Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Latin America and UN Climate Talks: Not in Harmony

Reading Time: 10 minutesCOP15 and the fissures inside the Latin American bloc.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Climate change has also brought flooding, as in this case in Manaus, Brazil. Photo: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

Reading Time: 10 minutes

When it comes to climate change, Latin American citizens and their leaders get the big picture. According to surveys, the region’s citizens are very worried about global warming, and its leaders frequently cite climate change as a major national security threat at United Nations conferences.

However, the consensus appears to largely end there. National positions and strategies on how to confront climate change diverge markedly in a region known for paying lip service to solidarity and harmony. The lack of a unified voice is underscored by the inconsistencies between the promises made and actual actions taken by Latin American governments to ameliorate the effects of global warming.

What makes the region’s policy divergence and inconsistencies all the more surprising is its shared vulnerability. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), released in early November 2014, Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly at risk. Anticipated climate change effects include the collapse of the Caribbean coral biome, the disappearance of glaciers, a rise in sea levels, the risks associated with the dieback of the Amazon rainforest—whereby forest biomass is significantly reduced due to climate change—and the intensification of extreme weather events such as tropical storms, floods and droughts.

When you consider that over 70 percent of the region’s population lives either in or close to a body of water, or in low-lying areas, the threats are especially dire.

Glacial melt throughout the Andes is projected to curtail the availability of water for human consumption, agriculture and hydroelectric energy generation—which accounts for roughly 60 percent of the region’s installed renewable energy capacity and 70 percent of overall power generation,1 which in turn will have a particularly negative and costly effect on millions of people in urban areas that rely on hydropower. The accelerated retreat of glaciers in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range with the densest concentration of glaciers in the tropics, makes it the area’s most endangered resource. The increasingly pronounced variation between wet and dry seasons caused by glacial melt has an estimated annual incremental cost ranging from $212 million to $1.5 billion in energy production losses.2 As of yet, the Peruvian government has no comprehensive plan for addressing the expected water shortages.

The potential risk of dieback of the Amazon rainforest ecosystem is of grave concern. The Amazon Basin is an essential component of the global carbon cycle, with rainforests representing a stock of approximately 120 billion tons of CO2 in their biomass. Dieback would result in the release of massive amounts of that carbon. Annually, these tropical forests process roughly 18 billion tons of CO2 through respiration and photosynthesis, which is more than double the rate of global fossil fuel emissions from all sources.3 Disturbingly, major droughts in Brazil’s Amazon region in 2005 and 2010—largely because of rising global temperatures—have threatened the rainforest’s role as the planet’s most important carbon sink, potentially converting it into a source of CO2 from forest fires as well as a source of methane emissions from rotting forest and dying soils.

In 2013, the Inter-American Development Bank estimated that in Latin America, the damages resulting from a global two-degree temperature rise above pre-industrial levels will likely approach $100 billion a year by 2050.4 The UN Development Programme states that climate change also presents a serious challenge to hard-won development gains, deepening the divide between the rich and poor across Latin America and threatening to halt and even reverse advances in health and education for the most vulnerable.5

Latin America does not rank among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. It contributed about 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—most of it the result of deforestation. Only Brazil and Mexico leave carbon footprints ranking in the top 30 worldwide. However, Latin America, as a collection of strong developing economies and home to essential and at-risk ecological features such as the Amazon, the Cerrado and Cordillera Blanca, is not irrelevant. Far from it: the region has a critical role to play, particularly in efforts to control deforestation.

While regional deforestation rates and associated carbon emissions have fallen sharply in the past decade, as Brazil in particular has focused more attention on the issue, economic growth is pushing up Latin America’s emissions from the energy, transportation and agriculture sectors. As the region continues to grow, Latin America’s ability to keep its emissions down presents a pressing challenge with global repercussions.

Three Ways

At UN negotiations on climate change—which are now entering their third decade—Latin American countries have split into numerous groups and negotiating blocs. All Latin American and Caribbean countries except Mexico (which is part of the OECD) are part of the overarching Group of 77 + China (G77), which consists of 134 countries. Latin American and Caribbean countries participate in various groups, such as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the BASIC country bloc of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China, the Bolivarian Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas—ALBA), the Asociación Independiente de Latinoamérica y el Caribe (Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean—AILAC), the Environmental Integrity Group, and the Central American Integration System.

Participation across this range of disparate but sometimes overlapping groups has meant that Latin American governments rarely speak with one voice on climate change or adopt common positions.

