Can Latin American diplomacy at COP21 spur interest in the Paris deal back home?



Paris was a diplomatic triumph for Latin America. Various countries from the region joined forces with other nations at the UN climate change talks or “COP21” in the French capital to secure a new ground breaking agreement. Building on this successful diplomatic effort, these nations can credibly sell the Paris Agreement at home, which can forge a sense of ownership to support its implementation.


On the winning team

Small islands states and middle-income countries including many from Latin America joined forces in an unprecedented way in Paris.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum which includes 43 developing countries such as Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Honduras helped set the tone for an ambitious finale in Paris. The Forum won considerable praise for advocating for the inclusion of the 1.5 degrees goal in the agreement and its calls for 100% renewable energy by 2050.

The emergence of the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ was also instrumental for the success of the conference. This new group of countries, which is not a negotiating bloc, was brought together by Marshall Islands former foreign minister, Tony de Brum. Since July last year, de Brum began convening informal meetings of ministers on the periphery of events including the UN General Assembly.

The High Ambition Coalition’s key points for a new agreement included setting a long-term goal on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, the inclusion of five-year review cycles for emissions reduction pledges, and ensuring developed countries deliver US$100 billion of climate finance per year from 2020. A number of these points are in the Paris Agreement.

Chile, Colombia, Peru and Costa Rica, which are part of the Association of Latin American and Caribbean (AILAC), and Mexico, participated in de Brum’s informal meetings prior to COP21. These encounters overlapped and complemented the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action where the Marshall Islands actively participated. The Dialogue includes a mix of developed and developing countries working to bridge the North-South divide and push for an ambitious deal. As Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru and Chile played key roles in creating the Cartagena Dialogue, the emergence of de Brum’s new group was a natural fit.

At a press conference on the 9th December, de Brum officially unveiled the coalition surrounded by ministers and envoys from Mexico, various AILAC countries, the US, Germany, EU, The Gambia and Tuvalu. Eventually, the coalition brought together around 100 countries including Brazil, which announced its support on the last official day of the conference.

Fighting for a bold agreement

As time evaporated at the negotiations, various countries including Mexico, Brazil, and some AILAC members collaborated to find bridging proposals on prickly parts of the draft text. This effort was invaluable given the tendency for the negotiations to descend into brinkmanship.

Brazil, Mexico and AILAC’s support for the High Ambition Coalition was not merely political posturing. The Coalition’s principle demands overlapped with some of their own positions. Following the debacle at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 where the negotiations went into a tailspin and crashed, these countries were acutely aware that the draft text needed a viable landing strip. Emboldened by the highly skilled French COP21 presidency, the coalition provided the ideal airport to safely land the new agreement.

The roles of the Climate Vulnerability Forum and the High Ambition Coalition complement a number of positive engagements by Latin American countries both before and during COP21.


Brazil’s recent contribution to the UN climate talks has been more constructive compared to previous years where it was seen as hard-line especially on developed countries’ historical responsibilities for emission reductions. Two successful bilateral meetings between Brazilian President Rousseff with US President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel in 2015, and Rousseff’s attendance in Paris were important signs of Brazil’s commitment to an ambitious agreement.

Its INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution), which includes the only economy-wide absolute emission reduction target by a developing country, also sent a positive signal that the country was likely to push for a successful outcome in Paris. During the second week in a show of their personal commitment, Presidents Obama and Rousseff also spoke on the phone to discuss the talks.


Following Mexico’s deft handling of the 2010 UN climate talks in Cancun, it has become widely respected as an indispensable player at the negotiations. As a demonstration of its commitment to the UNFCCC process, Mexico was the first developing country to submit its INDC which included a peak year for its emissions in 2026 – four years ahead of China’s.

The delivery of the INDC coincided with a meeting between Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto where they announced plans to increase bilateral cooperation on climate change and low carbon development through a clean energy and climate policy task force. President Peña Nieto also attended COP21 and stated that economic growth and protecting the environment can be achieved together.


Since its creation in 2012, AILAC has emerged as an indispensable actor at the UN climate talks. In its opening statement in Paris, the group called for a new agreement to include the 1.5 degrees goal. It also announced that Honduras had joined Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, representing an important endorsement of the group.

Peru’s diplomatic effort as COP20 president which continued throughout 2015 and in close coordination with France was seen as vital to ensure continuity and build political energy before COP21. Both countries worked closely together on the Lima-Paris Action Agenda aimed at catalysing climate action by countries and non-state actors to support a new agreement.

