Latin America is driving ambitious climate commitments

Regional commitments to restore degraded forests evidence of Latin America’s growing global role

The 20th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru, came to an end last Sunday with very little progress to show regarding a future global agreement specifying concrete targets for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.

But midway through the talks, forested countries – among them Peru, Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica – announced the Lima Challenge, a set of goals requiring additional measures to mitigate carbon emissions from land use by signatories to the Declaration on the Forest. There was also an announcement by another group of Latin American countries including Mexico of ‘20×20’ – an ambitious scheme to restore 20 million hectares of degraded forest across Latin America by 2020.

Colombian Environment Minister, Gabriel Vallejo López told Diálogo Chino that Latin America is leading by example: “I believe that Latin America has a fundamental strategic role. This declaration that we have made on protecting the forests is a concrete step forwards. Latin America is leading many processes,” he stated.

The 20×20 initiative is led by Mexico, which has committed to restoring 8.5 million hectares of land. Next on the list is Peru with 3.2 million, Guatemala with 1.2 million, Colombia and El Salvador with one million each; Ecuador with 500,000 hectares; Chile with 100,000 and Costa Rica with 50,000 hectares.

Notably absent was Brazil. But the scale of Brazil’s reforestation task has meant looking to a country outside Latin America – China.

Organised by the Brazil-China Learning Exchange on Forest Landscape Restoration, earlier this year experts from Brazil traveled to China to learn from reforestation programs that have been in place since the 1980’s.

Around 40% of the Amazon has been either deforested or degraded and although the majority of the rain forest is situated within Brazil’s borders, its successful restoration will require cooperation from outside them.

Vallejo López recognizes that the responsibility to protect the Amazon basin is not only of the nine countries through which the rivers of the region flow, but rather of all the nations of the world. “The Amazon is the lung of the world. It is the responsibility of all countries to monitor the forest’s protection,” he underlined.

As well as the Amazon, the initiative includes temperate biomes and Patagonia, which has a specific regional program for the conservation of 4.1 million hectares of land. The initiative will be financed by a group of investors who announced the injection of some $US 365m.

In the opinion of American rainforest expert Daniel Nepstad, of the Earth Innovation Institute, tropical lands have the greatest potential for restoring forested areas and supplying the world’s food production. “Latin America has another type of leadership. Before it was only Europe, China and the rest of the world. Now there is a collective agenda with another level of participation. The innovation and leadership towards 2020 is coming from the base,” he said to Diálogo Chino.

According to Eduardo Rojas, UN Assistant Director General for Food and Agriculture (FAO) and also responsible for the forestry program, Latin American countries have greater difficulty in preserving their forests “than the highly populated zones like Europe and Asia.” The first task is to slow deforestation, which, in his opinion, must be done together.

“We have witnessed several commitments being made outside the conference, climate taskforces and forestry taskforces, as well as Latin American countries that have included forest restoration in their agendas. All this complements international negotiations. We know that there is a difference between a joint initiative and a joint position taken by the countries. There is a clear difference between the Latin American countries,” remarked the Director General of the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Peter Holmgren.

This emphasis on reforestation stems from a growing recognition in Latin America of its unique responsibilities and the effects of agriculture on the region’s emissions.

“It is an initiative coming from countries that understand the need to do their bit for the climate issue. It’s a significant commitment as a large portion of the region’s emissions come from using the land for agriculture,” highlighted Nigel Seizer, Global Director of the Forests Programs of the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Latin America is an outlier compared to the rest of the world in terms of the root causes of its carbon emissions. Globally, emissions from land use account for only a minority of emissions while in Latin America they account for over half.