Santos’ Contradictory Rhetoric on Climate Action

Here we share a summary of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos speech at the UN Climate Summit and our reflection on it. While we praise Santos rhetoric calling for a progressive and ambitious agreement in 2015, we wonder if his commitment to sustainable development will also apply to domestic policies on fossil fuel exploration, particularly fracking.

Santos began by acknowledging climate change as a threat to sustainable development, affirming Colombia’s commitment to address it under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. He made it clear that Colombia not only sees efforts to tackle climate change as an environmental responsibility, but as fundamental to support the competitive edge and growth of the Colombian economy.

President Santos urged the need to establish carbon neutral development paths by 2050 in order to limit global temperature to 2°C degrees. He said he expects leadership and commitment from all countries, particularly those with the highest levels of emissions.

Climate action at home

In terms of current action on climate change in Colombia, Santos touched upon the national plan of adaptation and the domestic strategy for low carbon development, which addresses sectors like transport and mining with visions for the sort, medium and long term. Colombia’s efforts on protection and restoration of forests were also presented as well as support for the New Climate Economy report and the World Bank programme on assessing carbon pricing mechanisms.

While Santos narrative is characteristic of the active and progressive role that Colombia has played during recent negotiations as part of AILAC (la Alianza Independiente de América Latina y el Caribe), his speech did not offer any specific contributions in terms of mitigation or adaptation; it only hinted at current work on preparation for the intended nationally determinate contribution (INDC) which will cover mitigation, adaptation and MOI (means of implementation). We are still waiting to see a clear set of targets for mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and we look forward to Colombia’s INDC and its reflection on national policies.

Santos also mentioned Colombia’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. He said that despite Colombia’s low contribution of 0.37% of emissions to the global carbon budget, the country remains highly vulnerable to climate impacts. Santos highlighted recent flooding and droughts in the country and said it was critical that we adapt to these changes in order to protect the population and the economy from negative effects. While the effectiveness of the government’s response to these recent events is still under debate, we hope that Santos’s words signal his commitment to truly prepare Colombia’s most vulnerable areas and enhance their resiliency.

He emphasized the role collaboration will play in developing and meeting ambitious targets and added that Colombia will support a legally binding agreement applicable to all countries. Santos made it clear that Colombia’s action is not only motivated by the vulnerabilities of the country, but by the responsibility all countries have in tackling climate change. This was accompanied by an announcement of its intention to contribute to the Green Climate Fund capitalization according to the country’s respective capacity.

An apparent disconnect between domestic and foreign rhetoric

While we find Colombia’s commitment to a legally binding agreement reassuring and take pride on the understanding of climate change as a challenge beyond environmental matters that requires collective and urgent action, we question Santos rhetoric. We remain puzzled on how this narrative is being translated into the government policies and domestic investments.

When we hear Santos speech and think about our country’s environmental policies, we find a significant disconnect. For example, it is difficult to understand how the government’s push for fracking fits under Santos’ vision of sustainable development or under any comprehensive mitigation and adaptation strategies. Fracking has recently gained public attention since the government has given hydrocarbon explorations a green light under the excuse of having only top-notch technology and international expertise.

Santos’s commitment to sustainable development is also questionable when this week a new decree will expedite the process for fossil fuel companies to receive an environmental license for exploration. Meanwhile, the Environment of Ministry has been unable to successfully protect “paramos”, a unique mountainous wetlands that provide many areas with most of their fresh water supply.

Room for improvement?

Despite Santos' contradictory rhetoric, Colombia’s proactive position on building international coalitions to find financial and technological support to address issues such as deforestation and improve monitoring has been outstanding. The new Environment Minister, Gabriel Vallejo, has been holding bilateral meetings with countries like Peru and Norway during the UN summit. Vallejo also took part in the recent People’s Climate march .

However, we remain wary of drawing conclusions about the commitment Santos government has on climate action given the contradictory position that has characterized Santos government on climate related issues.

At the end of his speech, Santos conveyed a sense of urgency to act on climate. He called climate change “the biggest challenge we have ever faced” and said that countries must step up to this challenge. We expect Santos to back up his words with congruent domestic policies that are not only environmentally sound, but actually support sustainable development.

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