Argentina elections: Where do candidates stand on the environment?

Economy dominates the debate, but from far-right Milei to the ruling party’s Massa, candidates have made proposals on energy, lithium and climate
<p>Far-right presidential candidate Javier Milei at a rally in September. The libertarian economist took first place in the August primaries, and will face the ruling party and the traditional right at the polls this Sunday. (Image: Alamy)</p>

Far-right presidential candidate Javier Milei at a rally in September. The libertarian economist took first place in the August primaries, and will face the ruling party and the traditional right at the polls this Sunday. (Image: Alamy)

As Argentina heads to the polls this Sunday, 22 October, the dashboard does not make for pretty reading: annual inflation rose to 138% in September; 40% of the population is reportedly living below the poverty line; heavy foreign debt is straining government finances and policies; and in the agricultural sector a prolonged drought has already caused over US$14 billion of losses for the 2022/23 season alone.

Bearing the brunt of these troubles is a population that appears increasingly weary with the political establishment, disillusioned with the government of current president Alberto Fernández (2019–) and still reeling from the challenges left by his predecessor Mauricio Macri (2015–2019). Nonetheless, the results of August’s primaries – which in Argentina see the public determine the presidential candidate for each party or coalition – came as a surprise to many, with far-right libertarian Javier Milei winning just shy of 30% of the vote, the highest share of any candidate.

An ultraliberal economist, and a deputy in the Argentine congress since 2021, Milei took first place in the primaries as the candidate for his own party, La Libertad Avanza (Liberty advances), which has promised to abolish the country’s central bank and make the US dollar the national currency.

Milei’s social conservativism and political positions have also courted controversy, among them his anti-abortion stance, climate change denial, and proposals to legalise the trade in human organs. He has also struck on deeply sensitive ground by calling into question the number of people disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship (1976–1983), held by many to be as high as 30,000 victims.

Garnering the second most votes in the August primaries was Juntos por el Cambio (Together for change), a coalition that racked up significant foreign debt with the International Monetary Fund during the Macri government, and now finds its candidate in Patricia Bullrich. Formerly security minister under Macri, Bullrich’s campaign promises have duly focused on strict security measures as well as reducing inflation, though with limited detail on how this would be achieved.

Two men in suits stand in front of a blue screen and behind a table with microphones on
President Alberto Fernández (left) with Unión por la Patria presidential candidate Sergio Massa, during Massa’s swearing-in as economy minister in August 2022 (Image: Casa Rosada, CC BY 2.5 AR)

Landing in third place in the primaries was Unión por la Patria (Union for the homeland), the ruling coalition. With President Fernández opting not to stand again, selected as its candidate was Sergio Massa, a former mayor for the city of Tigre, north of Buenos Aires. Now the country’s economy minister, he has since faced the unenviable task of trying to stem the economic crisis, while also campaigning for the presidency.

On the eve of the elections, Diálogo Chino looks at where the three main presidential candidates stand on key issues linked to climate change and the environment, based on their parties’ electoral platforms, their campaign proposals and two official debates that have been held. We also hear reaction from environmental organisations on these proposals. None of the candidates’ press teams responded to requests for interview.

Climate: Milei’s denial

While Sergio Massa and Patricia Bullrich have made clear their acknowledgement of climate change, the scientific consensus on its causes, and made mention of the need for action, the denialism of Javier Milei has alarmed environmental organisations.

Like Donald Trump in the United States or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – for whom he has expressed admiration – Milei had already made abundantly clear his stance on climate change even before launching his presidential campaign, regularly referring to the phenomenon as a “socialist hoax”.

In the second presidential debate on 8 October, Milei argued that what he denies is not climate change per se but its human causes, attributing rising temperature to natural fluctuations of the climate – despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the dominant role of human activities in driving climate change.

With this denialism at its foundation, La Libertad Avanza makes no mention of climate action in its campaign documents, and has pledged to dissolve Argentina’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development – a measure described as inadmissible by the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), an Argentine NGO.

In a recent release detailing environmental policy proposals ahead of the elections – in which it made no mention of candidates by name – FARN described the ministry as “a key area for the definition of policies that affect the environment and the quality of life of the population. Beyond the results of its management, it is a necessary institutional instrument.”

Ramon Cruz, former president of the Sierra Club, a US-based environmental organisation, offers a cautionary tale from the Trump era on the impacts of a climate-denialist presidency: “The damage was much worse than I thought. Internationally, [Trump] took away strength and legitimacy from the Paris Agreement process. Domestically, he dismantled a regulatory scaffolding that had taken some four decades to build.”

