South American diplomats expect to make progress towards a global climate deal at this week’s UN talks in Lima, despite growing criticism from NGOs that governments in the region are backtracking on pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.
Senior officials from the host, Peru, and biggest regional emitter, Brazil, told the Guardian they aimed to help negotiators draw up a draft agreement specifying measures to prevent global warming reaching catastrophic levels.
The draft is expected be finalised and signed at at conference next year in Paris. It will be legally binding and applicable to all signatories, though levels of responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases will vary from nation to nation depending on their level of development.
Before that, however, a great deal of work has to be done at the UN conference of the parties (COP) in Lima, where Latin American countries will need to play an important role.
Peru as hosts and Brazil as an influential player at previous climate summits are in a strong position to bridge the differences between the major emitters – China, the United States and the European Union – and to bring on board developing countries.
“The only way to succeed in Paris is by having a strong outcome here in Lima,” said Peru’s minister of environment Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, a green activist for 30 years who will chair the conference and has led his country’s outreach preparations.
“We developed a plan to have the COP to show the world that we, as Peru and as a Latin American country, can facilitate this very big and complex process.”
Peru is a member of the AILAC bloc of six Latin American nations who are pushing for aggressive emission cuts not only by rich countries, but by big emerging economies such as China and Brazil. The member states – also including Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama – are neither very rich, nor very poor and most sit close to the equator, hence their claim to represent the “beautiful middle” in the talks, between the extremes of north and south.
However, they have often been criticised for failing to match international words with domestic deeds.
Peru has come under fire as a country where some of the worst deforestation of the Amazon is taking place as a result oil drilling, gold mining, illegal logging and land clearance for farms. It has also been censured as the fourth most deadly country in the world for environmentalists. Not helping its reputation was the government’s move earlier this year to strip the environment ministry of power to name nature reserves and set air quality standards.
Pulgar-Vidal denied that his ministry had lost any of its authority, but he acknowledged that one objective of the COP meeting in Lima is to raise awareness of the need to develop without emissions.
“What we want to do is to leave a legacy which gives Peru the opportunity to continue growing in a very sustainable way,” he said.
Latin America has taken several steps towards regional integration in the past decade, but when it comes to climate negotiations, differences are more apparent than similarities.
In contrast to AILAC, the other regional bloc is the ALBA group of left-leaning countries, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua. They have been among the most vocal critics of the current process on the grounds that it puts too much pressure on poorer nations. However, ALBA’s often disruptive tactics may also be influenced by the fact that most of the members are either oil exporters or beneficiaries of heavily subsidised oil from Venezuela.
During past disputes, Brazil has often stepped in as an honest broker. It has no regional affiliation in climate talks, preferring to line up with the Basic group of big emerging economies – and emitters – including China, India and South Africa. Although Brazil is an oil power, it’s abundant hydro resources greatly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
Brazil’s climate diplomats have secured breakthroughs on severe occasions. They were the first to come up with the funding mechanism to help poorer countries deal with climate mitigation (and give them an incentive to support emission cuts). They have pushed the idea of historical responsibility and their interventions were credited as crucial in securing a positive outcome from the Durban talks in 2012.
This time, they have proposed a formula of “concentric differentiation” that sets out three main bands of responsibility: rich developed nations in the centre with large mandatory emission cuts, poorer nations on the outside with zero obligations and great flexibility, and emerging economies in the middle with a basket of options for significant voluntary reductions.
Brazil’s lead negotiator, Antonio Marcondes, said the proposal was drawing strong support.
“The rationale of this is to overcome stumbling blocks on differentiation by devising a dynamic system to drive ambition upwards over time,” he said. “It’s the talk of the town.”
But while Brazil remains admired for diplomatic finesse, its overall strategy and level of commitment are increasingly questioned by critics, who see President Dilma Rousseff as a leader with a shallow commitment to the environment.
Under her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil put in place effective measures to reduce the speed of Amazon clearance and set ambitious voluntary targets for deforestation. Since Rousseff – a former head of oil giant Petrobras – took power, however, the controls have been weakened, deforestation is once again on the rise, more hydropower plants are planned in the Amazon and the government has approved its first coal-fired plant in nine years.
Carlos Rittl of Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental NGOs, said Brazil was now hiding behind the gains it made in the past rather than pushing ahead with more ambitious climate policies involving greater investment in wind, solar, ethanol and biomass.
“We haven’t really taken climate change as a development issue. It is seen as marginal,” he said. “It is not a priority for Dilma. She does not seem to realise the risks and opportunities for our economy.”
Others point out that Brazil has yet to announce new targets to reduce emissions, making it a laggard in comparison to China, the US and EU – all of which have recently declared more ambitious goals. There are suggestions that Brazil’s commitment to a deal next year is wavering.
“Unfortunately of late they have been sending mixed signals about Paris. At times they have signalled that countries shouldn’t necessarily finalise the agreement in Paris – that Paris is the beginning, not the end of the negotiation. In particular they have not been as clear on pushing for countries to propose their climate targets early next year.
“After the China announcement and the likely Indian one early next year that position puts them outside the mainstream of their emerging economy contemporaries,” said Jake Schmidt of the US-based National Resources Defence Council.
Diplomats insist such criticism is unfair. Brazil, they say, is in the process of a national consultation to set revised targets, which will be announced before the internationally agreed deadline next year. Regarding deforestation, they say the recent uptick is a blip in a long term trend of decline.
“What we have been achieving so far shows our unabated political will. We are right on target,” said Marcondes. “The trajectory of our voluntary commitment shows very clearly that we are reducing emissions much more than many developed countries … We came here to positively move the process forward to ensure we come out of Paris with an enhanced climate regime.”
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