Climate Deal 2015

Colombia’s climate plan should accelerate a debate about coal exports

Countries around the world will meet in Paris at the end of this year to negotiate a global agreement on climate change. For the first time in the history of these negotiations, all countries are expected to present a contribution where they outline their domestic plans for reducing emissions. Colombia presented its contribution to the Paris agreement on September, 7th, where it committed to reduce its emissions by 20% based on a business-as-usual scenario by the year 2030.

Although Colombia’s electricity matrix is relatively clean, the country’s second most important export is coal. Responsible for one-third of all CO2 emissions, coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, contributing to one third of total global emissions. The coal industry is a double-edged threat, not only because coal is a main driver of rising temperatures, but also because its extraction and transport lead to serious human rights violations.

In the past 15 years, the Colombian government has positioned mining as the centerpiece of economic growth. Colombia is planning to expand its production by 2019, hoping to sustain its place as 5th largest coal exporter in the world. The Santos administration has argued that “responsible mining” is crucial to development.

The question is, has coal ended poverty? The two departments that produce most of Colombia’s coal are La Guajira and Cesar. After thirty years of mining, 65% and 76% of their population respectively find their basic needs unmet. The situation in La Guajira is so severe that 3,000 children have died in the last six years due to lack of sanitation, malnutrition and poor health infrastructure – most of which belonged to the indigenous communities. Ironically, the expansion of the coal industry has hindered the growth of alternatives, limiting the diversification of local economies and cleaner choices.

Rethinking development

While Colombia exports 92% of the coal it produces, its heavy reliance on fossil fuel exports (oil and coal account for 42% and 14% of total exports) begets the question of how economically sustainable this model really is. A recent report by Moody’s Investors Service found that half of the world’s coal output is unprofitable, further signaling the decline of the industry. This should be a warning sign for Colombia and other coal dependent countries to rethink their export base.

Colombia’s government is aware that coal is not sustainable in the long-term, yet transformation will not happen overnight. The country is stuck with inertia, which deepens conventional wisdom and slows progress towards cleaner engines of growth. Seemingly paradoxical, environmental and climate governance have improved in Colombia. Colombia’s contribution to the Paris agreement acknowledges that if the country truly wants to achieve its development, peace, equity and education objectives in the long-term, it will need to identify and leverage different opportunities to increase competitiveness, productivity and efficiency while still reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Colombia’s contribution does not only propose a reduction in emissions, but mentions the projected reduction in fugitive emissions from coal and oil exploitation. It also seeks to protect its people, presenting a serious proposal on a system of national indicators to measure adaptation efforts. In fact, Colombia seeks a new balancing between mitigation and adaptation in its climate policy.

In line with the plan’s objectives, the next phase for Colombia´s climate and energy policy should promote a diversification of exports. It will not be enough for our electricity to be relatively clean. The economy will need to break or at least reduce its dependence on coal exports revenues and move beyond its antiquated and unsustainable extraction.

Colombia embodies the magical realism of Garcia Marquez’s stories. On the one hand, it is a middle-income country that is rich in biodiversity and natural resources. It is expected to formally enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the next couple of years. And yet the country still struggles with environmental conflict, human rights violations and one of the highest internal displacement rates in the world. The Colombia that is highly dependent on coal exports co-exists with another one that is striving to improve its environmental and climate performance by reducing deforestation, increasing energy efficiency and by innovating adaptation solutions.

The Paris agreement creates the opportunity to foster an internal debate about the political economy of Colombia and its high dependence on coal. From 2016 onwards, we will need to implement our climate plans while reflecting on how to transition towards a cleaner economy in which fossil fuels do not make more than half of the country’s exports. Thus, the road to Paris provides a significant opportunity to rethink which of these two Colombias we want to live in.


Maria Camila Bustos is a lead researcher at Nivela. She wrote a larger article on coal’s human rights implications for the Center for the Study of Justice, Law, and Society (Dejusticia).

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