fossil fuel extraction and mining, while maximizing low-carbon opportunities that include taking advantage of impressive renewable energy reserves and prioritizing low-emission transport in the region.    

Latin America is the most urbanized region in the world, with 80 percent 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 coast 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 negotiate at the U.N., but they are a 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 be 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.

The Significance of the 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 two degrees). Since INDCs cover such broad issues of emissions reductions 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 from 2020 and ensuring progress along the way. 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 U.N. 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 democratize the climate change debate in Latin America. Chile’s decision to launch a public consultation in support of the design of its INDC on December 17(running through March 31) is a laudable step. The principal 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.  

Latin American Civil Society Groups Make Their Mark in Lima

The sheer number of events and gatherings in Lima during COP20 both inside and outside the official venue was staggering. Compared to previous COPs, including COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, the number and quality of events focusing on Latin America was unprecedented and reflects the high level of activity on the issue in the region.

On December 10, tens of thousands took to the smog-filled streets of Lima for the Global March in Defense of Mother Earth. The march was Latin America’s largest climate march ever, drawing 15,000 people. Indigenous peoples, trade unionists, women’s groups, students, and global activists came together calling for action not just on climate change, but also for the protection of environmental activists in the region that have faced harassment and violence.

Over the course of 12 days, the “Voices for Climate” space organized by the Peruvian government saw around 80,000 visitors pass through its doors. The space was dedicated to showcasing proposals and initiatives on climate change on the five main issues of Peru’s climate agenda: forests, mountains and water, oceans, energy and sustainable cities.

Behind the scenes, the Peruvian COP20 presidency team was actively engaging with civil society as it prepared to host the COP. This is perhaps unsurprising given COP20 President Manuel Pulgar-Vidal was the former head of one of Peru’s leading environmental organizations, Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental. Nonetheless, it is an important reflection of how non-state actors are engaging at a high level with government, and how some governments are in turn soliciting their input and support. During the COP the Mexican delegation invited civil society groups to a briefing session on the negotiations and Mexico’s participation. Attended by around 30 civil society representatives and the majority of Mexico’s delegation, the briefing was a useful exercise to encourage dialogue and transparency. 

Despite some of these positive examples, there were also various stark reminders about the dangers and difficulties facing civil society groups and citizens working on climate change and environmental issues in general. During the COP20 some of the wives of murdered indigenous leaders from Peru’s Amazon held a demonstration and press conference demanding justice and that the government do more to protect their lands. The Guardian had reported that the anti-logging campaigner Edwin Chota and three other Ashéninka leaders were killed in Peru last September over territory they had being trying to secure for their community.

Meanwhile, authorities in Ecuador repeatedly stopped a group of activists on their way to the COP20, and eventually seized their bus. The activists from the Yasunidos group were on their way to Lima to protest against the decision to extract oil from reserves under Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park. According to the activists, they were stopped because Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, sought to avoid any potentially embarrassing incidences in Lima. Government officials in Ecuador say they stopped the bus due to the driver having the incorrect documentation. The irony of this regrettable situation was that this incident and another involving Ecuador’s decision to deny a request for German parliamentarians to visit the Yasuní national park dominated discussions surrounding Ecuador’s participation at the COP.

At an event on Latin American and Caribbean think tanks, a small group of organizations discussed their views on the lead up to Paris 2015. What was surprising about this event was that only organizations specialized on environmental or climate issues were represented; not one of Peru’s mainstream think tanks working on national economic or development issues was there. The participation of think tanks in Latin America working on economic and development issues is crucial for the climate debate in the region, and this remains a particular challenge for 2015. These organizations have vital perspectives and ideas to contribute, especially on the political process and national debates on development. As the COP20 showed more generally, these think tanks from Latin America are still insufficiently involved in the climate process and debate. With the INDC process now underway and the Paris deadline fast approaching, these think tanks can play a significant role in developing new domestic narratives that combine climate and development objectives.

In Lima we had the opportunity to meet Venezuela’s only member of civil society attending the COP20. Maria Eugenia Rinaudo was working as part of the Adopt a Negotiator group, which for the first time had a Venezuelan civil society representative following the Venezuelan delegation. The outfit had supported Rinaudo to attend the COP; she did not receive any government funding. It is unfortunate that despite Venezuela spending a substantial sum on organizing and hosting a “Social Pre-COP”—which included funding the international travel of global NGO representatives to and from Venezuela—that it could not do anything to support greater participation of national NGO representatives at COP20. Looking ahead, a priority for Venezuela must be to work with national civil society groups to develop an INDC which builds a national climate action plan with comprehensive emissions reduction targets and national adaptation plans which complement its objectives to reduce poverty and inequality.

One Voice or Many?

All Latin American governments agree that climate change is very a serious problem, and they are unified in seeing the UNFCCC as the principal vehicle with which to find a global solution. However, the region is so fragmented on the details of how the issue should be addressed that it would be misleading to bill the meeting as “The Latin American COP.”

Latin America does not tend to speak with one voice on climate change, nor does it adopt common positions the way the EU does at the U.N. climate talks. Instead, countries from the region are part of a dizzying array of groups and blocks, such as BASIC, ALBA, AILAC, SICA and AOSIS. This division at the U.N. climate talks is a reflection of the broader differences in foreign policies and regional integration projects in the region. Regional trade integration groupings, such as ALBA, MERCOSUR and the Pacific Alliance, have distinct outlooks in terms of the role of national governments and how markets and trade should function. These differences extend into the U.N. climate talks, where ALBA countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia have taken positions strongly against carbon markets, while countries in the Pacific Alliance (which overlaps considerably with AILAC) have been in favor and have sought to maximize their returns from them. 

