Cautious optimism on decarbonisation in Latin America after Climate Week

As COP27 looms, some see successes from Dominican Republic meeting, but civil society leaders argue that climate justice and human rights are still missing from climate talks
<p>A man walks through a flooded street after Storm Laura hit the Dominican Republic in August 2020. The country, one of the world’s most climate vulnerable nations, hosted this year’s Latin America and the Carribean Climate Week (Image: Ricardo Rojas / Alamy)</p>

A man walks through a flooded street after Storm Laura hit the Dominican Republic in August 2020. The country, one of the world’s most climate vulnerable nations, hosted this year’s Latin America and the Carribean Climate Week (Image: Ricardo Rojas / Alamy)

This year, for the first time, the Dominican Republic hosted Latin America and the Caribbean Climate Week (LACCW), one of the key UN meetings in promoting regional climate action and setting the tone ahead of the UN’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt this November.

From 18 to 22 July, Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, welcomed around 1,700 representatives from governments, international organisations, the private sector and civil society, with more than 160 sessions covering climate risks and the transition to carbon neutrality economies, among other climate issues.

The country convened the meeting despite troubling recent events, with its new environment minister Miguel Ceara Hatton appointed following the murder of the previous incumbent, Orlando Jorge Mera, who was shot dead in his office in June. The former minister, recognised for his principled defence of the environment, was killed by his childhood friend Miguel Cruz, after Mera had allegedly refused to grant environmental permits for the export of used batteries to one of Cruz’s businesses.

girl walks through burnt field
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Santo Domingo also became the region’s “climate capital” at a time when much of the world’s attention is being drawn towards converging economic and health crises, and war, away from vital talks on limiting global warming as established under the Paris Agreement.

In challenging circumstances, Climate Week did showcase some of the region’s progress, and crucial steps were taken for COP27, according to the organisers.

“After spending several days at this year’s Latin American and Caribbean Climate Week, I have seen that the countries of the region are making progress. I also saw the potential to accelerate climate action,” Ovais Sarmad, deputy executive secretary of UN Climate Change, told Diálogo Chino after the summit’s conclusion. “We’ve heard a lot of potential solutions during this week.”

Milagros De Camps, deputy minister of international cooperation in the Dominican Republic’s environment ministry, stated at the closing ceremony the region will lead the way forward at COP27 where, she said, its nations must announce clear actions and share solutions.

Also at the event’s close, Max Puig, executive vice-president of the country’s National Council for Climate Change and Clean Development Mechanism (CNCCMDL), stressed that Latin America and the Caribbean will arrive at the COP with a firm position. “The time to see ourselves as climate victims is over. Although we are, the time to take the helm of the ship has begun.

“It must be clear to our peoples and to the world that we are serious and that, even in the most difficult circumstances, we are not going to stop. We will overcome the difficulties. This is the message that Latin America and the Caribbean are taking to COP27 in Egypt.”

The time to see ourselves as climate victims is over. Although we are, the time to take the helm of the ship has begun

But Adriana Vásquez of La Ruta del Clima, an NGO that advocates for the public’s right to participate in climate governance, reached a different conclusion on Climate Week, believing that the meeting failed to discuss various key aspects.

“There was a lack of presence on the agenda on issues related to climate justice and human rights. There was complete silence on issues focused on establishing mechanisms towards a fair socioeconomic transition, nor were there spaces to strengthen a regional position before COP27,” Vásquez said.

At the time of publication, the Dominican Republic was preparing an official report with the conclusions of LACCW 2022, while environmental organisations have stated that they hope that the sentiments expressed in the range of speeches will turn into firmer actions.

Regional progress on decarbonisation

Decarbonisation and the energy transition were among the most popular topics on the Climate Week agenda.

“We saw some shining examples of progress,” said Ovais Sarmad. “The host government of the Dominican Republic has committed to a 27% greenhouse gas reduction in its NDC [nationally determined contribution] and efforts to achieve this will engage the private sector as part of a whole-of-government approach.”

“This is exactly the kind of leadership we need from all nations as we head into COP27 in Egypt in November,” he added.

wind mills
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The coordinator of the UN Climate Change office for Latin America, Daniel Galván, also judges the region to have made progress in recent years, especially in the energy sector. Galván claimed that the region’s economies are all making progress, though he pointed to some of its largest, such as Mexico, Chile and Colombia, as having advanced a little further.

During the regional meeting, the Inter-American Development Bank published a study on the transformations that the economies of the region need to achieve “carbon-free prosperity”, in which it identifies 15 transformations based on technologies that can help achieve significant reductions in electricity emissions, transportation, agriculture, land use, construction, industry and waste management. According to the study, eleven Latin American countries have committed to achieving zero net emissions, most by mid-century.

If done right, the transition to a carbon-neutral economy can benefit the region by creating 15 million net new jobs and an additional 1% GDP growth by 2030, the report states.

Challenges to decarbonisation

Financing is a key aspect to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement the world over. For Latin America and the Caribbean, this means redirecting between 7% and 19% of GDP – up to US$1.3 trillion – of public and private spending per year towards climate solutions, the IDB estimates.

Sebastián Carranza, regional coordinator for Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) stressed to Diálogo Chino that talking seriously about decarbonisation requires a deep, honest look at the participation of the fossil fuel industry in the fiscal structure of the region’s states, to which they provide a large volume of resources.

natural gas plant
Read more: Natural gas: a double-edged sword in Latin America’s energy transition

Currently, most countries in the region continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels to meet their energy needs. The fuel that is seen by many as an alternative to diesel, coal or fuel oil, Carranza highlights, is natural gas, which also contributes to climate change and influences global warming, and moves the region further away from decarbonisation.

Carranza also warns of the risks of failing to confront increasing deforestation across Latin America and the Caribbean. “If the forests continue to degrade and be deforested, we are going to be further and further away from the possibility of decarbonisation.” He points to the great carbon capture potential of forests, mangroves and marine ecosystems, and that their conservation is vital for carbon neutrality to become a reality.

Sarmad, the UN Climate Change deputy executive secretary, prefers to be optimistic and points out that Latin America has multiple opportunities to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and move towards carbon neutrality. Among the sectors with the greatest potential, he cites renewable energy, green hydrogen and carbon markets. Sarmad adds that he believes the approach of penalising the fossil fuel industry is not necessarily the way to contribute to the decarbonisation process.

“Yes, we need to incentivise the transition to low-emission, highly resilient development, but this should not be done at the expense of existing businesses or national development,” Sarmad concludes.

The future role of the region’s influential fossil fuel industry is likely to remain a hotly contested, thorny issue as decarbonisation discussions intensify in the run up to COP27. While some remain satisfied with developments at Climate Week, others will be hoping for a significant ramping up in ambition across the board, as eyes turn towards the summit, which takes place in Sharm el-Sheikh from 7-18 November.