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Latin America and COP15: a post-failure analysis


By Javier Farje, LAB’s news writer*

COP15For a summit that became the focal point of disagreements, there is one thing about which everybody – official delegations, observers, journalists, activists – agree: that it failed. The legally-binding agreement that the Danish hosts hoped to mastermind did not materialise and the best that was achieved was a lukewarm document that, everybody hopes, will become a treaty in Mexico next year.

As has happened in other COPs, every delegation arrived in a wintry Copenhagen looking around to see what others were promising rather than making their own contributions. With a few exceptions.

Latin America did not arrive in COP15 with a unified position and the ideological differences that have prevented the continent from becoming more integrated in recent years crossed the pond and arrived in Copenhagen in the delegates’ suitcases.

Brazil has been trying to play an increasingly prominent role as an informal representative of regional interests. But, at the same time, Lula’s government wants to play with the big boys of the developed world. Unfortunately, you can’t have the best of both worlds.

Together with India and China, Brazil is one of the emerging economies whose contributions to greenhouse gas emissions have increased at the same time as their economies have grown. According to the UNFCCC, Brazil is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Latin America, with 32% of regional total. And, despite reassurances from the Brazilian government that there has been a reduction in the rate of deforestation, this process has not stopped. A whole economy is built on the charred remains of big portions of the Amazon forest and it would take many years to replace such a structure with an alternative system.

At the same time, Brazil has tried to lead developing countries in their demands for financial funding for mitigation and adaptation. Brazil, India and South Africa tend to be the countries with which the developed world negotiates and the UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Milliband, mentioned Brazil as one of the countries that contributed most to the signing of the Copenhagen “agreement”. What Milliband forgot to mention is that Brazil has refused to accept an obligatory reduction of deforestation via an international treaty.

In its attempt to join the big boys’ club, Brazil has shown its support for the carbon trade and carbon credit system, despite serious doubts about its viability in some Latin American countries. And it is here where ideological and political considerations played an important role in Copenhagen.


altBrazil’s ideological rivals, the ALBA countries, especially Venezuela and Bolivia, oppose the carbon trade system because they believe it is an attempt by rich countries and big companies to avoid their responsibility to reduce their own CO2 emissions. Evo Morales was clear when he addressed the media in the Danish capital: we are against carbon trading.

Both Evo Morales and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, arrived in Copenhagen with highly ideological positions, in contrast with Brazil’s more businesslike rhetoric.

The Bolivian President said that the only way to stop global warming was to transform the capitalist system into a socialist one — a proposal which was not likely to be included in the COP15 agenda. He also demanded the setting up of a tribunal where countries that did not reduce their emissions could be prosecuted.

Venezuela’s position was more ambiguous, to say the least. On the one hand, Hugo Chávez criticised his Danish hosts for circulating a draft statement among a very small number of delegations. In a speech that resembled Alo Presidente (his weekly TV programme), the Venezuelan leader delivered a veritable barrage of facts and figures related to poverty and diseases affecting the developing world. On the other hand, many delegates must have wondered when he was going to mention the fact that, even though a leading oil producing country, Venezuela has not yet put forward any concrete proposal for replacing fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy. After all, oil is the country’s main source of income and also funds Chávez’s social projects.

Furthermore, Venezuela has one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America and, as we know, the Venezuelan delegation did not take to Copenhagen a proposal for REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries ) or any other plan for reducing the destruction of its forests.

The British government accused Venezuela and Bolivia of boycotting an agreement. This accusation is not only unfair but also exaggerated. Neither Chávez nor Morales has a great deal of influence over countries like China, for instance, one of the culprits for the failure in Copenhagen. China has, for a long time, played a two-faced role. On the one hand, like Brazil, China wants to be treated as equal by the industrialised world but on the other hand it does not want to take on the responsibilities that membership of such an exclusive club entails. And China, whose presence in Latin America, according to experts in Brazil, has harmed regional trade, only goes to G77 meetings when it suits its interests. And Brazil knows that.

Long before COP15, Ed Milliband admitted that a legally-binding agreement was unlikely to come out of the Bella Centre, the venue where delegations worked very hard for two weeks to achieve almost nothing. So, to accuse Bolivia and Venezuela and other left-wing Lain American governments of boycotting an agreement, looks like an attempt to shift the blame to other quarters. The trouble is that the loud noises coming from the Venezuelan camp and the threats by Chávez to leave the summit if an agreement was not reached gave Milliband and the British government the perfect excuse for diverting attention to the wrong “enemy”.

Ecuador’s daring plan

altIn the middle of all this, Ecuador emerged as the real winner in the getting-our-priorities-right department. Quito arrived to Copenhagen with a pragmatic proposal which has a political dimension. As I wrote in my blog (read “Ecuador’s Cunning Plan”), the government of President Rafael Correa has produced a proposal that, when it was announced a couple of years ago, was seen with derision and some contempt but today is treated with growing respect.

Ecuador has vast oil reserves in the Yasuni National Park. Crude oil is the country’s main source of income, but it is also a fossil fuel. Fine, says President Correa, if you don’t want us to extract the oil, give us the money we would lose, or at least part of it, to cover our potential income. Furthermore, Ecuador’s rate of deforestation would diminish dramatically if the plan goes ahead.

The effect would be two-fold. On the one hand, economic: the money would be used for social projects and economic development. On the other hand, political: if the west is serious in helping poor countries to mitigate emissions, then this is its opportunity to put its money where its mouth is.

Germany decided to pick up the gauntlet and is helping to finance the scheme. The UNDP is one of the administrators of the project and, if a future government decides to ignore the agreement and wants to extract the oil, it would lose 5 years worth of income. The world is taking this proposal very seriously indeed, and there are people who believe that it is a scheme that could be applied in other countries in the region. As far as we know, Venezuela, who would be a natural candidate for such a project, has not said a word, despite the fact the both President Correa and Chávez share a similar ideological position.

Ecuador was conspicuous in its absence in the heavy ideological debates that the “Bolivarian” countries were keen to promote. The country was more concerned with its practical, daring and effective proposal that could set an example of how, without renouncing a radical left-wing ideology, it is possible to propose solutions for a problem that goes beyond loud rhetoric and useless threats.

But those of us who were in Copenhagen were made only too aware of how far we are from a global accord around practical, effective and daring proposals. We were witnesses to the lack of unity that, unfortunately, is delaying a solution for a problem that will seriously affect future generations.

* Javier Farje attended COP15 on behalf of LAB

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