The role of other Latin American countries

Although not part of the Climate Vulnerability Forum or the High Ambition Coalition other Latin American countries including Argentina and Venezuela played salient roles in Paris. Despite some initial blocking these countries backed the Paris Agreement.

Argentina’s presidential elections directly impacted its position during the COP. Despite not being sworn in until December 10, President Mauricio Macri dispatched his top environmental representative, Juan Carlos Villalonga to Paris, where it was announced that Argentina would support the 1.5 degree goal, which the Argentine delegation had previously tried to block.

Venezuela had initially announced that it would withhold its INDC until the outcome of the negotiations was known. Following the approval of the agreement, Venezuela submitted its entirely conditional INDC which includes a target to reduce emissions by 20% by 2030 based on a business as usual scenario. Despite initially blocking language on both the 1.5 degree and a long term mitigation goal, Venezuela was willing to support the Paris Agreement which includes both.

Keeping the foot on the accelerator

The Paris Agreement, which is legally binding, will enter into force when at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC accounting for at least 55 percent of total global emissions have ratified it. Countries will be able to sign the agreement from this April at the UN in New York. Given Latin American countries proactive role in securing the agreement and the level of concern exhibited by its citizens about climate impacts, these countries should aim to be among the first to sign the agreement, which can make a positive statement in support of its implementation.

Although 2020 may appear some way off, countries should continue to develop and implement their climate policies which can reduce emissions and decrease their vulnerability to climate risk. Although Latin America is responsible for only 10% of global emissions, it still has a significant role to play. Emissions from the energy sector, including power generation and transport, are rising quickly as energy demand and private vehicle ownership shoot up.

Latin American countries’ INDCs are insufficiently ambitious. The majority are incompatible with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees. The 5-year cycles for raising ambition will start in 2018 (and continue every five years afterwards) with a global stock take to review the current batch of contributions to be resubmitted by 2020. Latin American countries are in the position to prepare more ambitious contributions in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperatures goals.

This is eminently feasible. The New Climate Institute says that the INDC process has given national climate policy planning a promising jolt. The INDCs acted as a catalyst for developing new policies, legislation, plans for implementation; and also indirectly enhanced pre-2020 ambition. However, the impact of the INDCs was limited in some countries due to insufficient time to prepare detailed implementation plans and a thorough assessment of finance and support needs. Prior to 2018 these gaps can be plugged.

Secondly, a report by the UNEP DTU Partnership argues that Latin America and the Caribbean could achieve a net zero carbon regional economy by 2050. The report points to measures including the complete decarbonisation of the power sector; mass electrification of the transport sector; achieving zero deforestation and boosting reforestation and land restoration efforts; and the decarbonisation of industry. These steps can complement efforts to realize the Sustainable Development Goals such as improving food security and livelihoods from land restoration and reducing air pollution in cities by the electrification of transport.

Selling the Paris Agreement back home

During this difficult economic period in Latin America where climate and environmental issues could slip down the political agenda, the framing of the Paris Agreement as an opportunity rather than a burden is paramount.

Governments, civil society and business should focus on the benefits of implementing the new agreement including the prospect of creating new jobs and increasing investment in low-carbon sectors, especially renewable energy and electric transport systems. Bolstering public support and understanding of the Paris Agreement is a prerequisite to not only increase ambition but also ensure climate change stays on the political agenda.

Latin American civil society and the private sector engagement are essential to ensure the Paris Agreement is implemented. The 2015 INDC process across Latin America offered some exciting potential to democratize national climate change debates and improve levels of participation by non-state actors. Notwithstanding one or two exceptions, this opportunity was not realized.

Public consultations need to be meaningful held in a transparent and inclusive fashion and not limited to one-off workshops or technical online surveys. A well-organized series of public consultations is imperative with governments willing to review citizens’ proposals and publicly debate them if necessary. Private sector involvement is also crucial to maximise public-private dialogue to encourage climate action and to better understand the positions of those less supportive of climate policies.

With the global stock take in 2018 and greater emphasis on transparency in the new agreement, the next round of designing the nationally determined contributions could stimulate increased domestic ownership of climate-related decisions.

Securing a new agreement on climate change was a monumental step forward. Now it must be promoted across government beyond foreign and environment ministries and including citizens and business. Only through building a sense of ownership and continuing to develop and implement climate policies can its goals be achieved.



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