Manuel Rodriguez Becerra

Upon entering office in July 2022, Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro voiced a strong stance against fossil fuels, marking a contrast with other left-wing leaders in Latin America who rose to power through resources gained from extractive economies. Petro’s emphatic critique of oil and gas was apparent at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) held this year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the world’s sixth-largest oil exporting country. 

At COP28, Colombia announced its commitment to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, drawn up in 2019. Until now, the only countries to sign on were Pacific island nations, in response to their extreme vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Colombia has now became the first and only continental country to agree to the treaty. In addition to his environmental focus, Petro controversially linked climate change inequalities and the war on Gaza in his address to world leaders. 

Petro’s rhetoric at COP28 has signaled a transformative climate agenda, but how does this translate to domestic environmental and energy policies in Colombia? And given the changing political dynamics in the region, what is the Colombian government’s role in influencing broader climate policy in Latin America?

Manuel Rodríguez Becerra served as Colombia’s first Minister of Environment from 1993 to 1996 under President César Gaviria. He was part of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development and co-founded the National Environmental Forum in 1988, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promotes environmental protection and sustainable development in Colombia. He recently published The Present and Future of the Environment in Colombia (2023). In the following conversation, Rodríguez Becerra analyzes Petro’s address at COP28, Colombia’s shifting role in global climate discussions, and the differing—and often conflicting—climate policies of Latin American leaders. 

An interview with Manuel Rodríguez Becerra

CAMILO ANDRÉS GARZÓN: One of the Colombian government’s major objectives in COP28 was a global agreement on the suspension of fossil fuel usage. Is this goal realistic?

MANUEL RODRÍGUEZ BECERRA: Achieving a majority-supported commitment to suspend the exploitation of carbon, oil, and gas on a specific date is not something that was going to happen during this COP. President Petro, with very respectable political reasons, said that Colombia would adhere to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, promoted in 2019 by the islands that are most at risk in the Pacific. Colombia is the first continental country to join this treaty, but that does not guarantee that it will find great consensus, given the fact that developed countries have repeatedly refused to establish a specific date to cease fossil fuel exploitation. 

We already have a significant precedent: at COP26 in 2021, seventy-seven countries promoted to gradually eliminate the use and production of coal. The plan envisaged that more developed countries would give up the use and production of coal by the 2030s, and that the poorest countries would do so in 2040. The proposal was not approved. China and India supported this idea, but it is not clear whether these objectives will be met, since available data shows that the world is heading in quite the opposite direction: since then, fossil fuel consumption has actually increased. 

A recent report published by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that the twenty governments responsible for more than 80 percent of global emissions are currently planning to produce by 2030 more than double the amount of fossil fuels that are necessary for the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit to be maintained. According to the study, the world is in fact on the path towards producing more hydrocarbons. Projections for 2030 estimate a 460 percent increase in coal production, an 83 percent in gas production, and a 29 percent increase in oil production. After twenty-eight COPs held between 1994 and 2023, there has yet to be a formal agreement to properly reduce the use of fossil fuels in the world.

CAG: How do you interpret Petro’s speech before the presidents’ forum at COP28, in which he compared the war on Gaza and global climate displacement likely to occur in the future? In his speech, he stated, “Hitler is knocking on the doors of European and North American middle-class homes, and many have already let him in.”

MRB: Petro is absolutely right when he points out that, in the future, there will be millions of migrants as a consequence of climate change. This is an issue we should all continue to insist on, since the displacement will affect the most vulnerable countries. However, it doesn’t seem so appropriate to compare this to the scenes of suffering in Gaza, since it is a very different problem with its own set of causes.

Similarly, Petro’s comparison to the rise of the right in Europe and in the United States was not well received by the German Chancellery, which protested against the speech for “making crude comparisons with the Nazi era which ultimately relativize the Holocaust,” as was said in a statement. It is also interesting to note that when the Colombian government produced a written text based on Petro’s intervention, the President’s allusions to Hitler and Gaza were removed—a major lack of transparency. 

In the same speech, President Petro stated that his administration was able to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 70 percent with their own resources—but this is not entirely true. Colombia has received significant resources for deforestation through international cooperations with Norway, Great Britain, and Germany. On the other hand, it is good that donors know that their resources can successfully be translated into effective data on deforestation reduction.

