In the run up to the Madrid-based COP25 international climate talks set to begin in early December, former Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Energy and Environment program, Rebecca Bertram, conducted a series of interviews with Latin American officials and activists. In Part 4 of the series, Rebecca has a conversation with Angelica Beltran, researcher on climate policy at the Association for Environment and Society (Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad).
Background: By population, Colombia is the third largest Latin American country. Although climate change is not yet a topic of much public concern, it has a vast impact on the country. Most of its 48 million people live in the Andes and face regular water shortages and land degradation. The coastal areas are also subject to impacts of climate change as sea level rise and floods affect towns and ports.
Rebecca Bertram (RB): How is climate change affecting day-to-day life in Colombia?
Angelica Beltran (AB): Perhaps the biggest climate impact in Colombia is felt in the moor land where more than 70 percent of our water comes from. It is a very sensitive ecosystem. The number of plagues, for example in form of moth or mushroom invasions, has increased dramatically in recent years. This will have direct and severe implication not only on the quantity but also on the quality of our every-day water supplies.
Colombia is a coastal country, and the growing number of coastal erosions risks the safety of many towns and villages as well as our ports, with major consequences for our foreign trade.
Rising temperatures cause serious dangers for public health. For example, infections with dengue fever have multiplied in recent years and can now be found in areas where we did not have this disease before. Neither do we fully know these new epidemics will affect our society, nor are we prepared to meet this challenge.
RB: These are all areas that have a direct impact on the people’s lives. Do you think that Colombians are aware of how much climate change is affecting their lives?
AB: I don’t believe that a great part of our population is aware of the risks posed by climate change. I was recently involved in a project to develop climate change information at a university. We conducted interviews beforehand to understand how much the student body knew about the phenomenon. For many of them, climate change appeared to be a completely new topic. And these are young people, with access to education, information and social media. I was surprised.
RB: Are political leaders willing to make climate change a public policy issue?
AB: Our elected officials do not care or know very little about climate change. But there is also a governance challenge that makes it very difficult to move from the national planning stage to regional and local actions. Colombia is a very diverse country, not just in terms of biodiversity but also culturally and geographically. This requires very different strategies in each case to tackle a specific issue.
RB: Can you give some examples?
AB: The drivers of deforestation are not the same in the Amazon region, where illegal land grabbing is a key cause, as in the Pacific region, where illegal mining is one of the main drivers. That makes passing down policy measures from the national to the local level very difficult in practice.
Our national diversity is also a challenge when it comes to agreeing on our future economic model. You have those calling for investing more in protecting our existing ecosystems and biodiversity and engage in climate adaptation and mitigation policy, and you have those who want to continue basing large parts of our national economy on the extraction of natural resources, especially oil. The big policy question is: how can extractivism and environmental protection co-exist?
RB: Colombia does not have a very ambitious climate goal, namely to reduce its carbon emissions for 2030 by 20 percent. Is Colombia at least taking this goal seriously?
AB: No. The national goal was formulated arbitrarily. It was not broken down into individual economic sector goals. In theory, you would presume that one would first determine how much each economic sector could mitigate before adding these up into the national goal. When this goal was formulated in 2015, it was not done in an open and transparent manner. Only in 2018 did our Ministry for the Environment begin to define what the 20 percent goal meant for different sectors. For the forestry sector, for example, they wanted a reduction of deforestation levels of 9.8 percent of the total 20 percent target, which amounts to more than 45 percent of the overall national reduction goal. So almost half of our emissions are expected to come from reducing our deforestation levels. At the same time, our national economic development plan calls for an increase in deforestation at least until the end of the year 2022. These conflicting objectives are counterproductive.
On the national level there is much confusion as to which ministry will take the lead on climate action. I expect each ministry will in the end opt for the least ambitious sector goals.
RB: If an ambitious national climate policy in Colombia therefore is elusive, is it worth looking to the local level for inspiration?
AB: Colombia is a highly centralized country. So the bulk of related regulations is formulated at the national level. But there has been a growing trend for the counties and bigger cities to develop their own and often diverging low-carbon strategies. Nariño, the county that includes our capital city Bogota, is a national climate frontrunner in developing its climate change management plan, based on input from the public. Our six Amazon counties, on the other hand, are among the least developed in this regard. I would say that the level of ambition in climate policy at the local level depends in large parts on whether the county receives enough financial support from the national level or from the local economy. In the southern county of Putumayo, for example, where the only economic activity revolves around petroleum extraction, the governor has little power or money to engage in climate protection.
RB: What do you hope for from the COP25?
AB: We have to be realistic about international climate negotiations. So I hope for an improvement that is actually on the Conference agenda: I would like to see Article 6 of the “Paris Rulebook” (market and non-market cooperative approaches) to be amended to respect basic human rights, especially for the indigenous communities, and provide for the necessary transparency.