Decarbonization of Latin America, an urgent call to action


For climate experts, Latin America is at a decisive time when decarbonization is an ambitious but not impossible dream that can safeguard ecosystems and avoid chaotic scenarios in the long term.

Decarbonization = To remove carbon from. Image by Ron Mader via Flickr.
Decarbonization = To remove carbon from. Image by Ron Mader via Flickr.

Is it possible to decarbonize Latin America? What are the challenges that the countries of the region face after a scenario of a 2ºC increase in temperature?

After the failure of the United Nations Climate Summit, COP25, which closed after two weeks of negotiations in Madrid under the Chilean presidency, the region faces the clear challenge of reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, financing a transition to carbon neutrality and building more resilience to imminent impacts.

Despite the fact that the region emits 8.3% of total global emissions, Latin America faces the challenge of moving away from fossil fuels, investing in more renewable energy sources and harnessing the potential of its biodiversity to develop a "bioeconomy". But all of that would only be possible based on a change in behavior and mentality, reported experts interviewed at COP25.

According to Joséluis Samaniego, director of the Sustainable Development and Human Settlements Division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), there is still a lack of climate ambition in the region.

"There is a combination of a lack of ambition with a lack of certainty and estimates of what can be done. There are not enough instruments in place, there is a very important political gap and also a knowledge gap," he said.

The region's geographic position, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, represents a competitive advantage that concentrates the planet's greatest biological biodiversity. "We could have a huge contribution from nature-based solutions to decarbonize our economies; it will allow us to reach neutrality if we manage the ecosystems in a better way," he said.

According to him, there is a lack of commitment to alternatives that will allow us to move towards decarbonization. "That implies that you have the capacity to generate the structural change that will allow you to decarbonize.

Further growth generates adverse environmental effects, unless accompanied by other policies. Renewables open the space for further growth. According to ECLAC, for the region to meet its targets by 2030 in a scenario of a 1.5°C temperature increase, it will have to have an energy matrix of 67% composed of renewables, which would be equivalent to the emission of 0.9 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. In a 2°C scenario, the region would have to have 55% of its matrix based on renewables and emit 1.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent.

Currently, the region has a 24% share of renewables and this is in line with the 4°C global warming scenario, a scenario in which very severe impacts are predicted for the region.

A 4°C world is what must be avoided. According to the World Bank, the projections would be devastating. The Amazon basin and many densely populated areas are expected to experience extreme droughts. Andean glaciers will have disappeared by the end of this century. Glacial meltdown will initially increase the risk of flooding and then end in a drought that will affect the communities that depend on it. Category 4 or 5 hurricanes could be more frequent and more powerful.

This, in addition to a one-meter rise in sea level, would have devastating effects, especially in the Caribbean. A four-degree world would mean that Rio de Janeiro and Barranquilla would have to deal with a massive 1.4-meter rise in sea level.

For Samaniego, being carbon neutral would help the region a lot. "In Latin America, the contribution of ecosystems is key."

The obstacles

Among the major obstacles in the region are transport and urban mobility. After the weakening of the railways in the 19th century, in the second half of the 20th century, there was a deliberate policy of expansion in favor of private mobility. "This is where I see that practically no progress is being made, and at a very disappointing pace," said the ECLAC chief.

The energy matrix is another point worth noting. Despite the fact that a change is taking place in the energy matrix, this is happening "more slowly than we need to," said Samaniego.

"Little by little, with the change in the prices of renewables, the way they are tendered and the carbon taxes, the penetration of renewables is being facilitated," he said. Decarbonization of the electricity matrix in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia would mark a radical change in the region.

For experts like Mariana Nicoletti, from the Center for Sustainability Studies at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Brazil, decarbonizing means going beyond just reducing emissions in the energy matrix. It means transforming an entire way of thinking and developing society.

Nicoletti adds that to decarbonize we have to focus on the big emitters, such as energy, but also on land use with deforestation and agricultural production. "We have to look at the chains in a transversal way: from the extraction and production of energy to the destination of the waste".

It is somewhat "ambitious" to think of a carbon-neutral Latin America, said Nicoletti, but not impossible. "We would have to change from public policy incentives, subsidies and government capital investment in fossil fuels. We are talking about a systemic change that would have to go through the entire economy; development of models based on the bioeconomy and low-carbon technologies," she said.

An agenda for adaptation to change

Faced with the challenges of decarbonizing, the region also faces the need to adapt to change. Nicoletti is a member of the Regional Network on Climate Change and Decision Making and advocates that the capacity to anticipate and respond to climate events should be on the region's adaptation agenda.

Adaptation, she says, must occur in parallel with the process of decarbonization. And, in this sense, the role of science is fundamental.

The researcher helped lead the LatinoAdapta project, which sought to identify and analyze knowledge gaps in the adaptation that affect the development and implementation of policies and measures related to climate change in six countries of the region: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The project held a panel during COP25 in Madrid.

"We have gaps in knowledge production, but the big problem in Latin America is more about building bridges with public managers who access, understand and apply scientific knowledge considering climate scenarios," said the Brazilian researcher.

Climate Justice on the Agenda

The transition process towards decarbonization will only be possible if an understanding of climate justice is applied, the analysts argued.

According to Nicoletti, this expression gains different connotations from who is speaking. "Climate justice for whom," she asks. From a historical perspective, the countries of the global north would have to transfer resources to the global south. And when resources reach countries, who has the right to access them? These are complex questions.

In general, the discussion on carbon neutrality has not been guided by the idea of climate justice. "Much of what was seen at the social summit was in this sense, of including traditional peoples and impoverished communities, who are the most vulnerable. It is a warning that there has to be more convergence. We see the power of those who speak concentrated in the white elites," he criticized.

For Adrián Martínez Blanco, of the Costa Rica Climate Route Association, a just transition must be based on a human rights approach. "We need to have a content of justice and that the pillars of a just transition are the pillars of human rights".

Climate actions have their negative effects and, if people's rights are not taken into account, "we will end up in social conflict and violence," he admitted.

The Climate Route Association bases its activities on volunteerism and promotes participation in climate and environmental decisions by raising public awareness through education.

Moving forward with the Escazú AgreementSpecially during COP25, the Costa Rican NGO participated in panels to promote the 'Escazú Agreement'. The so-called "Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean" was adopted on 4 March 2018.

It originated at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and is based on Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The negotiations, led by Chile and Costa Rica, brought together government delegates, representatives of the public and academia, experts and other stakeholders, who participated actively, collaboratively and on an equal footing.

Of the 33 Latin American countries, 21 nations have already signed, although only six have ratified. At least 11 states need to ratify the treaty for it to enter into force. Among these, Bolivia, Guyana, Jamaica, and Uruguay have ratified it.

"The objective we have is to position the Escazú Agreement, which is essential for the region and for the processes of implementing climate governance and reviewing commitments (the so-called nationally determined contributions). In terms of ambition, we must move forward with just transition, which not only implies changing the development model based on hydrocarbons, but also helping economic sectors that are having problems as a result of climate change," Blanco analyzed.

Source: La Estrella