Can Latin America Blaze a Trail to Paris?

Can Latin America Blaze a Trail to Paris?

This year marks a watershed for Latin America as governments decide what they are willing to contribute to a new climate agreement in Paris this December. This is not just a question of offers to tackle climate change – how governments define their plans will determine the level of political buy-in from citizens, civil society, and businesses. The implementation of ambitious and solid contributions is more likely if constituencies consider them beneficial, credible, and legitimate.

Latin America has set a positive precedent in its collective effort to tackle climate change. A group of countries from the region have been instrumental in supporting a shift toward universal action to reduce emissions as part of the new international climate agreement expected in Paris. Of these countries a few have been among the first to pledge contributions to the Green Climate Fund. Moreover, Mexico, which adeptly hosted the UN climate talks in Cancun in 2010, recently became the first developing country to announce its contribution to the new climate agreement.

Latin American figures are also active in the global climate change debate: Christiana Figueres leads the UN climate change convention, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón chairs the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, and Pope Francis hosted a Vatican climate conference in April. Meanwhile, former Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos is working with former Irish president Mary Robinson on climate justice, and Angel Gurría is making green growth a priority at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The climate change debate is already permeating Latin American politics, economics, and media. Real concerns about vulnerability to climate impacts such as drought and flooding has kept climate skepticism levels much lower than those in the US and Canada. Surveys, including a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, regularly confirm that Latin Americans are very worried about global warming.

A striking feature of Latin American countries is that, regardless of size or political orientation, governments are actively seeking to be part of the climate change solution. In 2014 the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), composed of all 33 countries in the region, confirmed its commitment toward UN climate talks and voiced support for a legally binding agreement.

The UN climate conferences hosted by Mexico in 2010 and Peru in 2014 helped boost media exposure and business interest in climate issues thanks to the great variety of events running parallel to official meetings. The Lima business-climate summit brought together investors and infrastructure experts as well as a general public who would normally not attend such discussions.

With 80% of its population living in cities, the multiplying number of Latin American city initiatives combining development with climate perspectives is inspiring. In March mayors from 20 Latin American cities signed the C40 Clean Bus Declaration in Buenos Aires, which aims to improve air quality and reduce emissions by incorporating low- and zero-emission buses in their fleets. The pragmatic message of the C40 mayors was free from the north-versus-south finger pointing that often undermines UN climate talks. Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro, stated that “Latin American cities are leading the way in driving urban action that reduces emissions…while increasing the health…and economic opportunities of urban citizens.”

This people-friendlier agenda comes at a time of tension between governments and activists. While negotiators were meeting at the Lima climate conference, protesters took to the smog-filled streets outside to demand serious climate action. Drawing roughly 15,000 people, it was Latin America’s largest climate march to date, and linked with other issues such as water management and protection of activists’ rights. Those marching were not exclusively environmental activists but also students, women’s groups, indigenous peoples, and trade unionists calling for environmental responsibility.

Preparing Serious Contributions?

In 2015 all countries are invited to submit national climate action contributions, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which will help define the post-2020 period when the new agreement enters into force. INDCs include information about a country´s pledge to reduce emissions, to adapt to climate impacts, and the details of implementation including funding, assistance, and technology transfer.

Counting for 1.4% of global emissions and ranked as one of the top 10 global emitters, in March Mexico became the first developing country to announce its INDC, and follows earlier submissions from the European Union (EU), Norway, and Switzerland.

Mexico plans to peak its emissions by 2026 (four years ahead of China) and to have an unconditional 25% reduction target for greenhouse gas and short-lived climate pollutant emissions (including black carbon) below “business-as-usual” projections for 2030. This commitment implies a 22% reduction of greenhouse gases, a 51% reduction of black carbon. Mexico also set a conditional target of reducing emissions and pollutants to 40% below business-as-usual in 2030 if certain conditions are met, including a global carbon price, access to financial resources, and provisions for technology transfer.

How did it publicly vet its plan? Mexico held an INDC workshop with civil society in February and launched a public online consultation the following month before officially submitting it. The INDC is open for public comment until September, though it is unclear whether there will be any further negotiation or addition of new ideas.

Concerning transparency in the preparation of other INDCs, Chile has had the most innovative participatory approach so far: an open consultation ran from December 2014 to April this year that provided ideas on specific emission reduction options and sought public comment. The INDC is now with the Chilean Council of Ministers for Sustainability and Climate Change, with expected submission to the UN in June. Much of Chile’s INDC technical analysis began years ago as part of a program called Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios (MAPS) and involving numerous stakeholders. The MAPS program is a collaboration between South African and Latin American experts to establish long-term mitigation trajectories and to inform public policy.

In Brazil, the Ministry of Foreign Relations held public meetings with civil society, conducted an online questionnaire, and recently published a final report on the INDC preparation. Although this is a positive step, the INDC’s level of ambition remains unknown and some Brazilian experts are requesting new opportunities to influence the final outcome.

Brazil is the largest emitter in Latin America, one of the top 10 global emitters, and a pivotal player in UN climate negotiations. The Brazilian INDC therefore stands out for its national, regional, and international significance. The spirit of Brazil’s contribution will have significant consequences for the Paris agreement and for Brazil’s international credibility. A solid INDC could help dispel concerns that the country lacks political commitment to a new climate deal and is not interested in maintaining its leadership on climate issues.

