China-Latin alliance could set tone for Lima climate summit

ANALYSIS: Growing infrastructure and investment links offer chance for joint efforts to promote green growth

(Pic: Geraint Rowland/Flickr)

(Pic: Geraint Rowland/Flickr)

By Guy Edwards and Sophie Purdom

The U.N. climate negotiations currently underway in Lima, Peru, are battling away to produce a new draft climate agreement to be finalized in Paris next year.

All countries, including those from Latin America and China, will be expected to put forward their ‘national contributions’ including efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Latin American countries and China have made some important advances on national climate policy and building momentum towards creating a new agreement.

However, China’s formidable presence in Latin America, which focuses on high-carbon activities such as fossil fuel extraction and mining runs the risk of pulling the region in an unsustainable direction – out of sync with the shift towards low-carbon development.

As the U.N. climate talks enter this crucial phase, Chinese-Latin American relations could prove decisive in building progress towards the Paris deadline and a low-carbon future for both actors.

The China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Forum, will meet for the first time early next year in Beijing.

A new Chinese-Latin American and Caribbean Cooperation Plan 2015-2019 will also be launched, which will likely focus on issues including energy, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing and science and technology.

This list looks shortsighted. The Forum and cooperation plan have the potential to be a transformative platform to limit the high-carbon partnership between Latin America and China, boost low-carbon opportunities between and tackle climate change.

China and Latin America have fleetingly stated their interest in collaborating on climate change in previous statements yet no specific work on the issue has yet to emerge.

With slower economic growth forecasts worrying finance and trade ministries in China and Latin America, the Forum’s discussions will probably focus on boosting growth which puts climate change at risk of falling off of the agenda completely.

Chinese and Latin American countries need to focus on climate change for two reasons. Both have a critical role to play in the U.N. climate talks, since together they account for approximately 40 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s considerable investment, trade and loans in Latin America focus on high-carbon activities including fossil fuel extraction, large-scale agriculture and mining.

These activities may be entrenching high-carbon development pathways in Latin America as well as exposing both countries to greater physical climate change impacts.

Following the launch of the New Climate Economy report which highlights the economic benefits of reducing climate risks and exploiting low-carbon growth, the Forum and Cooperation Plan should attempt to minimize the high-carbon footprint of their relations and maximize the low-carbon opportunities.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) says that Latin America can meet its rapidly rising projected 2050 energy needs 22 times over through renewable energy sources including solar, wind and geothermal energy.

By early 2014, at least 14 countries in the region had renewable energy targets. The IDB has committed to channel 25 percent of its lending to support climate change and renewable energy initiatives in Latin America.

Given China’s growing presence at the Bank and its global leadership on renewable energy, China should dramatically increase its financing of Latin American renewable energy projects.

The China-CELAC Forum should create a renewable energy investment facility focusing on clean energy beyond large hydropower to support this process.

Latin America is currently the most urbanized region in the world with transportation emissions increasing quickly as private car ownership accelerates.

China’s rapid urbanization and smog-filled cities represent a public health crisis. Both players could potentially benefit substantially from using the Forum to share experiences on sustainable urban transport, air pollution reduction, improving urban mobility and cooperating on electric transport and high speed rail options.

China and Latin America need to drastically reduce the heavy environmental and carbon footprint of their activities while improving economic performance and protecting existing environmental and climate policies.

Investment guidelines must be fortified to minimize or eliminate detrimental environmental and social impacts. A drastic improvement is required to ensure the adequate participation of civil society organizations and indigenous peoples who are often disproportionately affected by projects.

As the U.N. climate talks enter this significant phase in Lima before the Paris deadline next year, the China-CELAC Forum could prove a transformative platform to limit the high-carbon partnership between Latin America and China and take advantage of low-carbon opportunities.

By prioritizing action on climate change, the China-CELAC Forum could provide an economic boost for Chinese-Latin American relations and build positive momentum towards reaching a new climate deal in December, 2015.

The authors are co-director and researcher respectively of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University. The opinions are the sole responsibility of the authors and do reflect those of the University.

Read more on: Comment & Analysis | COP20