Latin America and Climate Protection: Leaders Missing in Action?

By Guy Edwards and J. Timmons Roberts

Latin American leaders appear remarkably uninterested in the international conference on climate change currently underway in Poznan, Poland. Before looking for a brighter way forward, we need to understand why this lack of attention is potentially so tragic.

Latin America is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. Rainforests could dry up and die back; semi arid regions like the Brazilian Northeast and much of Central America risk becoming useless for agriculture; hurricanes and flooding increasingly pound Caribbean coasts and villages, leaving roads and bridges smashed in their wake. As the region warms, diseases carried by tropical insects spread to new areas. Urban smog and asthma are multiplied by heat waves.

For a half century now, development and progress for Latin American planners meant urbanization and industrialization. The focus on economic growth and poverty reduction is entirely legitimate, and the improvements in people’s living standards were measurable. However climate change could deeply erode these development gains, both by climate-related disasters and by undermining the economies of the region.

Rather than “decarbonising” itself, Latin America is headed down a very risky energy path. The International Energy Agency projects that energy demand in Latin America will surge over the next 20 years by 75% by 2030, requiring a 144 percent increase in the region’s electricity capacity. Dams have been a low-carbon source of power for decades, but now public opposition to large hydroelectric projects, combined with water scarcity brought on by retreating glaciers and widening drought, is pressuring governments to seek out new supplies of fossil fuels.

Oil discoveries in Cuba and the rapid expansion of oil into the Amazonin Ecuador, Peru and Brazil offer tempting opportunities to meet growing demand without major changes in society. However, investments in fossil fuels made now can ‘lock’ governments and their economies into high carbon pathways for a generation or more. This could make the region and it exports extremely vulnerable to price “fluctuations” and consumer boycotts in Europe and North America. They also potentially reverse Latin America’s successful trend in renewable energy and decrease its ability to move to a low carbon economy.

Unfortunately, the global North has not been entirely helpful. The blinkered focus of developed countries on mitigation policies such as the Clean Development Mechanism has ensured that strategies geared towards addressing climate change lack coherence and credibility. Aid for the transition needed has been piecemeal and halting. Without support for coherent national programmes of action, Latin America is ill-prepared to adapt to climate change, and not able to boldly restructure its economies.

Another way forward?

Christina Figueres of Costa Rica’s Poznan negotiating team sees the broader risks and opportunities brought by climate change for Latin America. As she recently argued, “We can act now with international support, or we might be able to act later with less help. Early action improves our competitiveness, and helps us adapt.”

Figueres calls for coordinated action in Latin America to make a shift to a low carbon economy. In order to meet increasing demand for energy while limiting the possibility of a massive jump in carbon emissions, she calls for Latin America to launch far reaching energy efficiency policies while building on the region’s largely positive experiences with renewable energy. The Inter-American Development Bank says Latin America could avoid expensive fossil fuel investments in new power infrastructure by adopting affordable technologies to improve energy efficiency. This could save the region an estimatedUS$36 billion over the next decade.

As a result of efforts made after the 1970s oil shocks, the oil-poor region became a leader on renewable energy. Most famous was Brazil’s national experiment with sugar cane-based ethanol. As early as 2002, the share of renewable energy in Latin America and the Caribbean was already more than one quarter of the total energy supply, making the European target of 20% by 2020 look rather modest. Although the use of fossil fuels continues to dominate, Latin America is in an advantageous position given its successful experience with renewable energy compared to other regions. There is enormous potential for wind power, geothermal and hydroelectric and solar power.

The UN Environment Programme’s chief Achim Steiner has pointed out that Latin America can thus act as a bridge between industrialised and developing countries in securing a new climate agreement. By promoting successful policies such as Peru’s renewable energy and rural electrification schemes to reduce poverty, and Costa Rica’s widely respected sustainable forestry policies, Latin America could prove a better guide and partner than richer countries, who are often berated in these negotiations for their hubris and unintelligible jargon.

There are clearly obstacles to overcome, not least of which are sparse investment, stable foreign support, and a lack of political backing for renewable energy. But most urgent, perhaps, is the need to change mindsets.

With roughly 40% of the world’s tropical forests, the opportunities for Latin America to cash in on the emerging interest in payments for protecting forests and environmental services cannot be overstated. More than 75% of the projects with CO2 mitigation potential from Latin American and African countries are forest-related.

One of the leading concepts, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), would entail wealthier countries paying developing countries to reduce their rates of deforestation by implementing a range of policies such as supporting community forestry. There are crucial issues still to be addressed on REDD, especially ensuring land rights for local populations. However REDD could offer large financial flows with some estimates reaching $53 billion per year for halving deforestation rates, dwarfing the current amount available for global conservation and pro-poor forestry initiatives.

Global warming risks destabilising the economies of Latin America and rolling back much of the region’s progress. An urgent rethink of Latin America’s development trajectory is required, one which fundamentally assesses its relationship with climate change risks and development opportunities. Developed nations need to step up with sufficient funding to the region to make a difficult energy transition. Instead of being missing in action, Latin America’s leaders could instead lead an international coalition promoting a climate change deal between rich and poor countries. As a Bolivian revolutionary once said, ‘we have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity’. If Latin American leaders wish to rewrite their future, then applying this reasoning to greater action on climate change will avoid the future surge of criticism heaped upon those who say and do nothing.

Cross-posted from


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