Tracking Latin America’s Progress on Climate Action
High in the Andes Mountains, glaciers have retreated and thinned under the effects of climate change. Nearly four million people depend on these glaciers for water, but they have lost nearly a meter in thickness over the last 20 years.
Similar impacts are being felt across Latin America, as well as the rest of the world, and there are signs that the changes are accelerating and intensifying. The year 2020 matched or exceeded several climate benchmarks for the region; 2020 was one of the three hottest years for Central America, and the second hottest for South America. This was matched by increasing levels of drought and wildfire. More acutely, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were directly impacted by two back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes, Eta and Iota. The increased intensity of both storms is linked to climate change.
All of this underscores the need to meet the goals of the 2021 Climate Conference (COP26) — particularly the Glasgow Pact goal of limiting the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels.
Unfortunately, the Glasgow Pact leaves much to be desired and there are few, if any, guarantees that this limit will be met. By the end of the conference, 151 countries had submitted new climate action plans (otherwise known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) to reduce their emissions by the year 2030. Even if current NDCs are met, the world will warm by an average of 2.5 degrees C.
Change must ultimately come from countries themselves, implemented at the policy level and supported by platforms and actors across the economy. Unfortunately, the results of some of the commitments made were as mixed as the results from COP26 itself. Take Mexico and Brazil, by far the two largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters in the region, which chose to only match their prior NDCs, though some additional commitments were made. Colombia on the other hand made more ambitious commitments to reduce emissions, as well as protect its forested and marine areas. All three countries have also signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, agreeing to cut global methane emissions by 30% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels.
We track the progress made on climate in these three countries, looking at the impact of agreements made at COP26 across key sectors and exploring how they can be built on ahead of COP27.
Brazil: New Attitudes but Still Insufficient
The Brazilian government sought to highlight a change in attitude towards combatting climate change and made a new commitment at COP26 to reduce GHG emissions by 50% by 2030. Although this goal exceeds Brazil’s commitment made in its action plan, it only matches the previous agreement made in 2015 during the Paris Climate Conference. Brazil ultimately left COP26 having only committed to matching its previous levels of climate action, which are seen as insufficient to meet the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C.
One of the more critical areas of forest to preserve is the Amazon Rainforest, which is largely within Brazil’s borders. Recent data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows the rate of deforestation is at its highest in the last 15 years. In 2019, deforestation rates spiked, with reversals of declines in deforestation in the Cerrado Biome. If current trends continue, the Amazon Rainforest faces several crises, such as becoming a net emitter of CO2 and a massive loss of biodiversity. Recent studies point to ongoing deforestation leading to a potential “tipping point,” wherein the Amazon would no longer be able to sustain its own ecosystem and transition to a savanna-like ecosystem
To its credit, Brazil, along with 141 other countries, signed on to the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. These nations contain 90% of the world’s forests and are committed to stopping and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030. The initiative is backed by $19.2 billion in public and private funding.
Regarding Brazil’s specific commitments to forests and land use, the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment made several specific commitments:
- Elimination of illegal deforestation by 2028, decreasing by 15% per year until 2024, 40% in 2025 & 2026, and 50% in 2027.
- Restoring and reforesting 18 million hectares (44.5 million acres approx.) by 2030.
- Recovering 30 million hectares of degraded pastures (approx. 74 million acres).
As part of the commitment to the Declaration however, the Brazilian delegation argued that the agreement should only apply to illegal deforestation, although the Declaration makes no distinction. According to MapBiomas, 99% of the current deforestation is illegal. Optimistically, if Brazil cracks down on illegal deforestation, it will fulfill its agreements under the declaration and go a long way towards protecting the Amazon. It is important to note, however, that the agreement is not binding.
Unfortunately, there are no indicators showing that Brazil has begun to address this problem, and prior environmental spending proposals have been vetoed.