Brazilian youth activist Paloma Costa describes similar damage caused by Bolsonaro in Brazil. She pointed to negative impacts including disinformation and polarisation, the discrediting of science, and difficulties for environmental defenders and those in environmental offices.

Energy: All support Vaca Muerta

The energy sector generates more greenhouse gases than any other sector in Argentina, contributing over 50% of the country’s emissions, with 88% of the country’s energy coming from fossil fuels. For all three candidates, the sector is also considered as fundamental for the country’s development and to overcome the current economic crisis, though they show some differences.

La Libertad Avanza has said it would encourage investments in oil and gas – most notably at the Vaca Muerta oil and gas field in Neuquén province – to “generate income in foreign currency”. It has also suggested that it would open up the gas sector to further privatisation, including the government’s 51% stake in state energy firm YPF.

Unión por la Patria has also backed expansion at Vaca Muerta, both in its election campaigning and during its time in office. The coalition has said it would promote the transformation of the petrochemical industry. In the second presidential debate, Massa said he considered gas as a “renewable energy”, one that Argentina should exploit “for the country to be one of the great world players”.

Patricia Bullrich’s campaign has detailed plans for increased regulation of gas and electricity markets to “establish clear and stable rules” that provide security to the sector, while also pledging to expand oil and gas pipelines and electricity networks through public-private investments.

Figures in the environmental and energy sectors have reacted with mixed feelings to this consistent embrace of fossil fuels by all three candidates. “I wish more hydrocarbons were not exploited, but we have to take into account the current economic context and work on a strategy of greater diversification of the energy mix,” says Lara Bernstein, an economics and energy consultant based in Buenos Aires.

Sol Aliano, who consults on energy and climate change, tells Diálogo Chino: “The reasons for so much focus on Vaca Muerta in a context of climate crisis are complex. The oil and gas lobby cannot be underestimated, and the country has a historical trajectory and infrastructure in hydrocarbons. The threat of the climate crisis has not been fully appreciated.”

The threat of the climate crisis has not been fully appreciated
Sol Aliano, energy and climate change consultant

The promotion of renewable energies appears as a minor goal in the proposals of the three candidates, with no specific targets as yet having been mentioned – to the frustration of environmental organisations. “The answer, without a doubt, is not the expansion of infrastructure or hydrocarbon fields. Gas continues to be a fossil fuel and, however much it is conceptualised as a ‘bridge’ and promoted as a solution, it is part of the problem,” FARN denounces.

Balancing the importance of the energy sector for the country’s economy with the necessary reduction of emissions raises questions about the candidates’ proposals. Would Milei’s proposed dollarisation, for example, be beneficial for these activities? “I don’t see opportunities, I see more challenges,” says Aliano. “How can you make decisions if you can’t decide on your currency? Some say it would stabilise inflation. I think it’s a loss of sovereignty.”

Lithium: a lifeline and a challenge

Though fossil fuel extraction is a focus for all candidates, the energy transition features in their campaigns in the role of the country’s lithium resources, as a central mineral for electric mobility and batteries. Mining for its extraction entails environmental impacts, and has already been met with resistance and concerns from local and Indigenous communities that live where the resource is found.

The exploitation of lithium is prominent in all presidential candidates’ proposals. Milei would encourage investment in lithium to bring in foreign currency, while Massa eyes lithium as a boost to the domestic economy and industry. Massa’s platform speaks of “accompanying the development of sustainable mining, as a pillar of regional and national development while preserving the environment.” Bullrich also describes mining as “sustainable”, which will be promoted with “high environmental standards and social benefits”.

Two protesters wearing feather headresses and holding a banner in bright sunlight
Indigenous people from Jujuy province, northern Argentina, marched in Buenos Aires this August to protest against a provincial constitutional reform that they describe as an attack on their ancestral rights to land that the state intends to use for lithium extraction (Image: Alamy)

Environmental organisations, however, remain cautious. Pía Marchegiani, FARN’s director of environmental policy, tells Diálogo Chino: “Latin America has enormous reserves of lithium, but it does not have the capacity to transform this mineral into batteries; this happens in factories located in other countries. So, once again, the countries of the region are caught up in the need to extract minerals for export.”

To this, the researcher adds two other challenges: a lack of information on the environmental impacts of the activity on the salt flats of South America and the functioning of the water system that can be used in decision-making processes, including climate action; and an alleged lack of respect for the rights of local Indigenous communities to participate in the decision-making process, to be consulted with prior and informed consent.

