Are Latin America’s oil-producing countries shirking their responsibilities on climate change?

Many Latin American countries are rightly lauded for their role in pushing for global action against climate change, but should they be expected to stop fossil fuel extraction as well?

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In December, the latest Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known in shorthand as COP20, will be held in the Peruvian capital, Lima. In stark contrast to last year’s Polish organisers, Peru’s authorities have been keen to emphasise their willingness to take a leading role in ensuring that the two-week conference serves as an ideal prelude to next year’s all-important meeting in Paris (COP21), when it is hoped that the world will come to a strong and binding agreement on bringing down emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which are almost universally accepted to be the leading cause of climate change.

Peru’s intention to show leadership later this year is part of a growing trend where Latin American countries are perceived to be punching above their weight when it comes to participating in global debates and forums on climate change action, a trend that is widely welcomed in the face of the occasionally uncompromising and unhelpful stance of certain industrialised countries. However, many of the region’s leading economies continued to be based largely around industries tied to the extraction of hydrocarbons such as coal, oil and natural gas, all of which are principal sources of climate-altering greenhouse gases.

This raises the question: even if Latin American countries are performing reasonably well in aspects of counter-climate change action such as domestic energy policies and participation in supra-national forums, does their continued drive to extract and export climate change-causing hydrocarbons mean that they are shirking their responsibilities on climate change, and that they are in fact complicit in the global political environment that is proving to be a roadblock to effective global action on climate change?

A concession in the Peruvian Amazon where companies are hoping to drill for natural gas, as part of the Camisea gas project. Should Latin American countries be proud of their record in global efforts to prevent climate change while they continue to press on with the extraction of fossil fuels? Photo courtesy of AFP via the Guardian.

First of all, it is worth taking a look at where Latin America is scoring well in the fight against climate change. The region is home to around 8.5% of the world’s population, but makes up more than 14% of total global land area, and contains roughly 23% of the world’s forests and 31% of the world’s freshwater resources. Most importantly of all, Latin America contributes just 5.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption of energy, although this rises to nearer 12% when agriculture and land use change are taken into consideration. Its share of carbon emissions per capita is well below that of western and industrialised countries, and even more so when considering historic emissions (with the majority of accumulated carbon emissions since the beginning of the industrial era coming from the West).

Part of the reason why Latin America continues to contribute lower carbon emissions is that it has one of the cleanest energy systems in the world, with many countries – such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru – generating a majority of their electricity from sources other than fossil fuels (with hydroelectric power being the principal source). Other countries are also setting a trend of being global leaders in the development of renewables, even though investment environments tend to be less favourable than in Europe, North America or China.

As mentioned earlier, Latin American leaders, officials, and civil society groups have also made themselves visible on the global stage when it comes to climate change diplomacy and debate. It is hoped that Peru will play an important role at COP20 later this year, and a recent Inter-American Conference on Environmental Education (CIDEA by its Spanish initials) organised by Lima resulted in a proposal, signed by representatives from all of the region’s countries, to be presented to the UN at COP20 urging that the education of citizens on the global environment and climate change must be part of any global agreement to fight climate change, with such an agreement hoped to be passed in Paris next year.

This is just the latest example of Latin American governments and representatives showing considerable unity when it comes to pushing for meaningful global action on climate change. It can hardly be surprising, though, that regional actors are so keen to do this when one considers that Latin America and the Caribbean is thought to be one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change, with flooding and droughts, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and above all temperature rises, all expected to hit the region particularly hard if global carbon emissions continue to rise unchecked.

There are hopes that this year’s COP20 climate change conference will provide hosts Peru with the opportunity to show leadership on climate change action.

