In light of the Paris Climate Agreement, regional cooperation in Latin America has created a collective movement to build thriving economies while protecting natural ecosystems. What work is underway and what has not yet started?
The COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on Latin American governments by forcing them to strike the delicate balance between saving human lives and maintaining economic livelihoods. This meant that the pressure of the pandemic blurred the long-term goals of saving lives and economies from the climate crisis.
However, the important work to reach these goals is put under the spotlight this year as governments are meeting for the first time in Scotland after the 2015 signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, as each government agreed to meet every five years to present their progress in meeting the goals and submit more ambitious emission reduction plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The first review by Latin American countries highlights the need for further work by key stakeholders but also showcases that positive actions are underway. The main takeaway is clear— regional cooperation is raising ambition for climate mitigation and adaptation by creating a collective movement to rebuild thriving economies while protecting natural ecosystems.
First, let's shine a light on the countries that are furthest along in the fight against our changing climate. This light points to the strong commitment of a few, among which stands Costa Rica, with the highest-ranking for its NDC in Latin America. Its efforts are considered as the most compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping the earth's temperature rise under 2°C. So, if every country followed Costa Rica's NDC, climate warming gain would stay between the 1.5°C and the 2°C threshold according to the Climate Action Tracker. Costa Rica's National Decarbonization Plan 2018-2050 is bold as it covers all sectors of the economy and sets more ambitious targets than its NDC does.
Chile has also made promising strides, being among the first countries in the world to submit an updated NDC in early 2020. It strengthened its commitments by including a peak of emissions by 2025, carbon neutrality by 2050, the proposed closure of its coal-fired power plants as well as a more ambitious mitigation plan. The latter tends to be the focus of attention since adaptation plans tend to lag behind in the world’s climate agenda.
In contrast, Latin American countries stands out across the world regarding the implementation of nature-based solutions for adaptation (NbS). Colombia, Peru and Brazil are front-runners with more than 30 related initiatives, compared to a maximum of 5 in most other countries. Among them highlight projects to prevent soil erosion and improve water quality through wetlands conservation and vegetative buffers. By bringing these promising technologies into play for climate adaptation, Latin American countries offer a model of success for other regions in balancing mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Unfortunately, beyond these rays of light, one finds clouds in the form of the three largest Latin American economies. While Brazil, Mexico and Argentina should be leading the way in the region, their pressing NDCs raise the urgent need for compliance and more ambitious commitments. Responsible for the bulk of Latin American greenhouse gas emissions, these countries still prioritize financing carbon exploitation over supporting the transition to renewable energies. The three countries’ NDCs are ranked by the Climate Action Tracker as insufficient, meaning that their efforts are not contributing to keeping global temperature rise below the Paris Agreement 1.5°C limit.
Brazil is not delivering as it promised: the sixth-largest global polluter is still encouraging high-carbon industries and facilitating Amazon deforestation. President Bolsonaro’s policies redirected three-fourths of its energy investment projects for the 10 next years into fossil fuels. Mexico is moving backward: the development of an oil refinery located in the President’s hometown state along with tax support for oil and electricity State-Owned Enterprises are instances of a myopic political posture. Argentina is showing improvements in much-needed ambition yet would benefit from serious commitment in phasing out fossil fuels such as the Vaca Muerta gas field and reducing its reliance on meat production and exports.
The overall poor national performance nevertheless hides encouraging local efforts. Cities like Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Buenos Aires are leading the way in the region as sustainable, green, smart cities, despite being the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. The precarious situation of Latin American economies, with informal sectors reaching up to 60% of the workforce as in Mexico and with a strong reliance on tourism, has made the COVID-19 pandemic a tipping point to turn it into an opportunity for structural reforms.
Regional cooperation is building momentum for aligning the COVID-19 recovery efforts to meeting the Paris Climate Agreement. The year 2021 began with renewed hopes as Latin America reinforced its commitment to climate justice with the ratification of the Escazú Accord. It seeks to guarantee the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, strengthening capacity-building and promoting citizen’s participation in environmental policies. The agreement was approved on paper two years ago but got stuck as its implementation required 11 countries’ ratification. However, with Mexico and Argentina joining in late January 2021, it became effective on Earth Day, April 22, 2021.
In addition, early February brought encouraging news with the signing of the Bridgetown Declaration. This places environmental and climate policies at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery, by promoting the revitalization of low-carbon economies and the sustainability of clean energy resources in socially inclusive societies. These important regional cooperation frameworks are motivating compliance with and raising the ambition of NDCs to make the Paris Climate Agreement goals more attainable. There is still a long way to go for the region, but there is optimism as the world sets the stage for November's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Latin America will have an important seat at the table during the conference to inspire and build on the successes from other regions for global action.
Ana Urrutia is an economist currently advancing research on Latin American development at the World Bank. She is passionate about understanding pathways to inclusive development, she designed the strategy for promoting innovative ecological solutions for improving lives in rural communities within the social business ilumexico. After gaining experience from the OECD and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Office of the President of Mexico, she co-authored a paper on reaching universal health care in developing countries within the Overseas Development Institute. With a bachelor’s in Economics from Solvay Brussels School along a master’s in Political Economy of Late Development from the London School of Economics, Ana is working towards making communities thrive within the means of our planet.