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Petro’s call at COP28 to defend the Amazon

Drilling for oil in the rainforest is a contradiction in terms says the Colombian president



This article is reproduced by kind permission of Sumaúma. You can see the original here.

Sumauma, journalism from the centre of the world, is based in Altamira, Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon. It was established one year ago by Eliane Brum, Jonathan Watts, Verônica Goyzueta, Talita Bedinelli and Carla Jiménez.

Main image: Colombian President Gustavo Petro at COP28. Photo: Photo: Mahmoud Khaled/COP28

“Drilling for oil in the Amazon is a contradiction in terms,” says Gustavo Petro

At a conference that looks like it is set in a theme park, Lula undermines the government’s environmental credibility by announcing that Brazil will join OPEC+. Colombian president says only a new, progressive generation can move Latin America away from fossil fuels.

Dubai, the city in the middle of the desert where this year’s UN climate conference, COP28, is taking place, is not only a showcase for oil money but also for the environmental consequences of oil use. Despite the omnipresent sunshine, the city often wakes up and goes to sleep under a yellowish-gray haze, a mixture of construction dust with pollution from cars, industries, and gas-fired power plants. The most famous of the seven United Arab Emirates—one of the most polluted countries in the world—is a more opulent, and less green, version of Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro’s newest beachside neighborhood. Dubai’s gated communities, hotels, and shopping malls are crisscrossed by high-speed roads, while its sidewalks are bare of pedestrians.

“[The Emirates] are a kind of artifice of big global capitalism in terms of tourism for the wealthy,” said Colombian President Gustavo Petro, one of over 140 government leaders in attendance at the opening of COP28, on December 1 and 2. The conference is being held at Expo City Dubai, built to host Expo 2020 but inaugurated only in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Expo City is meant to be a “city of the future,” it looks more like a giant theme park, cold and restrained, far removed from the Amazon and those parts of the world where climate injustice is evidenced on a daily basis.

Petro has suspended new oil exploration contracts in Colombia. He proposes that the Amazon rainforest be declared a zone free of fossil fuel production and “treated as sacred,” given the need to tackle the climate emergency. The Colombian president answered SUMAÚMA’s questions as he was leaving the session where a global treaty to phase out oil, gas, and coal consumption and exploration was proposed. Fossil fuels, the main source of the greenhouse gases that cause global heating when released into the atmosphere, are the central topic at COP28. However, only 11 countries have signed on to the proposed treaty—and all of them, except Colombia, are island nations that may well vanish as ocean levels rise.

On the same day that the initiative was presented at COP28, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva confirmed that Brazil will join OPEC+, a block of ten nations allied with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which the United Arab Emirates is part. His ended up overshadowing environmental initiatives taken by the Brazilian government, which arrived in Dubai having reduced deforestation in the Amazon, launched the idea of a fund for preserving and recovering tropical rainforests, and been selected to host COP30, in Belém.

President Gustavo Petro at the ‘Tranforming Climate Finance’ event at COP28. Video: Somos Colombia, 2 December 2023.

Conserving forests like the Amazon and eliminating reliance on fossil fuels and their production are not separate issues but closely linked, according to Fabiola Zerbini, director of the Forest Department at Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. “The discussion about [forest] conservation and restoration is fundamental, but it has to be conducted in parallel with [discussions about] changing the energy grid,” she told SUMAÚMA. “[Forest conservation] can’t be used as an excuse or to offset fossil fuels, or else it’s nothing but a warped way of keeping the world exactly as it is, with this concentration of wealth and emissions” in rich countries and, within countries like Brazil, in the hands of a minority.

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In one of his speeches at the climate conference, Lula himself said that even if no more trees are cut down, the Amazon rainforest runs the risk of reaching the point of no return and becoming so degraded that it cannot absorb carbon dioxide and regulate the climate. “Rising global temperatures could trigger an irreversible process of savannization of the Amazon,” said the president. “The energy, industrial, and transportation sectors emit a lot of greenhouse gases. We have to deal with all these sources,” he added.

