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Can Latin America Blaze a Trail to Paris?

Latin American countries' commitments to fighting climate change are critical, but so is the level of political buy-in from citizens and business.
Climate change, environment, Climate March
Photo and homepage photo: David Mark Erickson.

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Many Latin Americans are unaware that their governments are negotiating a new climate agreement.

Next week, the United Nations climate change negotiations will reconvene in Germany, where countries will continue to draft a new global climate agreement to be finalized this December in Paris.

This year marks a watershed for Latin America, as the region decides what it will contribute to the agreement. This is not only about what countries will offer to reduce their emissions, but crucially about the level of political buy-in from citizens and business. The implementation of transformative contributions is more likely if these actors consider them beneficial, credible and legitimate.

The climate change debate in Latin America increasingly permeates politics, economics and media with surveys regularly confirming that the region’s citizens are very worried about global warming. With nearly 80 percent of its population living in cities, the growing number of Latin American city initiatives seeking to reduce emissions while increasing the health and economic opportunities of citizens 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 promoting cleaner buses.

For the Paris climate agreement, all countries are invited to submit national climate plans, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which will come into effect from 2020 when the new agreement enters into force. INDCs include information about a country´s pledge to reduce emissions, adapt to climate impacts, and the details of implementation including funding, assistance and technology transfer.

Despite the importance of the INDCs, information on how Latin American countries are preparing for them remains worryingly patchy, with rumors circulating that some countries might not present any plans at all.

In March, Mexico became the first developing country to announce its INDC following earlier submissions from the European Union, Norway and Switzerland. Mexico plans to peak its emissions by 2026 and to have an unconditional 25 percent reduction target for greenhouse and short-lived climate pollutant emissions (including black carbon or soot) below baseline emissions in 2030. Mexico also set a higher conditional target of reducing emissions and pollutants if certain conditions are met, including access to financial resources and provisions for technology transfer.

In Chile, a public consultation ran from December last year through April that provided the public time to reflect and submit their proposals on a draft INDC prepared by the government. The draft is now with the Chilean Council of Ministers for Sustainability and Climate Change before its likely submission to the UN in June. 

In Brazil, the government held public meetings and conducted an online questionnaire for its INDC, yet the level of ambition remains unknown. As Latin America’s largest emitter and a pivotal player in UN climate negotiations, Brazil’s contribution will have significant consequences for the Paris agreement in December and its global standing. Since 2005, Brazil has made impressive reductions in deforestation. While the government might be tempted to rest on its laurels, the Brazilian INDC should explore options that benefit both citizens and the economy, such as by tapping into the huge potential for wind and solar power. A solid INDC could help dispel concerns that the country lacks political commitment to a new climate deal.

Benefits of Inclusiveness

Despite climate change awareness, Latin American citizens are largely unaware that their governments are negotiating a new climate agreement. Other issues currently occupy the public mind—such as growing frustration over corruption and poor governance that has led to protests in several countries. In addition, governments, multilateral development banks and global NGOs tend to inform climate policy design in Latin America, while citizens are largely kept in the dark. Ending the era of closed-door policy-making starts with the development of new mechanisms to include the priorities of citizens and businesses.

This opens the door for the INDC design process, which can offer potential new ways to improve citizen and business participation. By opening the INDCs to public consultations, governments can break the pattern of taking unexplained positions at the UN climate negotiations while increasing non-state ownership of climate decisions. Participatory processes can foster a wider debate that can inspire smarter ideas and democratized national climate agendas.

Governments need to deliver information using accessible language to increase public understanding and ownership of the Paris agreement.  This should focus on the social benefits of national climate actions—such as linking measures to reduce emissions with investments in renewable energy, improved air quality, increased resilience to climate impacts, and greater mobility with clean transportation systems.

The Chilean government recently conducted a survey on the environmental priorities of its citizens that other countries should emulate. For example, 33 percent of Chileans worry about air pollution, so the government can build a case for cleaner transport, which has health benefits and reduces emissions.

Latin America has played a role in promoting adaptation to climate impacts as a top priority for a Paris deal, and this role needs to be communicated publicly in order to increase 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 convince citizens of the value of climate legislation that could secure commitment for future action. In this context, the private sector, city leaders and civil society can create independent spaces for defining ways to upgrade national climate plans, which gives these plans greater credibility and legitimacy.  

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.

Yet public consultations are only a start. Citizen proposals need to be reviewed and included, where appropriate, into official processes. It is unclear how Chile will consider or use the contributions and if the proposals will be publicly debated.

This year’s climate negotiations are opening a concrete opportunity to improve climate policy in Latin America by making it more participatory. If governments can include citizen contributions in their preparations for Paris, Latin America may enter a new cycle of participation, transparency and ambition on public policy. Inclusive climate policy can increase domestic ownership of the climate agenda—with potentially positive implications for democracy and real benefits for the economy and society.

Latin American presidents should prioritize the INDCs by promoting solid and inclusive, people-friendly contributions to the Paris climate agreement and by mandating the mainstreaming of climate actions into their development plans.

A longer version of this piece  was originally published by Nivela.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: sustainability, Climate change, UN Conference on Climate Change