In its aspiration to become a global leader, Brazil oscillates between operating as a lone wolf and acting in tandem with other BASIC group members. Having staked out a strong position in 1997 during the crucial Kyoto negotiations that rich countries needed to act first according to their “historical responsibility” for the problem, Brazil continues to make the point that no developing country should adopt binding international commitments to reduce emissions until the wealthy nations do. Nevertheless, in 2009, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva pledged to reduce Brazilian emissions by roughly 36 to 38 percent compared to business-as-usual emissions, and the nation has cut deforestation sharply since 2005.

Brazil has at times backpedalled into an uncompromising position in international diplomatic forums that resulted in its being labeled a “deal spoiler” by other nations. After touting Brazil’s accomplishments in the fight against climate change and challenging developed countries to rise to the occasion in her speech at the 69th UN General Assembly, President Dilma Rousseff abstained from signing the New York Declaration on Forests at the 2014 UN Climate Summit. The president’s main objection to the accord was the absence of a distinction between legal and illegal deforestation, revealing that—when push comes to shove—Brazil is not as concerned with tackling climate change when economic performance is sluggish.

The debate over conservation versus consumption was central to the 2014 presidential election in Brazil. While Rousseff celebrated Brazil’s conservation record at the UN, her environmentalist challenger, Marina Silva—after running neck and neck with Rousseff in last year’s presidential race came in third—railed against an alleged recent upturn in deforestation rates and extolled the crucial role that the Amazon and its vast reserve of resources play in Brazil’s economic growth.

The second faction is ALBA, forged by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez out of his vision for boldly independent regional foreign policy. The group—which includes Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador—argued that wealthy nations should pay their “climate debt” and contribute considerable sums to finance developing countries which did not cause this problem, but which are suffering most from its effects.

ALBA also asserts that developed countries need to allow developing nations the freedom to develop. For instance, at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, the alliance rejected the agreement on the grounds that it was crafted by a select group of countries, thereby undermining the convention’s procedures for broad participation in the drafting of agreements. Despite being accused of obstinacy and obstructionism, Bolivia was the only nation in the world that failed to endorse the Cancún accords at the 2010 climate talks in Mexico, citing the insufficiency of voluntary emissions reductions pledges as the cause for its rejection.

Since then, however, ALBA has adopted a slightly less radical stance by joining the Like-Minded Developing Countries group (LMDC), a negotiating bloc including, among others, China, India and various Arab states, which calls on developed countries to drastically reduce their emissions and meet their commitments on climate finance and technology transfer.

The third and most recently organized negotiating bloc is AILAC, formed in 2012 by Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, and Guatemala. Although Mexico is not part of AILAC, its positions often align with the group. For example, both Mexico and AILAC have been willing to independently adopt voluntary emission reduction pledges. Like all G77 members, AILAC emphasizes that developed countries need to set more ambitious emission reduction targets and provide climate finance and technology transfers to developing countries.

AILAC argues that emissions reductions need to be adopted by all countries based on past, present and future responsibility and capacity. Its interpretation of the thorny concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR+RC) looks beyond the attempts of ALBA and the lmdc to maintain the “firewall” between North and South. Instead, AILAC countries (and Brazil acting independently) have been willing to put forward 2020 emission reduction pledges backed up by bold domestic plans for actions on climate change. While AILAC also maintains that the principle of CBDR+RC should be respected, it believes this factor should not be a brake on action. A crucial aspect to AILAC’s perspective is that domestic action improves the likelihood of greater achievement at the multilateral level, while international efforts reinforce the political space back home to promote a more sustainable and low-carbon agenda.

Why So Fragmented?

Latin American countries’ conflicting negotiating positions indicate a wider regional trend marked by increasingly independent and assertive foreign policies.6 As Andrew Hurrell and Sandeep Sengupta at Oxford University argue, power is shifting in global politics, and emerging powers such as Brazil are assuming a more important role. Thus, as power diffuses through the global system, more voices demand to be heard in both domestic and international forums. Rising states are increasingly challenging the status quo and questioning the dominant norms of the global geopolitical system in order to reflect their own interests and values.7

There is a connection between Latin American countries’ greater assertiveness on the international stage and their increasing presence and influence at the global climate talks. For example, Brazil’s membership in BASIC aligns it with countries that place economic growth and reforming the global system, such as reform of the UN Security Council, at the top of their agenda. Venezuela and Bolivia, with their impassioned discourses in the ALBA group on the rights of “Mother Earth” and climate justice, have repeatedly criticized the carbon trading model accepted by AILAC on the grounds that such a model puts a price tag on nature, which it regards as unacceptable.

