The Latin Quarter

Latin America is key to addressing climate change at the Paris conference. Why doesn’t it get more attention?

December 11, 2015

Photo: Pilar Valbuena/CIFORAgricultural ministers from Latin America announce a regional declaration to promote climate smart agriculture at the Global Landscapes Forum in Paris

The media often treat climate change as a problem caused by five governments—China, the United States, Europe, India, and Russia—and one that will be solved by those five alone. That’s nonsense. Every nation and region on earth, with the possible exception of Bhutan, is part of the problem, and each one has to be part of the solution.

Major Players

Latin America and the Caribbean offer a clear illustration of this issue. If serious action is not taken, the region’s 30-plus countries will together emit more greenhouse gases in 2050 than what the United States or India or Europe is producing right now. The population of Latin America and the Caribbean is approximately 525 million—more than the United States and Russia combined. Within the region, there will be major players. Many economists have tabbed Mexico as a future global economic powerhouse, with a projected gross domestic product greater than that of any country in Europe by mid-century.

Perhaps we ignore Latin America because it’s so much more fun to talk about the bad actors. The countries to our south began fighting climate change when many wealthier countries were still treating the problem as an inconvenience. In 1992 Brazil hosted the landmark Earth Summit, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—arguably the most important document in the history of environmentalism—was opened for signature. The country was an enthusiastic proponent of the Kyoto Protocol at a time when the United States and other wealthy countries claimed the agreement would damage their economies. Tiny Costa Rica pioneered a mechanism to incentivize the conservation of large forests as a bulwark against climate change and has committed to carbon neutrality by 2021. Panama, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico have made small but symbolically significant pledges to the Green Climate Fund, which supports climate change mitigation and adaptation around the world.

Latin America helped lead the way to the Paris negotiations as well. Mexico, for example, was the fourth country to submit a carbon reduction pledge, behind Switzerland, Latvia, and Norway. The country pledged to hit its peak emissions by 2026, making it one of the few countries to set a pre-2030 deadline.

Diverse Interests and Shared Goals

The fact that Latin American countries do not negotiate as a bloc, as Europe does, may also keep them off our radar and limit their influence at climate change conferences. Instead, the region has splintered into a dizzying number of coalitions, some extending beyond Latin America.

Until today, Brazil was part of a group called BASIC, along with South Africa, India, and China, and would negotiate with those countries on climate change issues. (It left BASIC to join the newly formed “high ambition coalition,” an alliance of more than 100 nations.) Belize, the Dominican Republic, and a few others have joined the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), whose members lobby for more ambitious climate targets and better adaptation assistance due to their vulnerability to sea level rise. Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba, and others negotiate as part of ALBA, a far more radical presence. Venezuela and Nicaragua, for example, refused to submit carbon reduction commitments before the Paris conference because they viewed the entire enterprise as a way to let the biggest polluters escape accountability. Then there is the Independent Association of Latin American and Caribbean States, or ILAC, of which Costa Rica, Chile, and some other climate-progressive Latin states are a part.

There are, however, a few issues that unite the Latin American states. Adaptation is one of them. Currently, around 80 percent of international climate financing goes to mitigation projects, which seek to reduce the scale of climate change. A developing country may, for example, apply for money to buy solar panels and wind turbines or to invest in carbon capture. Adaptation projects, meanwhile, are those that make humans less vulnerable to the dangers of climate change and receive a far smaller slice of the international finance pie. Countries that want to build seawalls or relocate at-risk communities, for instance, have a much harder time securing aid.

Many in Latin America view this as a bias in favor of developed countries because Europe and the United States haven’t yet felt the effects of climate change as acutely as those in the developing world.

“Many of our coastal cities... are already experiencing intense hurricanes, floods, and droughts,” says Monica Araya, of Costa Rica and the environmental advocacy group Nivela. “Adaptation, particularly in Latin America, is a blind spot in the U.S. approach to climate change.”

“Light in the Street, Darkness in the House”

Despite showing leadership on the climate front, Latin American countries have developed an unfortunate reputation for failing to implement their promises domestically. Take Mexico’s energy transition law, designed to channel public resources to and attract private investment for renewable energy infrastructure. It has been stalled in the legislature for more than a year, thanks to powerful fossil fuel interests trying to defend the heavy subsidies that maintain their market advantage over renewables. Mexico has issued a variety of carbon reduction promises, but it frequently alters the baseline year against which reductions are measured, which makes tracking the country’s progress difficult.

“We have saying in Mexico, “Candil de la calle, oscuridad de la casa [‘Light in the street, darkness in your own house’],” says Gabriela Niño of the Mexican environmental group CEMDA. “We are leaders in the international arena, but we haven’t taken the steps inside our own country.”

Even Costa Rica, an unquestioned global leader in decarbonization, faces some serious hurdles if it is to become carbon neutral in the next decade. “Our energy is relatively clean, so most emissions come from private cars,” notes Araya. “If we don’t fix our transportation model, increasing public transit options and encouraging people to use them, we can’t [fulfill our commitment].”

Look Down, Look Down

As with other developing and middle-income countries around the world, money is a major hurdle to implementing climate initiatives. Establishing renewable energy and mass transit infrastructure is expensive, and developed countries have been quicker to promise financing than to actually deliver it.

But in Latin America, financing is a touchy issue. Costa Rica’s Araya believes there is a false divide between the global north and south, and the largely one-directional flow of aid is the cause.

“Latin American nations should own their solutions and interact with the E.U. and U.S. on the basis of partnerships,” she says. “Aid is asymmetric and disempowering. We can do this with our own financing and business systems.”

That’s one reason Panama, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico made donations to the Green Climate Fund. The countries were making a statement about their commitment to the international process to fund mitigation and adaptation in the developing world, and about their status as equal partners with wealthier countries. “The pledges showed that developing countries in Latin America are turning the traditional dialogues between developed and developing countries on its head,” says Carolina Herrera, a Latin America advocate for NRDC (disclosure). “Developing countries aren’t in the process for money; they’re in it for partnerships.”

* * *

Latin America isn’t the driving force in the ongoing negotiations, but it may become a major contributor to decarbonization post-Paris, and that’s when climate change is going to be addressed in earnest. Keep an eye on Latin America—its improved transit options and cleaner energy and air—could show the rest of us the way.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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