From Zeros to Heroes: The Highs and Lows of Latin America and the Caribbean at COP 21

Latin America and the Caribbean have much at stake when it comes to climate change. Here are the highlights of the region's role this year's UN climate change summit. 

December 16, 2015

Winners of the Equator Award at the COP21 conference (Burness PR)The United Nations climate change summit in Paris, which closed on Saturday, succeeded in reaching a historic agreement that puts the planet on a path to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Latin America and the Caribbean, home to both huge carbon sinks, like the Amazon rainforest, as well as vulnerable island communities, had a lot at stake in the talks. Although there was no singular Latin American bloc at the negotiations, in general countries supported an aggressively low target for global mean temperature rise and defended the use of human rights language in the final text. The region’s social movements and governments will now play a key role in successfully implementing the Paris Agreement.

What follows is a brief overview of the involvement of  both Latin American and Caribbean governments and civil society at the Paris talks over the last two weeks.

Woman of the Hour

The Latin American presence at COP 21 can be summed up by one name: Christiana Figueres. The daughter of three-time president Jose Figueres Ferrer (known fondly to many Costa Ricans as “Don Pepe”), Figueres led Costa Rica’s climate negotiations team from 1995 until she took over the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the institutional entity that masterminded the Paris conference. At the Paris negotiations, the Costa Rican diplomat was one of a handful of leading faces. Figueres took over the UNFCCC in the aftermath of the breakdown of an agreement at the 2009 Copenhagen talks. And for the last five years, she has been wheeling and dealing to corral countries into making significant pledges for carbon emission reductions, what are known as Intended National Direct Contributions (INDCs).

Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (Flickr)

Figueres’s task was not an enviable one, but she somehow reconciled extremes, from stubborn Saudi Arabia, whose economy relies on the fossil fuel industry, to maverick Maldives, whose very existence on the surface of the planet is at risk due to rising sea levels. But Saturday’s agreement to limit global warming through voluntary pledges that will be monitored and reviewed every five years has vindicated her tenure.


Lima-Paris Action Agenda

The UNFCCC Conference of Parties is an annual affair that occasionally provides  a platform for a potential landmark agreement. Before COP 21, there was hope of a global deal at COP 15 in Copenhagen (2009), which broke down into acrimony, and at COP 3 in Kyoto (1997), which seemed promising until the U.S. Senate refused to ratify its provisions.

COP 20 in Lima last December had no such expectations, but it did lay the groundwork for one of the most successful formal outcomes of COP 21: the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA). Even with Saturday’s landmark agreement, events on the sidelines of the official negotiations have demonstrated that the rest of the world is already one step ahead of national governments. Cities, states, provinces, philanthropic organizations, and businesses have all stepped up to the plate pledging to do their part in reducing carbon emissions. The LPAA has been the chief UN-sanctioned venue through which “non-state actors” have made a total of 10,773 commitments. This initiative has relied on the joint leadership of the Peruvian and French governments.


“1.5 to Stay Alive”

The key numerical figure going into COP 21 was 2ºC. This magic number was determined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the scientific consensus for the maximum allowable increase in mean global temperature in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change. It found its way onto placards at early climate protests and underpins efforts like the Under 2 MOU, a declaration on climate change signed by 65 jurisdictions representing 588 million people.

Except that upon arrival in Paris, a handful of countries stood up and said that 2ºC was not good enough. For the 20 U.N. member states that constitute the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5ºC is the only way to prevent them from literally drowning as sea levels rise and natural disasters become more devastating.

1.5 to Stay Alive (Wider Caribbean Initiative)

Barbados, Costa Rica, and Saint Lucia are charter members of the CVF. They were a powerful bloc at the Paris conference and succeeded in moving the needle. The final agreement set a goal of keeping the global temperature increase “well below 2ºC,” adding that countries will “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC.” This achievement is due in no small part to the efforts of the CVF’s and their allies in the environmental movement.

Early on during COP 21, the CVF gained some key allies in South America. The delegations of Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru all joined the call for a 1.5ºC limit. They are all members of the Asociación Independiente de América Latina y el Caribe (AILAC), an eight-country negotiating bloc that was formed during COP 18 in Doha. By joining the 1.5ºC cause, these countries have gone above and beyond the stance of their regional counterparts.

Fossil of the Day: Venezuela

Each day at COP 21, a jury of 950 NGOs voted on the “fossil of the day,” the country that proved to be the most difficult obstacle to a climate agreement. Australia, Belgium, Denmark, and the European Union were all named and shamed at some point during the talks. Nor was South America spared. Argentina was pegged for its attempt to pass a law in the final days of the Kirchner administration that would declare coal production a national interest. Venezuela took home the ignominious prize for opposing “decarbonization,” or the transition to a post-carbon global economy, one of the basic proposed tenets of the COP 21 text. The oil-rich country also never submitted its INDC. Venezuela’s Minister of Ecosocialism and Water claims that the INDC is ready but refused to make it public until after the conclusion of the conference. A total of 158 parties to the UNFCCC submitted their plans ahead of time. Saint Kitts and Nevis is the only other country in the region to have not provided an emissions reduction plan.

