COP28: Latin America splits on fossil fuels and farming

Opening days of UN climate summit see ambition and ambivalence, with differences among region’s leaders on tackling emissions and climate crisis
<p>Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber (centre, raised hands) at a panel event on 2 December. The Brazilian president has faced criticism for announcing oil initiatives while at the summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Image: <a href="">Stuart Wilson</a> /  <a href="">COP28</a>, <a href="">CC BY NC SA</a>)</p>

Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber (centre, raised hands) at a panel event on 2 December. The Brazilian president has faced criticism for announcing oil initiatives while at the summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Image: Stuart WilsonCOP28, CC BY NC SA)

With nearly 100,000 attendees piling into a sprawling Dubai venue, the United Nations’ COP28 climate change summit has at times felt more like a World Cup or World Expo than the site of vital international negotiations. Nonetheless, governments, civil society and private sector representatives are all in town for two weeks of talks, looking to agree on ways to drive increased action on climate change.

For Latin America, the answers aren’t straightforward. The region contributes less than 10% of the world’s emissions, mostly from its energy sector, agriculture and land use change, and its leaders have presented differing visions at COP28 on how to reduce these releases, while largely agreeing on the need for more climate finance from developed countries.

The presidents of two of Latin America’s largest economies, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, both used their addresses at the summit’s opening to state their commitment to climate action, but claimed a lesser responsibility than developed countries – calls echoed by Paraguay’s Santiago Peña and Honduras’ Xiomara Castro, plus Bolivian vice-president David Choquehuanca.

“I come as a representative of the people of the global south, historically colonised and the main providers of resources for the rest of the world. We are facing the worst consequences of the climate crisis while the world’s most powerful individuals make plans to escape to other planets, leaving behind a devastated planet,” Castro said.

The Honduran president, who delivered a list of seven suggestions to address the climate crisis, from debt swaps to reducing consumption in developed economies, blamed capitalism for the world’s rising temperatures. Bolivia’s Choquehuanca struck a similar tone: “The global north is responsible for the global imbalance we are seeing. They seek permanent growth to our detriment.”

For Brazil’s Lula, the principle of countries’ common but differentiated responsibilities for addressing the climate crisis was said to be non-negotiable. “Threatening it goes against any basic notion of climate justice. This notion demands that financing and technology transfer obligations be fulfilled,” he added.

Meanwhile, Petro said emissions “can be measured in social inequality” as the rich countries are the ones polluting the most. “They are expanding their carbon consumption and taking humanity towards crisis,” he added.

The Colombian president also called for a restructuring of the world’s financial systems to help developing countries address climate and sustainable development challenges. He also appealed for unity among countries of the global south in their positions, as the summit heads towards negotiations in its second week.

Gustavo Petro Urrego behind podium
Colombian president Gustavo Petro used his address to the COP28 summit on 2 December to state his country’s commitment to climate action, but called on developed countries to shoulder more responsibility (Image: Mahmoud Khaled / COP28, CC BY NC SA)

The fossil fuel debate

The choice of the United Arab Emirates, a global leader in the oil and gas industry, as COP28’s host attracted widespread criticism from environmental activists, as did the election of the summit’s president, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, simultaneously the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

This has helped to thrust the fossil fuel debate to the top of the summit’s agenda. The first draft text of the Global Stocktake, intended to evaluate progress on climate action and to outline what more is needed to limit global warming to 1.5C, currently mentions both the “phase-out” and “phase-down” of fossil fuels – hotly contested wording, with many fossil fuel-dependent states pushing for the less ambitious latter phrase. The text, including this key final word choice, is likely to change as negotiations move forward.

COP28 has so far underscored the differing ambitions and paths towards the energy transition among the countries of Latin America, where some, such as Argentina, still plan to expand production, while others, such as Colombia look to chart a course to a post-oil future.

On Saturday, Colombian president Petro announced at the summit that the country would formally join a bloc promoting a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty that would end exploration and expansion. The campaign, initially led by civil society groups, has so far been supported by 10 countries, mostly small island states, and 95 cities and subnational governments. “It’s time for more countries to follow suit, first and foremost the rich nations from the global north,” said Alex Rafalowicz, the initiative’s director.

Along with Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and 100 other countries, Colombia also signed up to the voluntary pledge to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 – one of the key agreements targeted by the COP28 presidency.

Countries have rightly recognised that renewable energy is the future of the Earth’s energy generation needs with this pledge, but without phasing out all fossil fuels at the same time, we will not prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis
Dean Cooper, global energy lead for WWF

“Countries have rightly recognised that renewable energy is the future of the Earth’s energy generation needs with this pledge, but without phasing out all fossil fuels at the same time, we will not prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” Dean Cooper, global energy lead for WWF, said of the renewable energy pledge.

