Climate Change: COP 21 Latin America preview

All eyes are on Paris as the nations of the world meet to negotiate a global deal to curb carbon emissions and prevent runaway climate change. What do Latin American nations have to offer?

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From 30th November to 11th December, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (more commonly referred to as COP 21) will be held in Paris as world governments attempt to agree on a legally-binding deal to reduce carbon emissions and prevent runaway climate change in the future.

While much attention will naturally be focused on the biggest players – The US, China, the European Union (EU) and India, who together account for around 50% of annual global emissions and almost 2/3rds of accumulated historical emissions – the nations of Latin America collectively have a sizeable stake in the negotiations, not only for their potential contributions to a global deal but also because of the considerable risk that the effects of climate change will pose to them in the future.

Latin America is home to around 8.5% of the world’s population, makes up more than 14% of total global land area, and contains roughly 23% of the world’s forests and 31% of freshwater resources. In spite of this, it contributes barely 6% of energy (electricity and transport) related greenhouse gas emissions, the principal driver of human-induced climate change (although this figure does rise to nearer 12% once agriculture and land use change – i.e. emissions resulting from deforestation – are taken into account).

However, when it comes to the damaging side-effects of climate change, the region finds itself among the most vulnerable in the world. Many of these impacts are in line with those to be found elsewhere: increased frequencies of extreme weather events, droughts, floods, and heatwaves, resulting in desertification, failing crops, infrastructure damage from extreme events, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels. In particular, parts of Central America and north-eastern Brazil – also among the poorest parts of Latin America – are set to become even more vulnerable to severe drought, while inhabitants of the Andean uplands in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia are already experiencing livelihood difficulties as a result of melting glaciers and changing hydrological cycles.

Not only are many millions of people at risk from these effects in the present as much as in the future, but the economic cost to the region is also forecast to be extremely high. Last year research from the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) suggested that the annual economic costs of climate change in Latin America could reach around 2.5% of the region’s total GDP.

With this in mind, the contribution of individual Latin American countries to any deal resulting from the Paris summit could send a strong message of those countries with the most to lose from runaway climate change being prepared to play their part in bringing down global emissions that are, mostly, the present and historic fault of other, more industrialised countries. But how do their carbon reduction targets, in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) presented by most of the world’s nations ahead of COP 21, stack up?

LatAm INDCs for COP21
Data collated from Climate Home‘s Paris Tracker:

As we can see, the majority of countries have submitted a pledge to reduce their carbon emissions, whether in absolute terms or compared to business-as-usual projections, and no later than 2030. Many also include a provision that, if delegates in Paris can agree to a global mechanism – the Green Climate Fund – to allow funding for developing countries to finance low-carbon energy systems and shield themselves against the worst impacts of climate change, paid for by the richer nations of the world, then they will extend their targets further. Four countries (Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela) had yet to submit an INDC at the time of writing, just 10 days before the opening of the Paris summit.

There is some debate over whether these pledges represent a reasonable and ‘fair’ commitment to tackle climate change. Only a few countries are promising an absolute reduction in their carbon emissions (as opposed to simply ‘below business-as-usual’), and a recent study by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) concluded that pledges by South America’s major economies – Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru, which together account for 72% of the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions – are “too timid” and do not go far enough to hold global warming below 2°C.

“None of these countries will be immune to the effects of climate change. An increase in warming of 2°C would have severe impacts on all four of them, and on the rest of the continent”, says Marcia Rocha, head of climate policy at Climate Analytics, in comments published by Climate Home. “Yet instead of taking action commensurate with the size of the threat, these governments are largely sticking with their current policies, which are heading in the wrong direction”.

CAT considers Costa Rica’s pledges and decarbonisation strategy to be comfortably the best in Latin America, and indeed one of the few countries in the world to be making ‘sufficient’ efforts, alongside Ethiopia, Morocco, and Bhutan. While the Central American country’s INDC may not seem that ambitious on the face of it, with a 25% cut on 2012 levels by 2030, one should bear in mind that its carbon emissions are comparatively very low already, with nearly all of its electricity coming from renewable sources, and an effective conservation policy that has seen forest cover extend to 50% of Costa Rican territory.

Brazil is a key player in regional and global efforts to curb carbon emissions, and is also highly vulnerable to the damaging impacts of climate change, with the most recent, and still ongoing, severe drought a painful reminder of the dangers of a warming world. Photo courtesy of EPA via The Guardian

The INDC submitted by Brazil, meanwhile, is seen as one of the better (or less disappointing, from the point of view of CAT), although some are arguing that its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 37% from 2005 levels by 2025 actually represent a step back, as the country has already achieved similar emissions cuts over the past decade, largely due to a near-80% decrease in deforestation rates. Because of this, Brazil’s pledge could be read as meaning minimal emissions cuts below business-as-usual between now and 2025. Furthermore, recent changes to Brazil’s Forest Code will, according to numerous environmental experts and activists, make it harder for the country to maintain its progress in curbing deforestation, and may well see rates begin to rise once more after a decade of steady decreases.

One final consideration once the parties assemble in Paris next week, aside from individual countries’ INDCs, will be the various groups and alliances that will be competing for influence in the negotiations, and which reveal several divisions among Latin American nations over climate policy. Observers have suggested in recent times that the existence of several different ‘blocs’ among Latin American governments reduces the potential for a coordinated and unified strategy, and undermines the region’s overall firepower in global negotiations.

These different strands can be roughly grouped into three separate identities: Brazil, which has tended to negotiate as part of the BASIC bloc along with China, India, and South Africa; the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), comprised of left-leaning countries led by Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela, which has been very vocal about the injustice of global climate change and responsibility of advanced industrialised nations to bear the costs of global emissions reductions, but whose economies remain highly dependent on the export of climate change-causing fossil fuels; and the market-liberal Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC), led by Chile, Colombia, and Peru, which has pledged significant emissions reductions on the strict condition that others follow their lead.

With some of the remaining countries having also joined a number of other international groupings, such as Mexico’s alignment with Switzerland and South Korea in the Environmental Integrity Group (EIG), various commentators say there remains the risk of an overall fragmented Latin American approach. Guy Edwards, co-author of a new book on Latin America and the global politics of Climate Change, warns that this divided approach could mean that the region’s nations find themselves unable to agree on anything beyond the grandiloquent official statements on the need for action that have become commonplace, and that some of these differences could become irreconcilable without strong leadership.

Some are hopeful, though, that the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional political and economic body, could offer the chance for Latin America to present a unified voice in Paris. Either way, it is clear that just as the outcome of the COP 21 negotiations are hinging on the ability of the world’s nations to agree on a global strategy to prevent climate change from reaching even more dangerous levels, so too the future of Latin America rests on its ability to enter the negotiations as a united force, emphasise the dangers it faces if climate change is allowed to continue unabated, and highlight its contributions as part of a global solution.

Show the Amazon some love! Pledges to curb deforestation by major Latin American nations will be critical to a successful outcome at global climate negotiations. Photo courtesy of Reuters / Ivan Canabrava