Latin America’s Environment Ministers meet to formulate regional climate change strategy

Environment ministers from across Latin America meet to lay out plans for unified region-wide climate action, with an eye to ensuring success of Peru’s hosting of upcoming UN climate talks.

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foro ambiente LAC los cabos

Environment ministers, vice-ministers and specialists from across Latin America and the Caribbean congregated in the seaside touristic town of Los Cabos, in Baja California, Mexico, for a summit that sought to foment a homogenisation of the region’s countries’ policies on the environment, biodiversity, climate change, and development of the green economy. The 19th Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean was held between the 12th and 14th of March, was attended by more than 250 delegates from 27 countries and 15 international agencies, and represented an attempt by governments of the region to overcome any ideological differences to present a united front in the fight against climate change. This year’s meeting had an added importance, though, as later this year the Peruvian capital, Lima, will host the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP20 summit, an event that is seen as crucial for laying the groundwork for a definitive global deal on reducing carbon emissions and preventing runaway climate change, at the 2015 summit in Paris.

Speaking at the opening of the summit, Juan José Guerra Abud, the Mexican Environment and Natural Resources Minister, said “combating and bringing down the poverty suffered by many sectors of our societies is and should be a priority for all of our countries. To achieve this one has to promote economic growth, but this growth needs to be sustainable and with the fullest respect to the environment in mind”. To this end, he said, the question at hand throughout the Forum was how to “sustainably make the most of” Latin America and the Caribbean’s biodiversity and natural resources, in order to improve the quality of life for the region’s populations. Guerra Abud also emphasised the need for consensus and unity on drawing up strategies to combat climate change, which he qualified as “humanity’s greatest challenge” and one for which the region’s countries would have to rise “above different ideologies” in order to act together.

Meanwhile, his Peruvian counterpart, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, highlighted the role that his country will play later this year as host of COP20, but he also suggested that the pressure was on for all parties involved. The Lima summit needs to produce a “solid draft” of a deal that would enable countries to agree in Paris next year on a definitive new global accord “that establishes a clear responsibility for States to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions”, according to Pulgar-Vidal. Reflecting these sentiments, Guerra Abud claimed that “we are convinced that the COP [summit in Lima] should not just be a preparatory meeting” for the Paris summit, but also an event “at which we can achieve concrete and specific results over the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions”. The Peruvian Environment Minister admitted that organising the Lima summit will be “a responsibility, but also an opportunity” for Latin America and the Caribbean to “define [their] agenda on climate change”.

IPCC President Rajendra K. Pachauri, who spoke at the Forum in Los Cabos.

Alongside officials from the participating countries’ environment ministries, leading global figures such as Rajendra K. Pachauri, President of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), also attended the Forum and made keynote speeches to delegates. Pachauri warned that “if we delay action, the cost of mitigation and the severity of the impacts of climate change will be such that it will be incredibly hard to solve them”, adding that these days there is a wealth of knowledge about climate change and its impacts but “if we don’t use it then we are letting ourselves down”. With this in mind, he highlighted the need to promote renewable energy generation, a sector in which Latin America and the Caribbean “has a great opportunity to take the great leap forward”.

Steiner, meanwhile, told delegates that the world “is reading the signals that are appearing day by day” on the dangers of climate change, and that it is necessary to face up to this “drama” which is “developing in front of our very eyes”. Furthermore, he declared that “we have to convince our leaders, our public, and our business community, that if we wait and hesitate any longer, the implications for our societies, economies and global capacity to act collectively will be terrible”. Adding to this, Pulgar-Vidal underlined the importance of “sounding the alarm” on a global level about the need to undertake “ambitious” and “urgent” action to fight the impacts of climate change. “We cannot wait any longer, we need results”, Pulgar-Vidal said, adding that the effects of climate change that can be seen in phenomena such as natural disasters “are a consequence of States not having been responsible enough”.

Delegates at the Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Forum’s conclusion saw a declaration in which the participating members agreed to promote a programme of regional cooperation in areas of common interest related to climate change. The plan is to be designed and coordinated jointly by Mexico, in its role as the Forum’s host and current president, and by Peru, in its role as the host of this year’s COP20 summit, although it will also have the support and participation of the other countries taking part in the Los Cabos summit, along with that of UNEP.

The programme will have the clear stated objective of “adopting actions against the consequences derived from the increasing frequency of extreme climatic events”, with the declaration stating that “the negative impacts of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean affect the wellbeing and quality of life of its inhabitants, as well as its prospects of development”. The declaration also underlines the “urgency to pursue ambitious and immediate action, given the region’s high vulnerability to climatic phenomena, especially the small island states of the Caribbean”. Furthermore, the undersigning countries insisted on the need to carry out an “equitable, inclusive and sustainable development” of the region, for which “innovative visions, coordinated actions and solid initiatives for cooperation” will be needed. Speaking after the release of the declaration, Guerra Abud claimed that the exchange of experiences and ideas among the region’s countries “will allow us to strengthen public policy in these areas that are so fundamental to the wellbeing, economic growth and sustainable development of the region”.

Finally, the declaration also remarked that “rapid urban, agricultural and industrial growth in the region has meant that atmospheric contamination and the generation of waste have come to represent a greater concern across the region, given their serious impacts on public health, human wellbeing, and the integrity of ecosystems”. The declaration’s signatories also expressed their concern at the continuous and significant loss of biodiversity across Latin America and the Caribbean, which is bringing adverse side-effects on the region’s patrimony among other aspects. To this end, the document includes a commitment to developing public policies geared towards addressing the underlying causes of the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems – in particular forests – and towards encouraging their conservation, restoration, sustainable use, and the equitable distribution of their benefits.

It should be noted that while the Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean, held roughly once every two years, generally produces recommendations and plans-of-action such as the one described above and serves as a suitable setting for the region’s environment ministers to share ideas and formulate strategies, these summits tend not to produce legally-binding norms and multilateral treaties, with such measures being reserved for larger events such as the COP summits. However, this does not take anything away from UNEP’s description of the Forum as “one of the most relevant spaces for political and policy dialogue to establish and identify regional priorities”.

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