Among the other notable announcements to gain signatories from Latin America was the voluntary pledge by 50 oil companies to reach net zero emissions in their operations by 2050, including state-owned firms Petrobras of Brazil and YPF of Argentina. The Oil and Gas Decarbonisation Charter was hailed by Al-Jaber as a “great first step” for the industry, but has been met with fierce criticism: in an open letter, 320 environmental groups labelled the voluntary pledges as a “smokescreen” and “dangerous distraction”, which “serves primarily to greenwash the fossil fuel industry”, calling for a full phase-out to be negotiated at COP28.

people holding protest signs
Protesters call for a full phase-out of fossil fuels at COP28 on 4 December. In an open letter, 320 environmental groups labelled the voluntary pledge by oil companies to reduce their emissions as serving “primarily to greenwash the fossil fuel industry”. (Image: Christopher Edralin / COP28, CC BY NC SA)

Brazil’s Lula was a star of the show at last year’s COP27, and since returning as president in January has made notable progress on some of the green pledges that were central to his campaign, notably on slashing deforestation rates in the country. COP28, however, was a more complex outing for the leader.

While acknowledging the progress and potential of renewables in Brazil, Lula faced scrutiny from campaigners over Brazil’s announcement – and the timing of it during the COP summit – that it will join OPEC+, a group composed of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), plus its oil-producing allies.

“Does the country want to be a climate leader or a fossil fuel-dependent state? It can’t be both at the same time,” said Peri Dias, Latin America representative for environmental organisation, speaking at COP28. In a meeting with Brazilian NGOs at COP, Lula said that by joining OPEC+ he could “help convince the biggest oil producers” to use their profits to support the energy transition.

Agriculture and trade

It hasn’t been all fossil fuels at COP28. Discussions over agriculture are also high on the agenda for Latin American governments. Brazil and Argentina, the region’s agricultural powerhouses, shared similar concerns about potential changes in trade regulations aimed at preventing environmental damage in the sector. Countries also expressed different stances on a new declaration that aims to bring down the sector’s emissions.

At the very start of COP28, Brazil, on behalf of the BASIC climate negotiating group, which also includes India, China and South Africa, asked for the inclusion of their concerns over “unilateral and coercive trade measures” on the summit’s agenda. Countries, Brazil’s letter to the COP secretaries read, should “reiterate opposition to the politicisation of climate change issues and all forms of unilateralism and protectionism.”

Though it ultimately failed to make it onto the COP agenda, Brazil’s request was a reaction to a new European Union law to ban the imports of commodities associated with deforestation, as well as to an environmental clause the EU included this year as an additional requirement for a trade agreement with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc Brazil shares with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Similar concerns were shared by Argentina, which published a joint statement with agribusiness lobby groups. Without making specific reference to the EU, it decried “unilateral and restrictive trade measures that, far from delivering environmental results, actually seek to protect industries and internal markets from international competition.”

Ursula von der Leyen and President Lula
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and President Lula of Brazil at the COP28 summit. More doubts over the long-delayed EU-Mercosur trade deal were heard at the summit, with an agreement not likely to be concluded before the end of the year. (Image: Ricardo Stuckert / Brazilian Presidency)

During his time at COP28, Lula met with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and with Spanish president Pedro Sánchez, and said the two blocs were on the verge of closing the long-delayed trade deal, agreed in 2019 but yet to be formalised. The EU hit the brakes after former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, but Lula, currently holding the Mercosur presidency, is keen to see the deal over the line.

The Mercosur bloc is holding a presidential meeting this week in Brazil, where the agreement had looked set to be discussed, even finalised. But the deal looks once more to be on the rocks: at COP, French president Emmanuel Macron said the agreement, in its current form, “isn’t good for anyone”, while further decisions will reportedly be delayed until Argentina’s radical new president, Javier Milei, takes office on 10 December. The EU, meanwhile, has cancelled its trade chief’s visit to the event.

COP28 did see Brazil sign a voluntary declaration on sustainable agriculture, resilient food systems and climate action, alongside 133 other countries, including Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. The declaration calls to further incorporate agriculture in countries’ climate plans, and to increase emissions reductions in the sector.

Argentina and Paraguay were absent from the pledge. The Argentine delegation will reportedly not sign any new commitments at COP28 ahead of the change of government. As for Paraguay, official documents accessed by local news outlet El Surti shows how agribusiness has influenced the country’s position at the summit, including by downplaying the role of the sector in climate emissions.

COP28 runs until 12 December, with the second week largely dedicated to negotiations, as delegates – many already seemingly weary – try to reach a conclusion on the summit’s final declaration.

This story was produced as part of the 2023 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security