Latin America: A United Front against Climate Change?

by Marcela Valente

Buenos Aires, Jan 9 (IPS) -- The countries of Latin America must overcome their  differences and strengthen their common positions on curbing emissions of gases  that cause global warming, says Argentine environmental expert Raúl Estrada Oyuela - and they must do so before the international conference scheduled for  May.

Prior to that meeting “we will attempt to erase our differences,” though so  far a mosaic of opposing interests has prevailed, Estrada Oyuela, head of  Environmental Affairs at Argentina’s Foreign Ministry, told IPS.

The environmental official led the Argentine delegation at the Sixth Conference of Parties (COP6) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which halted deliberations last November in The Hague due to the failure of industrialized nations to come to agreement.

At the supplementary meeting in May, possibly to be held in Bonn, the delegates  hope to finalise the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, drafted at the 1997  Third Conference of Parties, and which establishes cuts in greenhouse gas  emissions to five percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

Though at The Hague the negotiators made some progress toward making the Kyoto Protocol an active accord, the United States and the European Union could not  agree on how much credit should be granted for forests and agricultural land for  use as carbon-absorbing “sinks.”

Carbon dioxide, according to the majority scientific opinion, is the principal  cause of the greenhouse effect, a threat that translates into rising average  global temperatures and devastating floods or droughts.

Estrada Oyuela believes that the failure at The Hague was due not only to the disagreements between the United States and EU, but also to the poor  coordination of the deliberations themselves.

The May conference could coincide in Bonn with a meeting of the so-called  subsidiary groups, which involve scientists and experts specialising in the  causes of global warming, its effects on the planet and methods to curb those  effects.

The Argentine official wants Latin America to arrive at the conference with some far-reaching agreements in hand.

Latin America is part of the Group of 77 (G-77, now made up of 133 developing countries) and China, though when it comes to climate change, it has proven  difficult for the member nations to put aside their differences.

Argentina is pushing for regional consensus on the matter and is attempting to  revive what is known as GRULAC (Latin American and Caribbean Group), though it  lacks resources for organising meetings prior to the May conference, explained  Estrada Oyuela.

The idea of aligning the region’s positions on climate change has already won  the support of Chile and Uruguay, and could be further developed within other  meetings on the environment before May, including a G-77 conference.

But Venezuela, a leading petroleum exporter, resists efforts to speed up cuts in  the carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning fossil fuels because doing so  could take a big bite out of the country’s main source of income.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean countries that are part of the Alliance of Small Island  States are pressing for the rapid implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, given  that rising sea levels caused by warmer temperatures are melting the polar ice  caps and pose a direct threat to their very existence.

The Alliance of Small Island States is the most active in putting proposals on  the negotiating table, but the Caribbean islands included in the bloc have not  won the support of Latin America in general, according to Estrada Oyuela.

Brazil is another major player that does not appear willing to sacrifice its  economic growth in order to slow global warming.

“So far, Brasilia has made efforts to integrate itself into the Latin American  group (at international negotiations), but does not support all the points on  the common agenda,” the Argentine official said.

Taking yet another stance are Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, which are content  with their comparatively low greenhouse gas emissions levels, though quite  concerned about the damage they could suffer as a result of climate change.

Estrada Oyuela met in October with Elizabeth Odio, environment minister for  Costa Rica, a country that had been working alone in seeking international  investment to plant forests to serve as carbon sinks.

The Kyoto Protocol includes carbon-absorbing forests as one of the “flexible mechanisms” a nation may use in achieving its emissions reduction targets, as  are clean development and joint implementation of emissions-reducing methods.

These mechanisms were intended as ways to curb overall gas emissions even if an industrialised country does not meet its reduction target.

Through the  mechanisms, an industrialised nation gets credit for investing in forests, transferring technology or creating alternative sources of energy in another  country.

Flexible mechanisms, championed most loudly by the United States, the world’s  leading producer of greenhouse gases, have divided the nations of the developing  South, all of which are thirsty for investment dollars for developing new energy  sources or forestation projects.

Argentina proposes returning to the discussions focussed on emissions  reductions, independent from the short-term economic benefits the South could  receive from the leading gas emitting nations.

“I think that, Venezuela aside, we do not have substantial differences in the  rest of Latin America, and our positions may even be in line with those of the  island nations of the Caribbean,” and that would mean 70 votes at the May  conference, Estrada Oyuela said.

The expert also stated it is necessary for GRULAC to win back Mexico, which  during the climate change talks remained at arm’s length from Latin America.

Also, as a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Mexico has joined the Environmental Integrity Club, alongside  Switzerland, Norway and South Korea.

The confluence of the Latin American countries’ positions must be hammered out  before the climate change meeting in May, when negotiators will take another  look at the issues left pending in The Hague. The region must also consolidate  as a united front with sights set on the Seventh Conference of Parties,  scheduled for October in Morocco.

Estrada Oyuela’s interpretation is that the negotiations have been obstructed by  “human deficiencies,” because no group has been willing to leave any of its  proposals by the wayside.

He also believes that these international conferences are being held with very  little time in between, something that stands in the way of consensus building,  and he proposes that they be held every two years instead.

As far as the gas emissions reductions, the Argentine official says it is  occurring, but only because economic growth has lost steam and because  technological advances enhance productivity, but emissions cuts are not taking  place with the defence of the environment in mind.

Estrada Oyuela expressed scepticism about the likely environmental policy to  come from the US Republican Party’s George W. Bush after he succeeds Bill  Clinton in the presidency on Jan 20.

Bush’s environmental policy will not differ substantially from Clinton’s, he  predicted. “We must not kid ourselves - the positions in Washington on  important matters do not change from government to government. We can only  expect changes in nuance.”