Latin America’s pending climate agenda: what can we expect in 2018?

2018 promises to be a key year on the road towards clean and resilient development. With the Talanoa Dialogue agreed during COP23 this past November in Bonn, Germany, the new year will see the start of a global conversation and revision of the efforts that are being taken and that are still needed to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. For Latin America – which closes a year where hurricanes and heavy rains stressed the region’s high vulnerability to climate change – this is a key call to boost the positive actions being taken and break with the obstacles that stall the achievement of an inclusive and resilient development. What can we expect in 2018?

Nivela talked to three experts on the politics of climate change and development from Colombia, Mexico and Costa Rica, who shared their expectations and worries for the region for 2018 reflecting on the growth of renewables, the need to break with the dependence on fossil fuels, and the key role of cities, political parties and civil society as catalyzers for change.

Nivela: After being at the COP, what do you see as this past year’s most important improvements, looking towards 2018?

Monica Araya: At COP23 we witnessed once again the vitality of the community working in the real world - for example on renewables, adaptation or ecosystems management - who are focused on opportunities for entrepreneurs, job creation and consumer empowerment. We are breaking with an outdated way of thinking, where a clean economy or the reduction of emissions were perceived as unfair impositions of the industrialized Global North. Now, they are seen as autonomous opportunities to prosper with non-fossil fuel sources, given the problems that its extraction and consumption generate.

Isabel Cavelier: In our region, it is inspiring to see that many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have made significant progress in the implementation of public policies that just one decade ago we did not think were even possible. Many already have carbon taxes, others are thinking about implementing them, and many are considering the creation of voluntary emissions markets.

Sandra Guzmán: Indeed, there are very positive signs that the world has accepted that there must be an energy transition for matters regarding security, economic prosperity and environmental protection. It is a battle that we have been progressively winning. What is happening in Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica, for example, whose renewable energy generation capacity is rising just as in many other countries in the region, is very encouraging. Mexico, on the other hand, has set for itself the goal of producing 35% of its energy with renewables for 2024. Although progress on this is slow, the creation of an Energy Transition Law is laying the foundations to make further improvements, and the bids and clean energy certificates are all part of it.

Nivela: Who are the actors that are spearheading change in the region?

MA: The Paris Agreement was “born” in an urban context in disruption. It is very positive to see the empowerment of local governments and the adoption of the New Urban Agenda with other voices who are aware of the climate problem, but focused on solutions for people and their daily lives. They come to this climate debate with a commitment for sustainable mobility – Latin America’s Achilles’ heel – and with the clear understanding that we cannot lose sight of social issues as well. We don’t have a “climate” agenda to solve that competes with the “social”. In fact, we are increasingly recognizing that poverty increases with climate impacts and extreme weather events. We will have new allies and partners in the transition towards less polluting societies, less dependent on fossil fuels and better prepared to face impending climate impacts.

SG: An additional example is the progress and role of the financial sector, which I have been closely monitoring. We are seeing increasingly more finance ministers talking about climate change, and we are observing that multilateral development banks have also been changing their portfolios. In 2016, 22% of the IDB’s operations were related to climate change, and this is projected to grow by 30% by 2020 (BID, 2017). It is very positive to see these changes.

IC: It is also very encouraging to see that these go hand in hand with the fact that climate change is ever more present in mass media and in daily conversations between citizens. I see a growing number of citizens interested in climate change and who have the willingness and desire to be part of change.

SG: I believe in the role of non-state actors. I see a civil society that is growing stronger despite not always being united, but nonetheless the action and specialization that the region is seeing is encouraging. As for the GFLAC, for example, we have become an important actor in the debate on climate finance, and we increasingly have larger collaborations not only with non-state actors, but also with government entities that trust us to assess them on how to build their climate finance monitoring systems and work towards building national strategies that allow us to tackle climate change under a transparent, sustainable and coherent financial scheme.

MA: The state model focused on actions taken by ministries and national governments is insufficient. The climate community is too small and the Ministries of the Environment too weak, we won’t be able to make this transition alone. So the time has come to highlight all the things happening outside of the state model.

Nivela: What worrying trends do you see in the region?

IC: I am worried that, in many cases, we celebrate improvements that are indeed important, that still lack the ambition we need in order to reach the global goals that we must meet if we want to avoid the dangers that threaten our region’s development. A clear example is electric mobility – we still have a long road ahead. I am particularly worried that what we do with our hands, we erase with our elbows: many countries are still investing large sums of money for oil exploration and exploitation, many political leaders still emphasize that natural gas is a transition fuel, and many still argue that we will “still depend on oil” for many decades, without thinking of the consequences.