Colombia Furthers its Ambitious Commitments
Colombia stands out for submitting a more ambitious emissions reduction goal at COP26, committing to a 51% reduction by 2030 when compared to a business-as-usual scenario. Encouragingly, this level of reduction will make the country’s decarbonization by 2050 a feasible scenario and will meet the target set by Colombia’s Long Term Strategy (Estrategia 2050). Furthermore, Colombia has also committed to reduce its black carbon emissions — the black sooty byproduct of burning fossil fuels — by 40% by 2030, compared to its 2014 levels. This reduction in black carbon emissions would lead to improved air quality and health within cities.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector, is responsible for 58% of Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, tackling deforestation is critical if Colombia is to meet its emissions reduction targets by 2030 and 2050. Prior to COP26, Colombia joined the Leticia Pact, an agreement between Amazonian countries to coordinate reforestation initiatives and monitor deforestation. At COP26, Colombia furthered its commitment to protecting forests, signing on to several agreements covering deforestation, land use and ocean protection. In addition to the Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, Colombia also committed to the Forests, Cocoa and Peace Initiative.
Additionally, President Duque announced an expansion of its protected marine areas, as part of the “30 by 30” initiative, which seeks to protect 30% of marine and terrestrial areas by 2030. This announcement puts Colombia ahead of schedule by eight years, meeting the goal in 2022. Colombia also signed the “Because the Ocean” Declaration, furthering its commitment to marine conservation.
Colombia was chosen by 33 countries to represent Latin America and the Caribbean before the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, the main vehicle within COP26 through which partners counteract the impacts of climate change. The Colombian delegation at COP26 also signed a declaration on fair carbon market prices that seeks an equitable distribution of the benefits of these for the communities and the actors that participate in the development of the projects and guarantee that these markets protect the environmental integrity and are effective tools that promote greater climate ambition.
Mexico: A Mixed Bag with Opportunities Ahead
As with Brazil, Mexico’s commitments are a mix of outcomes. Although many countries committed to further reductions in emissions, others simply reaffirmed prior commitments, or even backslid on them. Unfortunately, Mexico finds itself in the latter group (it is the only G-20 country without a net-zero target), with no commitments to further lower its emissions, and an updated climate action plan that utilizes the same percentage of reductions as in 2015. This means that Mexico’s commitments are not aligned with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. Fortunately however, this plan was ruled invalid by a judge who considered it to be in violation of the country’s Paris Agreement commitments.
There were, however, some positive developments from COP26 for the country. Mexico joined the Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use, as part of the effort to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030; currently, Mexico is ranked in the top 10 countries for forest loss, with nearly 300,000 hectares of primary forest gone in 2020 alone. The country also prepared the Instrumentation Strategy for a Sustainable Ocean Economy 2021-2024, which 16 countries have joined. Additionally, Mexico also signed on to a declaration advancing the transition to 100% zero-emission cars and vans by 2040, as well as the Global Methane Pledge. The latter commitment is especially significant, as methane emissions comprise approximately 24% of Mexico’s total GHG emissions, and recent studies have shown that oil and gas platforms in Mexican waters may be emitting 10 times more methane than Mexico’s national GHG inventory estimate indicates.
Looking towards COP27, Mexico should review and strengthen its commitments to align them with a more ambitious long-term strategy to reduce emissions and combat climate change. There is an opportunity for Mexicans across the socioeconomic spectrum to benefit from ambitious climate planning and action before the world reconvenes at COP27.
Stronger Commitments and Accountability Essential Ahead of COP27 — in Latin America and Beyond
With COP27 in Egypt in November on the not-so-distant horizon, the unfortunate reality is that the world is still not on track to fully tackle the climate crisis. Many Latin American nations made progress at COP26, building on the work that was done in 2015 in Paris.
Over the next 10 months, Countries across Latin America should revisit and strengthen the commitments made at COP26. Beyond these actions, it’s essential that wealthier countries and major emitters increase their 2030 emissions reductions targets if the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is to remain attainable. In addition, countries need to be held accountable for their commitments, and a focus on a just and equitable transition to net-zero emissions must be maintained. If not, COP27 may come to be seen as an exercise in futility, as the world continues to warm, and the climate crisis rages on.