Brazil, which has lobbied strongly for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, uses the climate change issue to bolster its case for promotion to the groups able and willing to care for the global commons. At the very least, by joining with China, India and South Africa in the BASIC bloc, Brazil has shown that decisions cannot readily be taken without it—especially since, together, BASIC accounts for nearly one-third of global carbon emissions. The ALBA countries appear to be using climate negotiations as an important outlet to reject different forms of diplomatic exclusion and to criticize the injustice of the current U.S.-centered international order. The UN climate talks are an ideal forum for the ALBA countries to expose what they consider to be the failure of U.S. leadership, to criticize capitalism and the “carbon markets” approach that has come to be the core of the UN’s approach, and to promote their own notion of global equality, justice and development.

Meanwhile, AILAC countries are also demonstrating a foreign policy that is increasingly independent of the U.S., reflected by the growing significance of new trade and diplomatic partners such as China. In June 2012, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico created the Pacific Alliance (with Costa Rica and Guatemala both considering joining), which was set up largely to increase trade and commerce with Asian markets.8 As a result, there is considerable membership and climate change policy overlap between AILAC and the Pacific Alliance. The current difficulties facing regional economic integration projects such as ALBA and Mercosur (the Southern Common Market), as well as the competition between these groups, can also account for why the consolidation of one coherent regional voice on climate change is not currently feasible in Latin America.

In the face of Latin America’s increasingly assertive foreign policy toward the U.S., the European Union has attempted a different tactic to reach out to the region through providing technical support and diplomatic engagement in a regionwide capacity-building program called EUROCLIMA. On the other hand, China has taken little action on climate change in the region except through a handful of renewable energy investments. Instead, it is investing heavily in fossil fuels and other raw materials in the region, especially in South America, and in developing diplomatic, academic and cultural pacts across Latin America.

A number of competing forces are driving the fragmentation of Latin America on climate change. Due to the colonial history of extraction and export of raw materials, commodities still dominate most countries’ exports, especially in South America. That development model has started to sputter in past two years. Raw materials exports to China enabled most South American nations to weather the Great Recession relatively well, but with the slowing growth in China, and with it stagnating or declining global commodities prices, South American countries such as Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Argentina are struggling to find new ways to sustain the economic growth and job creation of the boom years. One effect of this need to maintain economic growth rates and satisfy rising popular demands for jobs and better public services has been that climate change goals and promises made in international fora are often not matched by actions on the ground in domestic economies. Leaders remain dominated by the mentality that protecting the environment will cost jobs and put a brake on growth.

Peru’s economic package, known as the Paquetazo, is a prime example of a government seeking a rapid economic upturn by rolling back environmental protections. The Paquetazo is a package of reforms designed to cut red tape—mainly environmental legislation—to boost growth and investment.

But a new climate economy questions this logic. The AILAC group and Mexico have led the way by putting forward emissions reductions pledges. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón articulated the logic behind these pledges in “The New Climate Economy Report” that he released in New York in September 2014. The report sought to dispel the myth that tackling climate change would be a brake on growth, arguing that it is economically beneficial to act now to mitigate the very expensive risks posed by climate change and take advantage of the opportunities presented by low-carbon growth such as renewable energy.

Can the Region Pull Together?

Ideology and political economy mitigate against a common regional position in climate change negotiations, despite the fact that the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. This is unlikely to change substantially before December 2015, when COP21 meets in Paris to draft a binding universal agreement on climate protection.

Nevertheless, there are numerous opportunities to enhance cooperation regionally—such as through adaptation strategies, disaster risk reduction, protecting the Amazon rainforests, and promoting renewable energy—which could prove very positive for the region’s efforts to confront climate change. Sharing positive experiences of protecting forests by the Amazonian countries could prove very constructive, as would joint efforts to build climate resilience in cities across the Andean region suffering from glacial melt and water scarcity.

In fact, one of the greatest areas for cooperation lies outside of UN climate talks in specific on-the-ground projects.

For example, Amazonian countries, which straddle BASIC, AILAC and ALBA, could come together to share best practices and cooperate on forestry protection, enhancing the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in forestry management, and adopting small hydroelectric projects. Additionally, the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC), which does not currently have any focus on climate change, should develop a working agenda on low-carbon development and adaptation to climate impacts as soon as possible.

In effect, some of the fragmentation at the UN can be remedied by national and regional collaboration that would create a convergence of norms and build trust. The trust and collaborative spirit fostered by these enterprises would pay dividends when the nations convene at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—not just through the experience of shared work but also perhaps in developing common positions on concrete on-the-ground issues. Such an approach will preserve the emerging foreign policy autonomy valued across the region without sacrificing the overriding need to protect future generations from a catastrophe that everyone wants to avoid.

Despite the fragmentation of Latin America’s current regional integration efforts, emphasizing joint responses to climate change could prepare the region for its impacts and support efforts to build low emission economies this century.

View Endnotes

Tags: Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), Climate change, G77, Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC)
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter