Why it’s important to host 2019 climate talks in Latin America

Patricia Espinosa, of Mexico, is the UNFCCC’s executive secretary (image: UN Climate Change)

Why it’s important to host 2019 climate talks in Latin America

Latin American and Caribbean countries are competing to host the 2019 UN climate talks. That’s good news for the region and the world.

Hosting the UN climate change negotiations is a massive undertaking. The president of the annual conference has to shepherd 195 countries toward a successful outcome while organising a venue for 20,000 people over two weeks. The conference can also be boon for domestic climate action, as banks, investors and development agencies focus on the host nation.

Brazil’s decision to ditch its offer to host the 2019 conference (known as COP25) is nonsensical and unfortunate. Last month, Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, under pressure from the incoming administration, announced that it was rescinding its offer to hold the UN climate talks, citing the US$100 million price tag to organise the conference and the transition period as president-elect Jair Bolsonaro prepares his administration and policies.

On the road to 2020, there will be considerable pressure, but also opportunities, for whichever country is selected to host the 2019 talks. At present, five Latin American and Caribbean countries—Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Jamaica— have expressed willingness to take on the challenges and benefits of the 2019 conference. Their willingness reflects a long-term desire to build on the region’s leadership at the UN climate negotiations, which helped to secure the Paris Agreement, and use the conference to help accelerate national and regional climate action.

Brazil’s loss could be a win for both a new host nation and the world at large. While Brazil has at times been a leader on climate change—it played a key role in designing the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement and made significant efforts to reduce deforestation from 2005-2012—the world could do without the Bolsonaro government organising a climate conference.

During the presidential campaign, Bolsonaro threatened to leave the Paris Agreement and pledged to open up the Amazon rainforests to loggers, cattle farmers and agribusiness, even as official figures show that deforestation is again rising fast due to a lack of enforcement of forest protection measures. The president-elect’s pick for minister of foreign affairs, Ernesto Araújo, has said he believes climate change is part of a plot by “cultural Marxists” to sabotage the economy and claims climate science is merely “dogma.”

The timing of Mr. Bolsonaro’s decision to ditch the COP25 is significant. The 2018 UN climate talks, currently underway in Poland, are at a fragile moment that will likely continue through 2019. The progress on defining the Paris Agreement rulebook this year and next will determine whether or not the agreement can be successfully operationalized. Negotiators and ministers in Poland now need to work flat out to finish that guidebook and rally strong support from the COP presidencies for the action plan.

Meanwhile, countries are reviewing progress on their national emission reduction efforts as part of a process to increase the level of ambition by 2020. This process unfolds against the backdrop of two stark warnings. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that rapid and deep emission reductions must occur before 2030 if the world is to avoid global warming of 1.5 degree Celsius. At the same time, the UN Environment Programme says that under the current batch of country pledges, the world will see warming of around 3 degrees Celsius by 2100.

It is still possible achieve to the 1.5 goal. We have the know-how, technology and finance, but we must rapidly break through political hurdles, not least climate skepticism and denial often bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry and their allies in government, the media and think tanks.

This is why the choice of the next COP host is critical. It’s the region’s turn to host, so discussions held by diplomats by the UN Group for Latin America and the Caribbean  (GRULAC) in Katowice, Poland, and New York are in full swing.

Last week, Costa Rica’s president, Carlos Alvarado, announced his nation’s enthusiasm to host. The Guatemalan government has similarly expressed its interest. Chile, Jamaica and Barbados are also considering throwing their hats into the ring. The discussions in GRULAC to select a candidate will need to wrap up before the conclusion of the conference in Katowice so other countries can formally appoint the next COP president.

The lesson from Brazil’s candidacy suggests these discussions will be fraught. Venezuela initially objected to the Brazilian offer (and later stood aside) due to Brazil’s participation in the Grupo de Lima – a regional grouping that seeks a swift resolution to the political crisis in Venezuela – alongside Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Mexico and others. This has led to regional paralysis as the Grupo de Lima and Venezuela and its allies clash over all appointments and nominations from states in the region. This time could be even trickier given the deteriorating situation in Nicaragua.

Despite these regional divisions and difficulties, it’s crucial that the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean agree on a candidate. Recent instances of a Latin American or Caribbean country hosting—Mexico in 2010 and Peru in 2014—demonstrate the region’s potential to advance the UN climate talks. In both cases, these countries acted as a bridge between developing and developed countries, a role that helped to significantly advance the talks.

Hosting a COP can also boost the national climate agenda. The Mexican COP helped encourage lawmakers to pass the General Law on Climate Change, which is being used to inspire similar laws across the region. Host nations can also capitalise on the additional focus from banks, investors and development agencies to boost low carbon sectors such as subway systems and clean energy projects, which create jobs and attract investment.

Failing to endorse a candidate in Katowice would likely lead to one of two scenarios: a postponed decision, which would leave scant time for the COP25 president to coordinate with the Polish presidency in early 2019 and to prepare a very technical and diplomatically challenging conference later that year; or an agreement to swap turns with another region, which risks missing out on the opportunities that hosting a COP can bring for climate action and leadership on the topic.

As we get closer to the 2020 deadline to submit more ambitious national climate plans, we need a COP president who can demonstrate strong commitment to making the Paris Agreement operational, underpinned by the 1.5 degree goal, and invest sufficient political capital to encourage global unity on climate action. This effort must go hand in hand with showcasing the benefits of climate action on the ground. A number of Latin American and Caribbean countries are well positioned to do this.

For the sake of advancing the UN climate talks, meeting the Paris goals, and boosting national and regional action, it is imperative that GRULAC reaches a decision quickly. The potential gains for the UN organisers and the region are considerable.

Guy Edwards is co-director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University. Isabel Cavelier is co-director at Transforma and a senior advisor at Mission 2020. This op-ed originally appeared in The Global Americans.

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