Earlier this month, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry held a call with Colombian President Ivan Duque to discuss the climate crisis. This conversation was important for two reasons.
First, following the severe rupture with science under the Trump administration, President Biden quickly rejoined the Paris Agreement and signed an executive order moving the climate crisis toward the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security. In addition to President Duque, Kerry has also had various calls with other Latin American leaders, reflecting climate change’s prioritization in U.S. regional relations for the first time.
Second, last year Colombia joined 70 other countries to announce revised national targets aimed at reducing emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius. Colombia’s ambitious new pledge aims to reduce its emissions by 51 percent compared to projected emissions in 2030 and reduce black carbon or soot emissions by 40 percent compared to 2014. The new target is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal and has put Colombia on a more promising path to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. During the call with President Duque, Special Envoy Kerry called Colombia a “leader on climate action” in recognition of this enhanced ambition.
Climate leader: A ubiquitous label
In a world hurtling towards over three degrees of warming this century due to insufficient commitments to curb emissions, which threaten humanity and countless species alike, the temptation to label some countries as leaders is quite common. Yet is simply announcing new targets enough to be considered a leader? And more importantly, do these labels help countries achieve goals and generate international cooperation, or are they counterproductive?
The climate leader label can help countries raise their international profile, which can be critical for accessing foreign assistance and attracting investment. This investment can help boost national action on climate change, which probably would not have happened without foreign financial support in Colombia’s case. Although Colombia is an OECD member and has been adept at securing scarce international financial support, there is still a considerable gap in its funding needs to tackle the climate crisis. The climate leadership label can also prove helpful to traditionally weak environment ministries looking to push for ambitious targets, as a glowing international reception can often help safeguard their agenda.
There is a larger risk, however, that announcing ambitious targets becomes an end in itself. Leaders may be content to bask in the international attention from announcing big targets without following through with a holistic approach for implementation, especially with elections looming. Special interests, which are either against or wary of implementing targets given the threat to the status quo, may be content to use them as a free pass to avoid taking necessary actions.
Colombia’s neighbors provide a cautionary tale about labeling countries as climate leaders and the precariousness of climate targets. Despite making enormous progress on stemming deforestation in previous decades, Brazil is currently led by a climate denier presiding over soaring levels of forest destruction in the Amazon. Meanwhile, in Mexico, the federal government and its allies in Congress are embracing fossil fuels. In both cases, climate action has been severely curtailed.
Labeling Colombia a climate leader may be premature
Colombia could become a climate leader, but there is no guarantee. While the new target is backed by President Duque and follows recent progress on promoting renewable energy and electric mobility, in addition to Colombia’s proactive international stance, the broader economic and political situation shows how difficult realizing these ambitious targets will be without a more holistic approach across governmental bodies and the active participation of the private sector.
While the 51 percent target is a positive development and a myriad of actors from across national and regional governments and civil society participated in the process, the government still needs to clarify how it will be implemented. There are also doubts about the 51 percent target and its technical consistency given the data required, like the emissions from deforestation, to measure progress.
Indeed, emissions from deforestation will be a key battleground to achieve the new targets, as close to 60 percent of Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions originate from agriculture, forests, and other land use. The new targets include the goal of securing net-zero deforestation by 2030. These complement President Duque’s commitment to end deforestation in protected areas, plant 180 million trees, and secure a 30 percent reduction in total deforestation by August 2022.
Despite this flurry of targets, the outlook is bleak. During the first three months of 2020, more than 75,000 hectares were deforested, which represented an increase of 58 percent compared to the same period in 2019. The need to reduce deforestation and reforest degraded lands goes beyond climate and biodiversity goals. It is a critical component of building a more secure and sustainable future.
The dire security situation and murder of hundreds of social leaders in Colombia underscores governance challenges, including limited state capacity across vast areas where criminal activity is rife. Improving the governance and security situation in Colombia’s rural areas and reducing deforestation will be the determining factor as to whether the country meets its Paris Agreement pledges and other sustainable development and security goals.
Greater protections for social leaders are urgently needed from across the government, the national police, and the national protection unit. A former Colombian environment minister, Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, also argues that the Prosecutor’s Office should step up the arrest and prosecution of individuals financing and carrying out deforestation. He also argues for strengthening the penal code so these environmental crimes are punished with longer sentences, the payment of hefty fines, and financial compensation equivalent to the damage caused.