With the start of this critical new year for climate change, it is an important moment to reflect on what the fragmentation in Latin America on the issue means for securing bold climate action and collaboration in the region.

In an unprecedented intervention at COP20, Costa Rica as the rotating president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) made a statement on behalf of the community. The statement’s emphasis was on the need for adaptation to climate impacts. This statement was encouraging given Latin American countries’ shared vulnerability to climate impacts, and it emphasized CELAC’s commitment to the UNFCCC and their support for a legally binding agreement by Paris. Lastly, the statement reflected the region’s commitment to global efforts to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

According to Waldemar Coutts, from Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CELAC statement is the result of a diplomatic effort by Brazil and Chile, with the support of Peru as COP20 president, and the UN economic agency ECLAC (CEPAL in Spanish). The Brazil-Chile initiative focuses on establishing dialogues between Latin American and Caribbean countries on climate change in order to build trust and understanding between countries based on common values and identities and to strengthen the region´s contribution to the U.N. climate negotiations.

Yet despite the importance of this joint political statement by CELAC, the level of fragmentation within the region was on full display in Lima. As the draft texts went around the negotiations there was a clear split between those Latin American countries in favor of the drafts—such as Brazil, Mexico and AILAC members—and those opposing it, such as ALBA members, Paraguay and El Salvador.

In another unprecedented step, the presidents of the Pacific Alliance trade bloc (Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia) presented the Declaration of the Pacific Alliance on Climate Change. The declaration emphasizes that climate change is one of the greatest global challenges that requires concrete actions by all countries. This is significant, given it is the first time that leaders of the Pacific Alliance nations have made such a statement on the issue. Further, since the Pacific Alliance countries belong to separate groups (the Environmental Integrity Group and AILAC) in the U.N. climate talks, the declaration is a positive signal that these countries continue to be close allies and will hopefully be doing more on climate change within their trade agreement. Colombian President Santos commented, “Our shared objectives and similar objectives are a clear manifestation of our purpose to speak as a single voice and act on this transcendental issue about what we do with climate change.”

At the XIII Summit of ALBA, which met in Havana in December at the same time as the COP, leaders endorsed a Bolivian proposal to host a conference on climate change for social movements. The meeting is scheduled to take place in September or October, and would aim to set out proposals that would be taken to the Paris conference. Bolivian President Evo Morales said, “Here there is a very important responsibility for us, in light of the failure in Lima over climate change. As our environmental ministers develop a proposal, to work at this level and to propose a worldwide meeting of social movements that could be the proposal to save lives and humanity.”

With the start of this critical new year for climate change, it is an important moment to reflect on what the fragmentation in Latin America on the issue means for securing bold climate action and collaboration in the region.

Taking into account the myriad regional integration projects, Latin American trade initiatives will continue to shape national and sub-regional climate agendas, as we have seen with the Pacific Alliance and ALBA. With various summits coming up in China, Costa Rica and Europe, attempts to continue climate dialogues within CELAC will probably continue. These regional projects follow their own logics, but that does not mean they cannot be complementary and beneficial overall to securing greater climate action. However, CELAC faces a particular challenge, to ensure that lofty political statements can achieve actual results in ensuring greater convergence of positions at the United Nations. CELAC has yet to create a specific initiative on climate change, one which could boost climate action and build trust between its members.

Latin America’s diversity is regarded by some as a strength rather than a weakness, given the range of the approaches on responding to climate change. The region’s lack of a common voice keeps key issues on the negotiating table. By not adopting a single position, Latin American countries have had the flexibility to reach out to similarly-minded countries beyond the region, which allows them to influence the international debate in important ways.

Other observers suggest that a region which speaks with so many disparate voices loses attention to those which unify and amplify single messages. Certainly some of the common risks Latin America shares in vulnerability to climate impacts could be tackled more effectively together. A place to begin might be to enhance regional cooperation on adaptation plans and promoting renewable energy. This cooperation could have real benefits for building climate action and improving trust and having a positive knock-on effect for building common positions at the UN climate talks. Our own book on Latin American climate politics due out from MIT Press later this year considers this question.

To Paris and Beyond

As we enter this rollercoaster year on climate change before the negotiations in Paris, two key things need to happen. First, Latin American countries need to develop robust INDCs that can set in motion the shift to low-emission, prosperous and resilient economies. Energy efficiency and renewable investments can be coupled with disaster risk reduction and urban resilience planning and the construction of mass sustainable public transport systems. The input of civil society especially in relation to the development of the INDCs is essential. Second, to increase the chances of an ambitious, equitable and fair deal to emerge from Paris, all Latin American countries (and others around the world) need to play a constructive and proactive role at the multiple negotiations sessions throughout the year that will culminate in Paris. 

The international community needs leaders to champion the cause of climate change in 2015. Latin America has some candidates, including presidents from Peru, Chile, or Colombia. However, despite the progress made in the region, there is still a large gulf between leaders’ rhetoric on climate and what is actually happening back home. Closing that gap to ensure climate policies are implemented and advanced is a major challenge that will make the difference in Paris.

Last month’s conference in Lima demonstrated how Latin American countries are attempting to be part of the global solution to climate change. In a rapidly warming world, these proactive roles are urgently needed, but only if the rhetoric is matched by real action. Since the region only contributes roughly 11 percent of global emissions, its ability to have a major impact on bringing down emissions globally is significantly less than emission monsters like China or the United States. In spite of being intermediate players, the region’s actions and political will to curb emissions still matter, as all nations are required to put forward national contributions.

Latin American countries will play a pivotal role in determining whether the Paris agreement is ambitious or weak. Following a successful COP on its home turf in 2014, Latin American countries cannot rest on their laurels, but need to follow through and push for an ambitious agreement in Paris while utilizing the INDCs to build low-emission, resilient, and prosperous economies at home.