Opinion: The moment of truth for coal, oil, and gas in Latin America

New UN report calls for end to fossil fuel production – even in developing regions such as Latin America
<p>Protestors in Brazil express anger at an oil spill that has blighted the northeast coast (image: <a href="https://350.org/">350.org</a>)</p>

Protestors in Brazil express anger at an oil spill that has blighted the northeast coast (image: 350.org)

The message is clear: if we want to seriously address the climate crisis, governments and companies must now begin the complete transition away from an economy based on coal, oil and gas to one in which renewable energies dominate, according to research published this week by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

UNEP’s report, produced in collaboration with a consortium of research institutions, adds further scientific backing to arguments of the millions of citizens worldwide who have demonstrated for greater climate action in recent months.

For Latin America, a continent that has several countries with high hydrocarbon production, the need to define a new economic pathway is urgent and unavoidable. For the first time, a UN report states with absolute clarity that fossil fuel extraction must stop.

The landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified a 1.5C limit on temperature rises by 2100 and further detailed the potentially catastrophic impacts for society, the economy and ecosystems if we miss that target.


the share of global greenhouse gas emissions that fossil fuels account for

The projected growth trajectories of fossil fuel extraction and use, which represent more than 75% of greenhouse gas emissions and almost 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions, are alarming, according to UNEP’s Production Gap Report. It found that the world is set to produce approximately 120% more fossil fuels than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C – the only safe limit.

Given this imperative, all nations must review their commitments under the Paris Agreement, and ensure they are taking full and direct action on fossil fuels. To be in line with its main objective of reaching complete carbon-neutrality by 2050 and limiting temperature increase to 1.5C, existing commitments must increase their ambition fivefold.

Latin America is not exempt. States have a responsibility to protect their citizens and must at least adopt goals consistent with halving global emissions by 2030. This means we need to commit to investing in low-carbon activities, rather than anchoring our economies in sectors that pollute the planet most.

We must start today if we are to initiate a just transition towards the economy of the future – one that is both zero carbon, and resilient to the impacts of climate breakdown.

Moreover, this transition must also be fair for those who depend directly on the fossil fuel economy for a living (in the short term), It is essential to start implementing an orderly reduction plan as we shift toward the total elimination of coal, oil, and gas from our economy.

Such a dystopic scenario doesn’t come from a television series or the distant future

Given these findings, it is increasingly difficult to justify the exploration or expansion of new fossil fuel reserves in Latin America or anywhere else. The inclusion of fracking in Colombia’s National Development Plan, and continuing to invest in oil exploitation in Brazil, where the largest oil spill in the country’s history is currently contaminating beaches and the sea across 10 states, are short-sighted and irresponsible actions for the future of citizens across the continent.

Fossil gas should also be included, even though the industry defends it as a “transition fuel.” The UN report pierces this illusion. It found that increasing fossil gas production and lowering its price can lead to a net increase in global emissions, and also acts to delay the introduction of energy systems with near-zero emissions.


of managed money has been divested from fossil fuels

Those who understand that we are in the process of changing the economic paradigm are already taking action. The most telling signals come from the financial sector. Many investors who incorporate climate risk in their investment decisions have already begun to divest from the sector, with over US$11 trillion officially divested from coal, oil, and gas.

In Latin America, we already have some examples of countries adopting what are called “supply-side” policies on fossil fuel extraction. Costa Rica, Belize, and Mexico have all adopted moratoriums or bans on oil and gas extraction in marine areas or those of ‘high natural value.’ Focusing on the alternative uses and value of natural areas, rather than extracting fuels that cause climate change is a more strategic and long term view.

It’s delusional to think that these clear signals from the market and from science will not have an impact on the continent’s development plans. To think that Colombian coal, Venezuelan oil or Argentine gas will be the last ones left on the market, or that just because we are a developing continent, we have a license to continue with fossil fuel expansion, is not only irresponsible in environmental terms, but also in economic terms.

So much public money is exposed or given as hand-outs to these industries and will be lost as the rest of the world shifts. Our communities and ecosystems – the most biodiverse in the world – will lose even more under further climate breakdown.

Such a dystopic scenario doesn’t come from a television series or the distant future. It is about the future that we, the current generation, will live in the next ten to thirty years. The future we choose is in our hands. We still have time to make the decision that defines the course of the entire planet and human civilisation.

If we prepare for an orderly transition from now, we can live in a safer and fairer world for everyone.