SG: Indeed, even though the idea that economic growth can be decoupled from the growth of polluting emissions has taken root, Latin America’s undeniable reality is that it is still strongly dependent on fossil fuels, with its income tied to hydrocarbons as well as extractive activities. Few countries have begun to implement tax reforms to look for new sources of income - such as Chile and Mexico – still with limited results. Furthermore, new practices have been adopted to extract resources in areas where access is difficult, such as in the exploitation of deep waters and fracking that require massive amounts of chemicals that have very worrying impacts on soil quality and the availability of water. I am worried that we still do not have a political and State apparatus with the capacity to transform at the speed that we need.

IC: In relation to this, we should note that 2018 will be a very important electoral year for Latin America, particularly for Honduras, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Paraguay. However, climate change is still not a central focus during political campaigns. It should be. It is a key point for our national and regional development.

MA: I am also worried to see that political parties are still unable to integrate the need for decarbonization and resilience in their government plans as a key infrastructural matter, and not as a matter solely regarding the environment or reserved “for environmentalists”. Certainly, there is greater awareness that renewables are a good idea and that electric mobility is unstoppable. But as Isabel mentioned, some still say that it is a transition that “will last decades”, and that meanwhile we must invest in fossil fuel energy projects. The sell natural gas as a clean source of energy. They do not hold themselves responsible for creating “lock-in” risks by prolonging our dependence to fossil fuels.

MA: Additionally, there is also the lobby from oil and gas companies, which is very present at energy forums organized for experts in the region and where energy infrastructure projects are discussed, virtually disregarding the impacts of these industries on the environment, health and democracy. The extent to which these lobbies have access to political parties free of cost is still unclear, yet in our region it is still difficult to know the degree to which they finance electoral campaigns. We need greater transparency regarding how large oil and gas companies influence energy policy.

Nivela: What are your action agendas for the 2018-2020 period?

Isabel Cavelier: My agenda will include, first, widening Mission2020 in the region, with the aim of increasing awareness on the real urgency that we have to reach the global emissions peak in 2020. Secondly, increasing our region’s understanding that individual actions do count and are key to solve the climate change issue. Latin America and its population do matter, and we need to be part of the solution – not only as victims of the impacts of climate change. Third is positioning climate change in political debates in our countries both for elections and public policy, as this must be a key issue during discussions over the public agenda so that we can start to take it seriously. And, finally, engaging to a greater degree the financial sector in the region, particularly large institutional investors such as pension funds, to assess them on how to stop investing in activities that represent enormous risks for the population, such as fossil fuels.

Mónica Araya: My agenda for 2018-2020 will be divided in three parts: as an activist, I will continue to work on the vision of a fossil-free Costa Rica, with a large emphasis on public and private electric mobility. From an analytical point of view, I want to return to my training as an economist and work on green taxes, since we need new sources of tax income to depend less on gasoline taxes. From an international point of view, I will work on matters related to the political economy of the transition to zero-emissions societies, and the 2050 plans. I would like to see them not as purely academic efforts that ignore politics, but as efforts that can also identify the more complex political dimension and the most problematic sectors that – due to the power they hold – can stall both the achievement of the Paris goals as well as the efforts to raise their ambition.

Sandra Guzmán:For me, 2018 will be a key year in many ways. On the one hand, because at the international level we must establish the rules under which the Paris Agreement will operate, and at a regional level because many countries will undergo important political changes with the arrival or return of government representatives that may or may not lead to change. As coordinator of the GFLAC, I will pursue at least 3 goals: 1) take advantage of the change in government to present proposals to key actors and continue to strengthen climate action; 2) strengthen capacity building schemes for matters regarding climate finance and other related topics in the region, since we have realized that this is a key matter; 3) continue to do research that contributes to improve decision making in the areas where we work in, and communicate results more effectively. We will try to do all of this from an integral point of view, based on a framework of transparency and integrating perspectives on climate and development, thus always trying to promote achieving a low carbon and climate resilient development that respects human rights, promotes gender equity and strengthens citizen participation. Personally, my own commitment is also to make progress on this and in strengthening the role of women who defend the planet through the “Defenders” (Defensoras) campaign.

Nivela: Thank you all very much.

On the interviewees:

  • Mónica Araya is Founder and Director of Nivela and Costa Rica Limpia.
  • Isabel Cavelier is Director of Vision at Transforma and Senior Adviser in Finance at Mission2020.
  • Sandra Guzmán is Founder and Coordinator of the Finance Group for Latin America and the Caribbean (GFLAC)

*This interview was conducted online by Ximena Carranza Risco, Latin America Researcher at Nivela.

**Cover photo by Ximena Carranza Risco.

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