Latin America: Racing to Rio+20 and Beyond

A year from now, in early June 2012, all eyes will be on Latin America when world leaders will convene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Rio+20 Earth Summit.  This is an opportunity for Latin American governments, as well as businesses and civil society, to arrive in Rio ready to show that the region is poised to be a true leader in the fight against climate change by committing to three types of concrete actions:  advancing clean energy, increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions from deforestation. As countries in Latin America prepare for this Summit, it is critical that they look for opportunities to stem emissions growth.  Some are already taking encouraging steps, but over the coming months Latin America as a whole will need to significantly increase and accelerate efforts to move toward a low-carbon, green economy.

First, as we approach the Rio+20 Earth Summit, Latin American countries should make real commitments to advance clean, low-emission energy sources.  From windy Oaxaca in southern Mexico  to Chile’s sun-drenched Atacama Desert, the region has high quality and abundant non-conventional renewable energy resources such as solar, geothermal, biomass, wind and small hydro. In countries like Chile many of these have already shown to be cost-competitive.  Harnessing these local renewable sources can help reliably meet the region’s growing demand and ensure energy security. As Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, recently noted before a gathering at the Organization of American States:

“If opportunities for renewable energies are not taken advantage of and supported, the developing countries in the Americas will intensify their fossil fuel based generation capacity as they expand their infrastructure.   

This will lock-in infrastructure with high levels of carbon emissions and waste [the region’s] natural endowment of renewable energy.  This is detrimental to the sustainable development of each of our countries and, for obvious reasons, to the world.”

Second, Latin American governments should also support appropriate policies to boost energy efficiency -- the lowest cost way to meet the growing energy demand of this rapidly urbanizing region. Countries can improve efficiency by phasing out inefficient light bulbs, adopting building codes, and implementing appliance efficiency standards. In 2008, the Inter-American Development Bank found that if Latin America and the Caribbean increased energy efficiency by just 10% over ten years it would reduce total energy consumption by 143,000 GWh, eliminating the need to build the equivalent of 328 power plants of 250 MW each. Going with energy efficiency options rather than constructing new plants would mean savings of $37 billion across the region. These are savings the region cannot afford to lose.

Third, the region must also play a leading role in reducing emissions from deforestation.   A new map from NASA highlights just how much carbon is stored in key rainforest countries including Brazil, where deforestation rates have recently jumped. Corporations and individuals must commit to not purchasing products that contribute to deforestation in the Amazon. For their part, local governments, including those in Peru, must halt the trade of illegally logged wood products by prohibiting timber exports without independent third party verification.

 Latin America can do it.  The race to Rio is starting now and countries in Latin America must move quickly if they are to come out ahead as developing world leaders against climate change.   It’s encouraging to see that some countries in the region are already taking steps to move toward a green economy. Last fall Mexico took a step in the right direction by proposing new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs.  Costa Rica, which has set the note-worthy goal of becoming carbon neutral, was recently selected for a World Bank grant to analyze and design a greenhouse-gas trading program .  Chile set a positive example by becoming the first country in South America to pass a renewable portfolio standard, requiring 10% of total energy generation to come from renewables by 2024. More recently, President Piñera announced the goal of raising that amount to 20% by 2020.  But these promising signals must be buttressed by concrete actions and a comprehensive program to transition the continent to a low carbon, and sustainable future.

 Between now and the start of the Rio+20 Earth Summit next June, the region must decisively step up action on these and other efforts – there’s no time to lose.