This is not the moment to embrace fracking
The energy sector is the second Colombian battleground where wind and solar have been slow to catch on compared to Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile. For example, solar and wind currently account for only 0.2 percent of the total capacity in Colombia compared with 18 percent in Chile.
While Colombia is set to have strong growth in the wind and solar sectors in the coming years, and hydropower continues to provide the majority of the country’s electricity, around 30 percent of total installed capacity for power generation still comes from fossil fuels. The importance of the energy and mining sector for Colombia’s economy is considerable, representing 12 percent of national earnings and 56 percent of all exports. The government appears keen to advance fracking to reverse dwindling oil and gas production and help spur an economic recovery post-COVID-19.
Yet embracing fracking would undermine efforts to reduce emissions, especially methane—a potent greenhouse gas—which tends to leak from oil and gas wells. There is also a growing risk that fossil fuel assets will be retired early or become stranded before the end of their use as the world shifts away from carbon-intensive energy. This could become costly; meeting the Paris Agreement goals could result in USD $90 billion of stranded fossil fuel assets in Latin America’s power sector alone.
At a time when the global clean energy transition gathers pace, driven by the plummeting costs of solar and wind and strengthened by the unfolding electric vehicle revolution, Colombia is taking a risky bet by pushing fracking. As top trade and investment partners, including the U.S. and Europe embrace decarbonization, Colombia could struggle to find markets for its fossil fuels.
To help further develop Colombia’s renewable energy market more needs to be done to attract investors and close the gap in transmission infrastructure to ensure new projects can connect to the grid while avoiding tensions with local communities. Revenues from Colombia’s mining and energy sector could also be tapped to fund projects to reduce emissions, including forest conservation and ecotourism, which carry benefits for biodiversity protection and job creation.
The need for a recovery consistent with climate goals
Looking towards the recovery from the pandemic, Colombia could explicitly connect its economic stimulus package with its emissions reduction goals for 2030 and 2050, sending a strong signal to regional governments, business, and foreign investors. Long-term, climate-friendly stimulus policies can lead to important economic benefits linked to increased investment, job creation, and reduced air and water pollution.
There are some limited signs that the country supports this approach. Its “New Commitment to Colombia’s Future” stimulus package looks to accelerate the planting of 180 million trees and develop renewable energy projects. However, the overall package, which includes projects such as highway construction and developing fossil fuels projects, is not green and will likely increase emissions and air pollution and threaten natural capital. To date, Colombia has spent around USD $374 million to support oil and gas and only USD $4.4 million on renewable energy as part of its recovery efforts.
Climate change also struggles to compete with other political, social, and economic issues. In public surveys, environmental issues and climate change are not usually one of the top priorities or concerns for citizens. The agenda of the National Congress and conversations among the main candidates for next year’s elections also show limited interest. For an ambitious goal to be realized, the support of political elites, business, and civil society will be critical.
During this make-or-break year for climate, biodiversity, and sustainable recovery, the 51 percent target is a crucial step that needs to be more closely integrated into the recovery and peace processes. To help do this, updating the existing climate law to include the targets for 2030 and the goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 before the 2022 election could help establish climate change as a bipartisan issue that future governments should respect and build upon. The forthcoming publication of Colombia’s draft long-term climate strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 can also stimulate a national debate about how to avoid becoming locked into a carbon-intensive development pathway and how to manage a just transition for affected sectors and communities.
We should be cautious of calling countries climate leaders until the transformative work begins to bear results. In the meantime, the U.S. and other key allies in Europe should continue to support Colombia’s efforts to realize these ambitious goals.
Guy Edwards is currently an independent consultant working on climate governance and geopolitics in Latin America and the Caribbean. He was previously a senior consultant at the IDB’s Climate Change Division and co-director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University. His co-authored book, A Fragmented Continent: Latin America and the global politics of climate change, was published by MIT Press in 2015.
Matías Franchini is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia. He was a Visiting Researcher at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, under the academic advice of Robert O. Keohane and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the University of Brasilia. He is the author of Climate Change Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. (2021).