Since 2005, Brazil has made impressive reductions in deforestation, and runs on relatively clean power. While the government might be tempted to rest on its laurels, going forward the Brazilian INDC needs to chart a new path. One way it might do this is through actions that benefit both the people and the economy, such as by tapping into the huge potential for renewable energy generation such as wind and solar and by deploying sustainable urban solutions. Izabella Teixeira, Minister of Environment, said that Brazil’s INDC will increase the use of renewable energy, will target zero-net deforestation, and will push for low-carbon agriculture. In order to do this, however, more foreign capital and technology will be required.

Peru launched its INDC process in April and is expected to hold a public consultation in June, and recently announced the creation of a ministerial commission led by the Ministry of Environment to organize INDC preparation. Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s INDC is being designed by an expert workshop hosted by the Ministries of Environment and Energy and Foreign Affairs, as well as a series of round tables on energy and transport. A consultation with civil society is expected soon, with the final INDC draft expected around September. It is unclear how other Latin American countries are preparing their INDCs, with little or no public information available.

Benefits of Inclusiveness

Government experts, multilateral development bank officials, consultancies, and global NGOs have historically informed climate policy design in Latin America. Much of this is driven by good will, the need to bridge gaps in national capacity, or governmental requests for support. Citizens are largely kept outside of decision-making on national and international climate policy, but this is not unique to Latin America. Ending the era of closed-door policy-making starts with the development of new mechanisms to include the priorities of citizens and businesses. Thus, the INDC design process offers a concrete opportunity to develop mechanisms that improve citizen and business participation.

The steps taken by Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil to open the debate around INDCs set a positive precedent for climate policy. For now, the openness and effectiveness of these steps vary significantly, with Chile’s approach appearing to be the most participatory.

By opening the INDCs to public consultations governments can break the pattern of taking unexplained positions at the UN climate negotiations, and increase the local ownership of climate decisions. Ownership and public support is critical for implementing actions beyond short-term electoral cycles. Participatory processes can foster a wider debate that can bring smarter ideas and democratized national climate agendas.

Public demand for governmental transparency is increasing. NGOs from Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela signed a declaration demanding public consultations on their national INDCs including the participation of diverse groups such as indigenous peoples and youth. Brazil’s Climate Observatory is also pushing its government to present the INDC publicly before submission to the UN, in order to assess how the consultation process influenced its preparation.

Talking “Paris” with Citizens

Despite climate change awareness, citizens across Latin America are largely unaware that their governments are negotiating a new climate agreement. Other issues currently occupy the public mind: growing frustration over corruption, broken promises, and poor governance have led to protests in several countries.

Governments need to deliver information using accessible language in order to increase public understanding and ownership of the Paris agreement. One way to deal with the complexity of the climate negotiations is to concentrate on the real benefits for citizens and businesses of national climate actions. Positive headlines can be made from linking how to tackle climate change with investments in renewable energy, clean transportation systems, reduced air pollution, and improved quality of life. Governments need to also explain how the Paris agreement will help build resilience to climate impacts.

This process is underway in some countries and cities. The Chilean government conducted a survey on the environmental behavior and priorities of its citizens that other countries could use and follow. For example, 33% of Chileans worry about air pollution, so government could build a case for stricter vehicle regulations and increased forms of clean public transport, both of which have health benefits and reduce emissions. Armed with this information, policy makers can generate a narrative to situate their climate action proposals within the context of the issues worrying their citizens.

There is evidence that the EU’s INDC could save it $30 billion per year from reduced fossil fuel imports, prevent 6,000 deaths from exposure to air pollution, and create 70,000 jobs in wind, solar and hydro energy. A similar effort is required in Latin America to remove any concerns that climate protection is unaffordable or not in line with building prosperity.

Latin America has played a role in promoting adaptation as a top priority for a Paris deal and this role needs to be communicated to the public in order to increase the regional ownership of the December outcome.

Moving Forward

A participatory and inclusive INDC process could provide a boost to existing environmental and climate policies and help make the case for legislation on climate that could secure commitment for action in the future. In this context, the private sector, city leaders, and civil society could also create independent spaces for defining ways to upgrade national climate plans, which gives these plans greater credibility and legitimacy.

Still, high-level support is essential to advancing ambitious climate contributions. The Chilean public consultation is unlikely to have succeeded without the explicit political support of president Michelle Bachelet. Presidential support helped send clear signals through government and society that the INDC public consultation was a priority.

In the creation of sound policy, public consultations are only the start. Citizen proposals need to be reviewed, considered, and included where appropriate into official processes. While many Latin American governments may solicit public comments, it is unclear how some will consider or use contributions, or whether the proposals will be publicly debated.

There are also lessons to learn for civil society: contributions are more likely to be considered if they offer solid proposals, while demands will not get far unless backed up with technically and economically feasibility data.

One productive way of contributing to country INDC debates is by offering ideas on how to build national adaptation plans into INDCs. Latin American civil society may also consider organizing a forum on regional INDCs based on high-quality technical proposals focused on reducing pollution, increasing clean transport, and accelerating renewable energy deployment. They could offer specific ideas on how to design and deploy national plans on adaptation.

This year’s climate negotiations are opening the most concrete opportunity to improve climate policy in Latin America by making it more participatory. If politicians and officials can include citizen and business concerns and proposals in their preparations for Paris, the region’s countries may enter a new, productive cycle of participation, transparency, and ambition on public policy. Latin America is already home to experts in renewable energy, architecture, city planning, adaptation, and other areas that can help mainstream climate change in development.

The region has sent a positive message by launching public INDC consultations, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Inclusive climate policy can increase domestic ownership over the climate agenda with potentially positive implications for democracy and real benefits for citizens and the economy. This is the year for Latin American presidents to make this a priority by endorsing solid and inclusive people-friendly contributions to the Paris climate agreement and by mandating the mainstreaming of climate actions into their development plans.


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