Latin America seeks decisive role at COP21 in Paris

Climate vulnerability motivates region’s negotiators but varying ambitions hinder unified position

“Every day we are becoming more vulnerable to climate change,” warns Monica Echegoyen of Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, who argues that this recognition is driving Latin America’s shift towards greener development paradigms.

Latin America’s negotiators have a special role at the UN’s climate talks because their countries are growing without causing the same levels of pollution created by developed countries, Echegoyen says. The UN’s 195 member countries will meet in Paris for two weeks later this year in an attempt to secure a global agreement, active from 2020, that will limit global temperature rises to 2°C.

Mexico was praised for the early submission and ambition of its national climate plan, known as its Intended National Determined Contribution (or INDC) in UN jargon. Latin America’s second largest economy committed to reduce 2013 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2030, decoupling them from levels of growth as of 2026.

But experts say that Latin America’s different political and intraregional negotiating blocs complicate outlining a unified regional position and they argue that not all countries have demonstrated the same ambition as Mexico. Brazil, Latin America’s largest GHG emitter, is yet to submit its INDC (it has until October 1) but hinted at its emissions targets in June in a joint declaration with the US. The declaration was subsequently slammed by analysts.

Each to its own?

“Our contribution is realistic and ambitious. It reflects the national effort that our country is committed to achieving. But we also show in the document that we need international support to achieve some goals,” says Echegoyen. While Mexico may have clearly and independently stated its position, some Latin American nations are more concerned about how other national commitments impact their own.

Maria Cristina Villanueva, a climate negotiator for Peru, which has not yet submitted its INDC, is cautious; “we know that the first INDC group will not be ambitious enough,” she says, adding that some countries are not taking actions commensurate with the urgency of climate change.

According to Adriano Santiago Oliveira, director of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment’s Department of Climate Change, Brazil will present a document that is “fair to the country and realistic”.

“We will arrive in Paris with very important results to present. If we take the last 10 years, we have achieved a very strong reduction in deforestation, of about 41%,” Oliveira claims.

Some researchers, however, contest government figures and claim rates of deforestation are on the rise, causing emissions to do the same. Experts recently criticised Brazil for failing to commit to tackling deforestation beyond a pledge to impose a rate of 0% ‘illegal’ deforestation – essentially just enforcing the law.

Oliveira defends the Brazilian position, saying that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the treaty signed by UN member nations in 1992 agreeing to limit greenhouse gas emissions without stipulating how, is also a development convention. And development involves a number of complicated issues.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about competitiveness, energy and food security, job creation and technological innovation. These are challenging things,” says Oliveira.

Guy Edwards from the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University is co-author of the study A new global agreement can catalyze climate action in Latin America, which stresses the need to ‘mainstream’ climate change into national and regional development policy.

Edwards maintains that Latin American countries have maintained an active role in the UN climate negotiations and some are taking important steps to reduce emissions.

Despite its INDC, Edwards’ study warns that Mexico still has much to do to tackle climate change and that the recent energy reforms introduced by President Peña Nieto favour fossil fuels.

Peru, which hosted the last COP, argues that the region has played a unique role in the negotiations. “We are a diverse region, with countries and ecosystems that are particularly vulnerable to climate change,” says Villanueva, adding; “but we are also able to take action and this affords us a strong voice in the negotiations and in establishing an agreement to support developing countries as they implement ambitious actions.”

Diverse representation

The presidents of the Alliance of the Pacific (L-R) Colombia's Manuel Santos, Chile's Michele Bachelet, Peru's Ollanta Humala and Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico at COP20 in Peru (image: Ministerio de Relaciones Extranjeros/ Cancillería del Perú).
The presidents of the Alliance of the Pacific (L-R) Colombia’s Manuel Santos, Chile’s Michele Bachelet, Peru’s Ollanta Humala and Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico  (image: Ministerio de Relaciones Extranjeros/ Cancillería del Perú).

About 25% of the world’s arable land, 22% of its forests, and 31% of fresh water are found in Latin America. Although they share many interests and natural resources, Latin American governments are organised into different intraregional and political blocs, a fact that hinders joint action at the COP, Oliveira says.

The Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC), for example, brings together countries that share the same vision and believe in a binding agreement such as Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica.

Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba and smaller Caribbean states negotiate within the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and CELAC, the Community of  Latin American and Caribbean States which was established in 2010 and brings together the 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. But CELAC still lacks the coordination and firepower of more organised blocs like the European Union.

Brazil participates most actively in BASIC, a group comprising other “emerging nations” South Africa, India, and China.

“What happens in climate negotiations is that the Latin American countries talk to each other, but are separate,” says Oliveira, adding that while this presents challenges, working towards a closer alignment is more important.

“The countries in the region are developing nations. If there were a very strong Latin American agreement, it would be good to convince other developing countries to do the same,” argues Carlos Nobre, a prominent expert on climate change in Latin America.

Expectations for a global deal

“I’m optimistic,” says Oliveira, referring to the likelihood of a global climate deal resulting from the Paris talks. Oliveira believes that any deal will take the form of a rules-based system limiting GHG emissions (similar to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol).

But compatriot Carlos Nobre sees little chance of the next COP going down in history for producing a comprehensive global agreement; “I think it’s unlikely that there will be a paradigm shift,” he laments.

Nobre reckons that emissions reductions would have to take place very quickly to ensure that temperature increase would be limited to 2 degrees, and he believes few countries would be willing to make this mandatory; “I think there might very well be a series of commitments by some countries to cut their emissions, but it will not be binding. Each will be in accordance with the country’s ability, resources, and national targets,” he says.

For Jose Marengo, a researcher at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific case for climate change, which was previously deemed inconclusive, now clearly shows that no one is “fooling around” on the severity of the issue.

Paulo Nobre, coordinator of the Brazilian Climate Change Research Network, argues that this education on climate change along with and sustainable development opportunities should be priorties at COP.

“We have to preserve biodiversity, but at the same time we have to give people the opportunity to sustain their lives,” Nobre says.