At the Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights held in Santiago de Chile last week, Clemente Flores, a resident of the El Moreno community in Salinas Grandes in the province of Jujuy in Argentina, said: “We are concerned about what the state wants to do to violate the rights of the communities. We have seen how foreign companies arrive with the support of the state, instead of supporting the communities who have been working in defence of their land and water. They are sacrificing the communities to sell that it will be the energy to save the planet.”

Issues of community relations, consultation and benefits around lithium resources are not mentioned in any candidate’s proposals.

Agriculture: Realising potential, and facing deforestation

Agriculture, livestock, forestry and other land uses make up the second largest source of GHG emissions in Argentina with nearly 40% of the total.

While there has been little elaborated around these activities, La Libertad Avanza proposes “good practices” in agriculture that consider the “sustainability of the soil and preservation of the environment” – actions that may be at odds with Milei’s pledge to eliminate Argentina’s environment ministry.

Unión por la Patria vowed to develop “new agricultural policies to consolidate the global leadership of the sector” and to incorporate further technological advancements, without offering much detail.

Meanwhile, the agenda that Bullrich presented after the August primary includes its own chapter on the subject, in which her coalition proposes tax benefits for agribusiness, the opening of new markets, and improvements and expansion of transport.

Aside from Massa, who pledges to deliver on the country’s National Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Plan from 2022, the candidates do not mention specific policies that would be implemented to better adapt the sector to the current impacts of climate change – such as droughts or floods – and to modify its processes to reduce the emissions they generate.

FARN, for its part, says these omissions are problematic given the scale of climate challenges. “It is necessary to transform the industrialised agricultural system – oriented towards the production of commodities and not food, and free to the volatility of international market prices for exports and inputs – and promote agroecological practices to restore soils, increase the resilience of systems in the face of climate change and reduce emissions,” the organisation wrote in its proposals.

Gran Chaco TFA
Forest is cleared in Chaco province, Argentina. Presidential candidate Sergio Massa has proposed halting the illegal deforestation of native forests and progressively increasing the funding foreseen in the country’s Forest Law (Image: Martin Katz / Greenpeace)

Massa’s environmental agenda includes halting the illegal deforestation of native forests and progressively increasing the funding foreseen in the Forest Law – a law that, since its enactment in 2007, regardless of the party in office, has not received the funding it was due for its implementation. During the second presidential debate, he asked to include environmental crimes in the country’s criminal code so anyone who “pollutes a river, takes down a tree or destroys a wetland” can be imprisoned from three to eight years. Such changes to the criminal code have also been promoted by FARN.

International agreements: Fulfilling them (or not)

Argentina has signed up to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to address the world’s most pressing problems in 17 goals, ranging from ending poverty to ensuring gender equality. Milei said at the second presidential debate that he would break with this international commitment: “We are not going to adhere to the 2030 Agenda. We do not adhere to cultural Marxism. We do not adhere to decadence.” What he did not answer specifically in the debate was whether he would follow the same path as Trump and pull the country out of the Paris Agreement, the accord reached by countries in 2015 to tackle climate change.

Doing so, and not having a solid climate policy, could present obstacles for Argentina in accessing international finance for climate action. In this sense, Massa’s environmental agenda proposes not only to comply with the country’s National Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Plan in terms of domestic policy, but also to demand that developed countries fulfil their long-unmet commitment to mobilise US$100 billion in climate finance for developing countries.

The current finance minister’s agenda includes proposals for debt-for-nature swaps that would “improve debt conditions, reduce the fiscal burden of debt on the national budget and allocate savings from bond swaps to ecosystem conservation actions, creation of new national parks and equipping existing parks.” Such proposals will depend on how global discussions on modifying the international financial system continue.

For her part, Bullrich sees compliance with the Paris Agreement as key and would promote sustainable development through international relations by “respecting environmental agreements and concluding sectoral investment guarantee treaties such as energy and mining,” as stated in her campaign materials.

FARN explains that the environmental agenda is part of a highly relevant political debate around the world to promote policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but stresses: “This requires bodies that design, implement and evaluate public policies, backed by science.”

The presidential elections will be held on Sunday, 22 October. If no candidate gains a sufficient majority, there will be a run-off vote, to be held on 19 November. The new government would then take office on 10 December – two days before the end of COP28, the United Nations’ upcoming climate change conference.