Indigenous Calls to Action

On December 6, a worldwide coalition of indigenous groups paddled a symbolic canoe up the Seine into central Paris. This was no mere publicity stunt. Indigenous groups have been at the heart of many proposed solutions on key issues, such as deforestation. Research presented at the Global Landscape Forum, an event that took place on the sidelines of COP 21, indicates that 20% of the carbon in tropical forests lies on indigenous lands.

Advocates for indigenous rights at COP 21 (Flickr/UNFCCC)

On December 8, indigenous groups from Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, and Honduras won the prestigious Equator Prize from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for their environmental stewardship and advocacy on behalf of indigenous lands – sometimes in opposition to powerful government and private interests. In addition to the countries represented at the award ceremony, indigenous groups from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama were all involved in COP 21, either in national consultations of emissions reduction plans or as direct participants in the conference itself. Many came to Paris dressed in their traditional clothing.

Brazil Stepping Up

As Latin America’s largest country and a member of the so-called “BRICS,” Brazil had the potential to be a major player in the COP 21 negotiations. On December 5, Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira was one of 14 ministers handpicked by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, President of COP 21, to iron out key details heading into the summit’s second week. As one of only a dozen countries that has full diplomatic relations with every U.N. member state, Brazilian diplomats are often called on for facilitation and mediation.

In the climate negotiation world, Brazil typically caucuses with South Africa, India, and China in a bloc known as BASIC. But as the conference came to a close, Brazil broke with some of its allies and joined the High Ambition Coalition, a movement that grew in the final hours of COP 21 to encompass over 100 countries, rich and poor, large and small. Spearheaded by the Marshall Islands and symbolized by a lapel pin made of palm fronds, the High Ambition Coalition pushed for four major issues: a legally binding agreement, a long-term goal on global warming, five-year review of countries’ emissions, and a standardized method of tracking progress. As a major developing economy, Brazil’s adherence to the coalition was seen as pivotal for ensuring the agreement’s success.

Local Leaders Take the Stage

While many national governments hemmed and hawed about committing to a climate change agreement, there is growing momentum for climate action at the “subnational” level – that is, in cities, states, provinces, and regions. These more local levels of government are already feeling the effects of climate change and are willing to act now, hoping that national governments will help them with financing and technical assistance.

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, for example, is the current president of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of 82 cities representing over 550 million people. The group has been one of the leading voices for the climate interests of cities at COP 21. On December 4, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and U.N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City, hosted a Climate Summit for Local Leaders at Paris City Hall where Paes spoke at the opening ceremony alongside French President François Hollande. Other Latin American local leaders at COP 21 included the mayors of La Paz, Mexico City, Palmas, and Santiago, as well as the governor of Amazonas, Brazil. The presence of these officials demonstrated that local and state governments are often more willing to prioritize climate change than their national counterparts.

Wider Caribbean Initiative

The Caribbean is a patchwork of jurisdictions, from fully independent nations to fully incorporated territories of larger continental powers. What regional alliances do exist make for a messy Venn diagram that must triangulate the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This hodgepodge of conflicting sovereignty can make it difficult for the Caribbean to speak with a unified voice on international affairs. Above all, non-independent territories, such as Puerto Rico and the Cayman Islands, generally lack the ability to even have a seat at the table, as The Hague, London, Paris, or Washington represents them under the terms of international law.

But in light of the unique threat climate change poses to the Caribbean – everything from encroaching sea-level rise to the risk of more intense hurricane seasons – COP 21 has provided an opportunity for arguably the largest ever unified front of Caribbean nations to participate in an international event; through the Wider Caribbean Initiative, nearly every Caribbean territory, no matter is status, was given a voice in the broader dialogue at COP21.

How did such a fragmented region cross so many jurisdiction lines at a U.N. conference? The answer is because the talks were held in France, which maintains the overseas departments and collectivities of Guadeloupe, Guyane, Martinique, Saint-Barthélemey, and Saint-Martin. Normally this level of integration with the metropolis makes the French-speaking Caribbean one of the least engaged in the region’s international affairs, but because France hosted the COP 21, the opposite happened. In fact, on May 9, 2015, Martinique hosted the Caribbean Climate Change Summit, with French President François Hollande serving as the event’s keynote speaker. Hollande used his country’s foothold in the region to promote the Wider Caribbean initiative, which is supported institutionally by the longstanding Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize.

Despite some hiccups, Latin America and the Caribbean became important protagonists at COP 21. Countries showed diplomatic leadership and courage by breaking away from entrenched interests to support more ambitious goals in the fight against climate change. Civil society, led by indigenous groups, also made a forceful case for the region’s long-term role in climate solutions and reminded the world that the battle for the planet’s future is only just beginning.

Greg Scruggs is an accredited U.N. correspondent. He holds an M.A. in Regional Studies of Latin America and the Caribbean from Columbia University.

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