Despite this, Lula did not respond to the appeal made by Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, who called on the Brazilian president to step into the “global leadership vacuum” and present the climate conference with a timetable for phasing out fossil fuels. As expected, most countries at the conference preferred to skirt around the issues. Brazil was one of 116 nations that signed a political commitment, without the force of international law, to triple renewable energy generation capacity by 2030. The pledge makes no mention of ending the use and production of oil, gas, and coal.

Colombian President Petro said he regrets the fact that the traditional left in Latin America has failed to move beyond the “fossil economy” and that the task will fall to a new generation. The following are some key excerpts from his interview, in which other Brazilian journalists also took part:

SUMAÚMA: Do you expect other Latin American countries to get behind the proposed treaty to eliminate fossil fuels? Brazil has plans to increase oil production and has announced it will join OPEC+.

GUSTAVO PETRO: I think Latin America is still in a novice stage, and its progressive movements don’t understand the reality that is already a consensus in Africa and a deep discussion elsewhere in the world, which is the need to get away from [fossil fuel] use as fast as possible—and stop sustaining ourselves on oil, coal, and gas. Look how Latin America, over the last 30 years—despite election victories for many of its progressive forces—has not managed to advance an independent fossil fuel project. Venezuela is still dependent on oil; Columbia, on coal and oil; Bolivia, on gas; and even Brazil, albeit not in the same proportion, on oil. This dependence on the fossil fuel economy prevents Latin American progressivism from having an independent vision and keeps Latin America from being able to transition. Like Africa, [Latin America] has enormous potential for generating clean energy, and even for exporting it, for industrializing on the basis of clean energy, in what we could call a decarbonized economy. If we analyze it more deeply, a decarbonized economy implies a change in the correlation of world power, and a change in the social relations of production.

Lula has said that Brazil will join OPEC+ to convince the group it has to make the transition and buy Brazilian renewable fuels.

I respect his decisions, but there is already an Arab awareness about the need for a transition. I mean, about answering a big question: what will Arab societies, oil societies, look like in a world without oil consumption? We’ve heard this being discussed in talks by Arab leaders, but bold steps [must also be taken] toward what Arab society will be like without oil. We must ask the same question in Latin America: what will Venezuela look like in a world without oil? It’s the same question we’re asking in Colombia. I dared to ask it during the elections [Petro was elected in June 2022], with good results, because the majority of the population supported our thesis of moving towards a decarbonized economy in Colombia, which is the world’s second biodiversity power. But the same question needs to be asked in Peru, Mexico, and Brazil. And the answers don’t seem to lie in the hands of the traditional left today; they certainly don’t lie in the hands of the right, who are almost all denialists. But they lie in the hands of new generations, of Latin America’s new social forces, who have to think about the region’s great potential, which is, as I call it, the power of life.

In Colombia, where you have suspended new exploration contracts, was there much resistance?

The step we took was not to sign any new oil exploration contracts. The production and exploration contracts already signed have been maintained. The country’s oil exports and its production are already trending downward. There is political opposition from denialists, who don’t see what’s happening in the world, but there is a reality, which is that world demand for Colombian coal and oil is falling. It doesn’t depend on us. The world is reducing its demand for heavy oil like ours, which will be the first to disappear, and coal. Like it or not, this forces us to transition to an economy without these types of fossil-based raw materials. And that’s what we’re doing, but with challenges. There is global hypocrisy, and there is no support for making the transition. We’re doing it with our own efforts. We’ve had positive results in some areas. For example, tourism is growing substantially, as is food production and clean energy. Colombia’s energy grid is 75% clean. It wouldn’t be hard to achieve a completely clean energy grid.

At the summit of Amazon countries last August in Belém, you proposed that the final declaration include the notion of an oil-free Amazon…

Oil drilling in the rainforest is a contradiction in terms. The forest is a sponge that absorbs the largest amount of carbon dioxide on the whole American continent, if we don’t consider oceans. And this sponge cannot take drilling that emits carbon into the forest. This alone could practically be the end of human existence because the Amazon rainforest is a fundamental climate pillar and must be treated as sacred when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.

Free Amazon: To address the climate crisis, Colombian president argues against oil drilling in the rainforest, which should be treated “as sacred” from an environmental standpoint. Photo: Enrico Marone/Greenpeace