Latin America is taking charge of its low-carbon transition

Citizens owning climate policy ahead of Paris talks but engaging vested interests is a challenge

Low-carbon economies will represent “the new normal” after the UN-led climate negotiations which begin in Paris next month, with countries already engaging broad cross-sections of society in the debate about transition, according to the diplomat in charge of the talks.

Laurence Tubiana, France’s ambassador for COP21 told a press conference in London on Thursday that the process of countries formulating national climate plans (or INDCs) had brought together government, businesses and NGOs in a way few had anticipated.

“This exercise in some cases went very deep,” said Tubiana, who formed part of an expert panel co-convened by Climate Home, E3G and PwC. Tubiana singled out Peru for the comprehensive national conversation it had started about climate change which the Peruvian environment ministry said had “shaken them” in an unexpected but welcome manner.

And actors from the private sector in countries such as Colombia and Brazil are challenging the misguided notion that their countries’ engagement in international climate negotiations has to be about asking for money, said Mónica Araya, a former negotiator for Costa Rica and director of

“Even the islands are moving away from the victimhood narrative. They are fed up with it,” Araya said, adding that the traditional story of what developing countries want to achieve through negotiations is a disempowering one normally told by Europe and the US.

But while Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and others have attracted praise for their plans to reduce carbon emissions, leaders of some heavily fossil fuel-dependent countries in Latin America have taken the opportunity to highlight the developed world’s historic responsibility for causing climate change. Engaging them is a challenge, admits Liz Gallagher, head of the climate diplomacy programme at E3G.

“They have a vested interest in business as usual. They see that the tables are turning and that’s why they’re hardening their position,” said Gallagher, referring to the likes of Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Venezuela.

But despite their combative rhetoric, Gallagher remains optimistic that these countries can decarbonise; “It’s not going to be an easy transition, but demand for fossil fuels will eventually drop. The idea that we manage the transition collectively so we don’t leave people behind is actually a much fairer way of doing it.”

New international engagement

In addition to more inclusive national discussions about climate change, the engagement of China and the US has been a major breakthrough in international climate change negotiations and has set the stage for a successful outcome in Paris, the panel said.

Pete Ogden, former head of climate change policy at the White House, claimed Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama demonstrated game-changing diplomacy and political will by pledging to tackle emissions at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Beijing last year.

Referring not only to China’s joint climate agreement with the US, but also the one signed with Brazil in May, Tubiana said; “China is now less defensive and more inviting, it is trying to take on a leadership role.” Brazil’s role in international climate diplomacy is seen as increasingly important as an ’emerging’ country and it also made a joint statement on climate change with the US in July.

Agreed ahead INDCs, bilateral climate announcements indicated newly-engaged countries were making more effort “to understand the tone” of their counterparts, Tubiana said.

Expectations were high at the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 but hopes of finalising a meaningful deal covering all parties broke down amid well-established divisions between rich and poor countries.

But despite renewed optimism on diplomacy, the 122 INDCs submitted to the UN so far still fall short of meeting the emission reductions required to limit global temperature rises to 2C this century, according to Climate Action Tracker. A 2C rise is the point at which scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict “catastrophic” climate change.

The negotiating bloc the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents countries most vulnerable to climate change, including many in the Caribbean and South Pacific, argue that a 1.5C limit is needed.

Beyond Paris

Araya said that countries would set about closing the gap between pledges and the commitments needed to meet the 2C target in January once the dust from COP21 had settled.

“Each country that is serious about this has to start saying ‘this is our INDC, it’s not enough and we know that, and this is how we go about bridging what we have on the table and what we know we should have’,” Araya said.

In response to the Copenhagen summit’s attempts to impose a top-down, limited timeframe agreement, experts are increasingly seeing Paris as the main building block for a longer-term, collaborative effort, the panel said.

Another way Paris will differ from Copenhagen is it will involve political leaders from the outset. Tubiana conceded that when presidents and prime ministers arrived at the end of the summit in Copenhagen it was “too late”. France hoped to learn from that experience.

Panellist and former environment minister of India, Jairam Ramesh, described France’s plan to invite national leaders to the opening of COP21, as a “major innovation”. It should allow the crucial political aspects of the agreement to be reached early on, with negotiators then ironing out the details.

Pointing to its impacts on agriculture and finance, climate change is now recognised as being beyond the remit of environment ministers, Ramesh said. “They have neither the confidence nor the authority to make commitments on behalf of their country.”