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WASHINGTON, DC – Relations between the United States and much of Latin America are recovering after hitting rock bottom under former U.S. President Donald Trump. But while President Joe Biden’s administration is focusing on the Central American migration crisis, it must not miss the opportunity to drive urgently needed climate action to help the region rebuild after the pandemic.
Given the scale of Latin America’s economic collapse in 2020—its 7.4 percent GDP contraction was the worst of any region—most of its national leaders did not dwell much on climate change. Argentina, Mexico, and Peru have yet to direct a single dollar of recovery spending toward reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution, according to the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project. Instead, vast sums have gone to the region’s fossil-fuel industries.
Today, as Latin America inches toward recovery, it is vital that the region’s governments align their rebuilding strategies with their commitments under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The U.S. could help make that happen.
To limit global warming this century to below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, Latin American countries, along with the rest of the world, must halve GHG emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. While this is a tall order, we have most of the necessary technology. The region’s ample renewable energy sources, together with electrification of transport, could largely replace reliance on fossil fuels, which accounted for most of Latin America’s GHG emissions in 2018. Such a transition would reduce air pollution and attract the investment needed to help reverse a surge in joblessness and poverty over the past year.
Latin America’s renewables sector is already growing rapidly, and accelerating the green transition would drive economic recovery. Economists say that by 2030, the region could attract USD $432 billion in renewable-energy investments, excluding hydropower, and thus save billions on oil and gas imports and health-care spending related to dirty air.
But aligning Latin America’s energy sector with the Paris climate agreement’s goals will be difficult without U.S. support. Private and state-owned energy companies committed to oil and gas production remain influential, as the large share of stimulus spending allocated to them in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico makes clear. By contrast, tight national budgets include little money for electric buses or charging stations to encourage widespread electric-vehicle adoption.
By emphasizing renewable energy in Latin America, the U.S. could dramatically alter the region’s energy posture. And regional leaders recognize that cooperation on climate change is a good way to strengthen ties with Biden’s administration. Presidents Alberto Fernández of Argentina and Iván Duque of Colombia, and Chilean environment minister Carolina Schmidt, have already spoken with Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry.
Unlike in the U.S., climate change is not a partisan issue in Latin America, where polls show that 90 percent of citizens regard it as a serious threat. The 2019 United Nations climate change conference, COP25, took place under the auspices of the Chilean government, and several countries from the region met the December 2020 deadline to update their emissions-reduction pledges under the Paris agreement.
Biden’s April 22-23 Leaders’ Summit on Climate will be an opportunity to highlight the climate policies of Barbados, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. At the same time, Biden can nudge the region’s biggest GHG emitters, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, to do more to align their recovery plans with the Paris goals and avoid further fossil-fuel bailouts.
Biden could also use the summit to articulate how the U.S. will phase out both domestic fossil-fuel subsidies and its financing of fossil-fuel production abroad. In recognition of the social and economic costs of this transition, he could offer a range of incentives to invest in renewables, including a significant increase in renewables funding from the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). These investments would complement similar lending by the Inter-American Development Bank.
By boosting renewable energy in Latin America, the U.S. could expand its participation in one of the world’s most dynamic sectors. The DFC currently ranks fifth in renewable energy financing in Latin America, behind Spain’s Banco Santander and the German development bank KfW. Italy’s Enel, the United Kingdom’s Actis, and Brazil’s Omega are the biggest wind and solar operators in the region, with the U.S.-based AES in seventh place. China is the region’s dominant supplier of solar technology, and the two biggest suppliers of wind turbines are European, far ahead of third-place General Electric.
The Biden administration recognizes this opportunity. In executive orders, Biden has identified the fight against climate change as an essential component of U.S. foreign policy and national security, and pledged international collaboration to drive capital toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels, particularly in developing countries.
For Latin America, there is no time to lose. So far, Biden’s regional policy has been understandably dominated by the chaos at the U.S. border with Mexico—a crisis that originates in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The U.S. must now broaden its approach to this critical region, and capitalize on the goodwill that Biden has built up there during his career. Encouragingly, two senior U.S. administration officials recently visited South America with climate and environmental issues reportedly among the key topics of discussion.
Without the support of leading allies like the U.S., Latin America will struggle to advance a clean energy transition, especially if it focuses on propping up its oil and gas industries in an attempt to rebound from the pandemic. Alternatively, U.S. incentives and diplomatic engagement could accelerate a green transformation that offers both Latin America and the U.S. enormous social and economic opportunities.
Guy Edwards, a former senior consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank and former co-director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University, is co-author of A Fragmented Continent: Latin America and the Global Politics of Climate Change.
Benjamin N. Gedan, a former South America director on the U.S. National Security Council, is Deputy Director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.