As Latin America’s economic woes continue, its growth model based in various cases on natural resources looks increasingly precarious. A number of leader’s approval ratings are low showing how an emboldened citizenry is rejecting corruption and demanding better services. Citizens across the region are also very concerned about climate change.
Latin America is highly vulnerable to climate change. Glacial melt throughout the Andes is likely to affect water supplies across the sub-region and take its toll on power production from hydroelectricity with serious consequences for millions of people. Other impacts include coastal erosion with the rise of sea levels, and the intensification of extreme weather events. Damages linked to global warming could amount to billions of dollars and threaten hard-won development gains.
One of the greatest challenges facing Latin America is the sustainable management of its immense natural resources including 22 percent of the world’s forest area and 31 percent of the earth’s freshwater resources. Despite contributing substantially to the region’s economy in recent years, commodity-led growth leads to serious environmental and social problems including deforestation and social conflict. This reliance on natural resources creates more vulnerability to climate-related risks in the short term (e.g. water scarcity) and the long term (e.g. a lack of diversification of the economy). This creates a double vulnerability with the region as it faces worsening climate impacts.
Latin America is responsible for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although emissions from deforestation have drastically fallen in recent years, emissions from the energy sector including power generation and transport are rising quickly. Economic growth and drought have increased electricity demand, placing a strain on existing hydroelectric dams due to changing rain patterns, and driven demand for a greater share of fossil fuels in the region’s power matrix. Rapid urbanization and motorization rates are increasing transport-sector demand for fossil fuels while clogging up cities and increasing air pollution.
Don’t forget about the Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement should not be allowed to slip down the agenda. Many Latin American countries invested considerable political capital in helping to secure the agreement. In the closing stages of the negotiations, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Peru and others collaborated to find bridging proposals on prickly parts of the draft texts which proved crucial to secure an outcome.
Given the role played by the region in helping to secure the agreement and the level of concern exhibited by its citizens about climate impacts, Latin American leaders should assist the UN signing ceremony next month. The Paris Agreement, which is legally binding, will enter into force when at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC accounting for at least 55 percent of total global emissions have ratified it.
The Agreement strengthens the goal to limit the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees. It includes a long-term mitigation goal to reach greenhouse gas emission neutrality in the second half of the century. A joint goal to mobilize US$100 billion annually by 2020 for developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to impacts is also included. The Paris Agreement establishes 5-year cycles for raising ambition which will start in 2018 (and continue every five years afterwards) with a global stock take to review the current batch of national climate plans to be resubmitted by 2020.
Despite the unprecedented activity to prepare national climate plans, which are a central tenet of the agreement, collectively they do not correlate with the agreed global temperature goals with estimates suggesting pledges will result in a 2.7 and 3.7 degrees temperature increase. Latin American countries’ plans are insufficiently ambitious with the majority incompatible with staying within the global temperature goal. Given Latin American countries’ plans are insufficiently ambitious; the global stock take in 2018 will be a crucial step toward strengthening them.
Taking into account the cost of climate risks for Latin American countries, the Paris Agreement is an opportunity rather than a burden for the region and marks a new direction for international development toward a low-carbon and resilient global economy.
Some Latin American nations are demonstrating how fighting climate change and improving sustainability are compatible with building prosperity. These countries have established numerous measures to advance renewable energy, including creating targets and new regulations which are attracting investments and creating jobs. This past January, the Chilean government established a goal of obtaining 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050.
However, although progress is being made to promote renewable energy, countries are being held back by vested interests in the status quo, fossil fuel subsidies, difficult investment climates, and a lack of capital.
The UN signing ceremony this April and the 2018 global stock take of pledges can serve as important reminders to Latin American governments and others that the transition to a low-carbon and resilient future is a priority. Concern about the current economic malaise should not distract from the growing evidence that tackling climate change and building prosperity can advance together.
A longer version of this article was originally published in Spanish on the Esglobal website.