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Roundtable: What Biden’s climate summit meant for Latin America

Lima, Peru

Over 40 global leaders participated in a virtual summit last week organised by US President Joe Biden to raise ambition ahead of the UN’s crunch climate summit (COP26) in November. Following years of inaction from the US under former president Donald Trump, Biden introduced a new climate pledge, increasing action and bringing the US back to the negotiating table. 

The summit also marked a return to climate cooperation between the US and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, with special envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua paving the way by releasing a joint statement in advance of the event. 

For Latin America, the summit was an opportunity to reiterate previous commitments or announce new ones. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro vowed climate neutrality by 2050, apparently marking a shift in tone, and called for more international finance to help tackle deforestation. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández said the country will ready a more ambitious climate plan for COP26, having already presented a new one in December. 

Diálogo Chino spoke with climate experts from across the region to get their reactions to the summit. 

Manuel Jaramillo, Head of Vida Silvestre NGO in Argentina

The return of the US to the climate discussions was the most relevant development of the summit. Especially considering the US’ level of emissions and the fact that its decisions can set the example for other countries. It sets the bar high for the Biden administration. In Argentina, the president's speech was aligned with the rise in climate ambition. But the challenge is the urgency of implementation. The government has to move quickly from commitments to actions. That is where Argentina has a lot to do. It must go to a low carbon economy based on promoting sustainable development. The challenge is enormous and the whole of society must commit its effort.

Enrique Maurtua Konstantinidis, Senior adviser on climate policy at Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN) in Argentina

The summit marks the return of the US to climate ambition, something that all participating countries highlighted. However, there’s still a gap between political announcements and what is necessary to bring the world in line with the 1.5ºC target. The US doubled down on its ambition and is not yet aligned with that target. The same applies to many countries like Argentina, where the president claims to meet the goal but science shows that isn’t true. Argentine President Alberto Fernández announced at the summit that the government will further improve the country’s NDC (Nationally determined contribution, or climate plan) presented in December and that is interesting. He also referred to an increase in renewable energy, the first time he has made a reference to the sector since he took office.

Natalie Unterstell, Director of the Brazil-based Talanoa Institute

President Bolsonaro changed from attacking partners to a more defensive tone before the international community. This stems from the growing pressure around climate issues in the past months since Biden's election. This public pressure reached a tipping point in the past weeks with the replacement of Chancellor Ernesto Araújo, meaning that "anti-globalist" forces within the government lost ground. That does not mean, though, that Bolsonaro is changing direction on environmental issues, mainly because his political allies benefit directly and indirectly from current deregulatory policies. Therefore, Bolsonaro's announcements at the Summit should be analysed through these lenses: commitments do not touch any of drivers of deforestation and responsibility for the decarbonisation of the Brazilian economy is passed on to the next governments. 

Bolsonaro re-committed Brazil to zero illegal deforestation by 2030, a target that was already criticised when Brazil presented it at COP 21 in Paris. And the only noteworthy change he has announced was the anticipation of emissions neutrality for 2050, and no longer 2060. This creates an important opportunity for Brazilian society to dialogue and organise in relation to the investment decisions of these coming years. The federal government cannot be expected to lead this process, since it does not consult either the private sector or civil society for any strategic policy.

Marcio Astrini, Executive Secretary at Climate Observatory

China and the US are leading and pushing ahead on the climate agenda and it could make Brazil even more isolated and increase the pressure on the government. Brazil is already losing space due its bad climate performance. For instance, the EU-Mercosur trade deal was not signed as the EU is waiting for the Brazilian government to deliver deforestation solutions. Brazil has also submitted its intention to enter the OECD group, and the US is crucial for Brazil to be accepted. Investors are also concerned about Brazil's environmental performance, as some want to avoid being linked with the promotion of deforestation. 

The fact is that Bolsonaro has been campaigning against the environment in Brazil for the last 28 months, undermining the capacity of the Brazilian State for environmental protection. A seven-minute speech will not change this reality. Bolsonaro is delivering the problem, not the solution. Do not trust him until he proves the opposite. The change of tone was due to Bolsonaro looking for money from the US. And he wants this money for political interest. If he were looking for money to face deforestation, he can already count on US$500 million that is already here in Brazil and is ready to be used. But this [Amazon] Fund is frozen since 2019.

Gabriel Quijandria, Peru's Environment Minister

These meetings must continue to promote initiatives for conservation, sustainable management and recovery of forests, the restoration of peatlands and the restoration of water-producing ecosystems, as we have been doing in Peru with support from the United States and Canada. Nature-based solutions, linked to the forest, are very important and have potential because they can solve our main source of greenhouse gas emissions. It is important to take an example from ancient cultures, such as the Andean culture, which is characterised precisely by its ability to develop nature-based solutions.

Silvana Baldovino, Director of the Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples Programme of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law of Peru (SPDA)

The return of the United States to the fight against global warming and the climate crisis is definitely excellent and hopeful news. Its new target for 2030, which almost doubles what was agreed in the Paris Agreement, will have a favourable impact on countries like ours, which, due to their high levels of vulnerability, receive funding to tackle this crisis.

The participation of 40 international leaders is a great message, but the absence of Peru in this group worries us a lot. We are a country in social, economic and environmental crisis, and it would have been interesting to present our situation and our commitments as a country. I would highlight Bolsonaro's speech and his commitment to eliminate deforestation from illegal logging in the Amazon. This will allow us to seek solutions to common problems for both countries.

Manuel Pulgar Vidal, Global leader on Climate and Energy at WWF

The United States set the bar high with its goal of reducing emissions by 50-52% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, as did the United Kingdom with its reduction goal of 78% by 2035. To these are added Japan and Canada who also improved their goals. Now other large emitters such as Australia and Russia, and major forestry countries such as Mexico and Brazil must step up their efforts based on equally ambitious goals. China and India also played their part with better goals.

What is clear is that we have the end of the era of fossil fuels. For example, with commitments to end the international public financing of coal by South Korea and the definitive end of subsidies for fossil fuels, as requested by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, and the United States. We urge the G7 and G20 countries to address this issue in a meaningful way when they meet at the end of the year.

Gustavo Ampugnani, Executive Director of Greenpeace Mexico

In my opinion and seeing it from Mexico, the result is that the countries of the region are seeing a different stance from the US. Under this new administration, the government wants to take climate change seriously and restart the discussions that have been stalled in the past 4 years by Trump's refusal of the Paris Agreement and for having marginalized climate change.

In Mexico, we have two different positions: on the one hand the federal government has been very lukewarm on climate change and has sought to propose to expand Sembrando Vida, a Mexican social welfare project to other Central American countries. From our point of view, the project is not about climate change, it is about social welfare and we do not understand what the objective is in terms of climate change. It is an administration that is betting on fossil fuels, which contrasts with the message of the head of government of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, who spoke about water management, river recovery, water projects, solar energy, changes in the mobilization and transport infrastructure, things that we see as very positive as Greenpeace, because they seek to reduce emissions from various sectors. The head of Mexico City did very well, which also sends a message to those countries that want to invest in green infrastructure, and for example we know that China is interested in these investments. The federal government could not seize the opportunity, because when your central policy is to prop up fossil fuels, there is a contradiction with combating climate change.

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