Yet given the risks that the region faces, and the positive moves that many of its countries are making to do something about the climate change threat, the continued addiction of several key Latin American economies to hydrocarbon extraction can seem something of a contradiction. Numerous studies are showing that if the world is to keep carbon emissions sufficiently in check to prevent global temperature rises and dangerous climate change, the overwhelming majority –between 60 and 80% – of the planet’s reserves of oil, coal and natural gas needs to be left underground where it cannot be burned. However, the region is home to 17% of the world’s proven oil reserves, second only to the Middle East. While this is hardly a huge amount when compared to the global total, it is a significant enough amount to make a difference, particularly if hydrocarbon-exporting countries such as Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador were to make a stand and set an example to the rest of the world that global fossil fuel consumption had to begin to fall now.

Another area which has been highlighted as a crucial part of mitigating against climate change, and which is particularly relevant to Latin America, is deforestation. Trees and in particular large forested areas play the essential roles of soaking up carbon dioxide and storing them, either in their foliage or in the soil. To this end, deforestation is a major contributor to the increase in carbon emissions, as the Earth’s ability to act as a carbon sink and regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is hindered. As stated earlier, Latin America holds a considerable share of the world’s forests, with the Amazon rainforest being the notable highlight. Brazil and other countries have made considerable progress in the past few decades at bringing down deforestation rates from the highs of the 1990s, but there are still concerns that not enough progress is being made, or even that it is being reversed.

The Amazon rainforest. Ensuring its protection and reducing deforestation is one way that Latin America can contribute to global efforts against climate change. Photo courtesy of the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) via Flickr.

Of course, there are counter-arguments to these criticisms. Many Latin American countries continue to exploit their natural resources, including hydrocarbons, as they insist that this is necessary to allow their economies – and thereafter societies – to develop. Why, they argue, should they be forced to forgo the undoubted economic benefits and revenue that they stand to gain from exporting their resources, when other countries – namely Western and more industrialised nations – have been able to enjoy such privileges for decades, if not centuries?

There is a fair argument in this, especially when some countries claim that they need to develop economically first so as to foster more developed societies and overcome historic issues of poverty and inequality, before moving on to more post-extractivist economies based on knowledge, research & development, and overall cleaner sectors. The question of developing countries standing up for their right to develop just as more advanced nations did over the past couple of centuries is also a key component of global climate negotiations, with many of the world’s developing countries calling for a clause of common but differentiated responsibility. By this, developed countries who have historically contributed more to global carbon emissions would be expected to carry a heavier share of the burden when it comes to global action against climate change. This argument perhaps gives some weight to those Latin American countries who defend their continued drive to extract and export hydrocarbons, even while calling for effective global action to bring carbon emissions down.

It should also be noted that Latin America was the home of one of the biggest attempts yet to find a happy halfway-house: the Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador, which sought to compensate the Ecuadorean state with financial contributions from global governments and society, in exchange for Ecuador leaving significant oil reserves under a corner of the uniquely biodiverse Yasuní National Park in the Western Amazon. Sadly, of course, the scheme failed due to a lack of interest from potential donors, and the government of President Rafael Correa argued that it had no choice but to opt to extract the oil as Ecuador ‘needed’ the money to fund its social and economic development (although there have since been doubts as to the government’s true level of commitment to the project in the first place).

Windmills in Uruguay, which is set to become the country with the highest proportion of electricity generated from wind power in the world, one example of how Latin America is leading the way on developing renewable energy sources. Photo via Infolatam.

In conclusion, then, Latin American countries cannot truly claim to be saints when it comes to fighting global climate change as long as they continue to extract and provide fossil fuels to the global market. For carbon emissions to fall, consumption of fossil fuels needs to fall as well, and this applies all over the world and to producers and consumers alike. Having said that, Latin America’s hydrocarbon-exporting economies do have a rational excuse to be allowed to develop their economies and societies, even if this does involve the exploitation of the region’s fossil fuel resources. Finally, it is still very much fair to say that in terms of domestic fossil fuel use, these same Latin American countries are holding up their end of the deal better than many of the world’s more advanced economies when it comes to combating climate change, with the region often providing examples of sustainable development initiatives and admirable attempts to develop renewable energy sources and bring down carbon emissions.