It’s still too early to see this as a definitive reduction, as it remains somewhat circumstantial. We need to know if the government’s plan will substantively reduce deforestation. I’ll remind you that there was also a significant one-year reduction in deforestation under President Iván Duque, Petro’s right-wing predecessor, but deforestation drastically rose in the following year. In that sense, we can’t celebrate a one-year reduction as definitive. I believe that donor countries monitor deforestation very carefully so that governments can meet these goals in the long term. 

CAG: How do you view the Petro government’s emphasis on deforestation in the Amazon?

MRB: The government has done well to focus its efforts on reducing deforestation in the Amazon basin and seeking active international cooperation around this initiative. This is true not only for broader climate change impacts, but also because the Amazon is the region with the greatest biodiversity in the world. Protecting Amazonian forests and surface water sources is of great importance.

Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Susana Muhamad, also announced the National Restoration Strategy, with the goal of restoring more than 753,000 hectares of forest in the country by 2026. This is the most ambitious goal ever seen in a development plan; Colombia already had set a goal of restoring one million hectares of forest by 2030, but the Petro government is significantly speeding up this initiative. The real question is whether the Ministry and its environmental authorities will have the capacity to keep those promises. If met, these two environmental achievements—deforestation reduction and forest restoration—would be one of Petro’s greatest legacies. 

In his COP28 speech, President Petro also spoke about the exploitation of gas and oil in the country, especially in the context of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many of us believe that suspending fossil fuel exploration in Colombia would be a major issue.

CAG: Why do you say that?

MRB: Different regions of the world vary greatly when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. While agriculture, forestry, and other land uses account for 24 percent of the whole world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, in Latin America they account for more than 50 percent. In Colombia, deforestation, agriculture, and forestry represent 59 percent of the emissions of these polluting gasses. For these reasons, Colombia’s emission-reducing priorities should not necessarily be in decarbonizing the economy, but in stopping deforestation and transforming agricultural activity, even though advancing decarbonization is clearly an important objective.

Furthermore, fossil fuels represent 3 percent of Colombian GDP, so suspending their exploration would threaten the country’s self-sufficiency regarding gas and oil—two fuels that the world will still consume to some degree for the next twenty or thirty years. The suspension would also sacrifice at least 40 percent of the country’s exports; this involves a considerable sacrifice of economic growth in areas that are vital for many social programs. Finally, the policy of suspending oil and gas exploration in Colombia may not have any substantial benefit for the planet as a whole: as long as an international demand is still at large, and without global agreements to meaningfully reduce the exploitation of fossil fuels, the resources that Colombia ceases to offer will simply be supplied by another country.

CAG: Regarding climate policy, how does Petro’s influence compare to other Latin American leaders? Could he have developed a unified regional position on environmental issues at COP28?

MRB: We are in a very diverse political context. In Argentina, Milei denies the reality of climate change, while in Brazil, Lula is striving for a difficult balance between extractivism and the defense of indigenous peoples. In Latin America, forming a regional position has been a historically arduous task. Regional positions are typically assembled and constructed ahead of the COPs; we clearly lack one at the present. The African Union is a very good example of a consensus regional position regarding climate change negotiations.

There is a considerable lack of unity in Latin America; this is evident in discussions around the Amazon. During the Amazon Summit, Lula refused Petro’s proposal that Brazil should suspend oil exploration in the region, stating that Brazil would continue using coal and gas or gas and oil in the coming years. What is more, the exploration and exploitation of both has increased. We must recognize that Lula and Brazil hold the greatest weight in the negotiations around the Amazon region.

CAG: Do you think COPs are useful in achieving a global consensus to battle climate change?

MRB: The Convention has had little success, to say the least. In 1992, its goal was to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions so that by the year 2000 they would not exceed the amounts emitted in 1990. Thirty years after the Convention was signed in 1992, emissions have increased by 60 percent since 1990.

According to calculations based on current emission trends, as of June of this year, there are only eight years and ten months left to reach the temperature increase limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius established in the Paris Agreement, after which extreme climatic events are expected to intensify further.

Some argue that if these measures had not been taken, the current situation would be worse, but that’s not the point. The point is that these agreements were designed to avoid a series of extreme climate events around the world which we have already been experiencing beyond any doubt. The heat waves in Europe in 2022 and the floods in Colombia in 2010 and 2011 are just a few examples. 

CAG: Finally, what is your overall evaluation of the agreements reached during COP28?

MRB: I’ve participated in about nine COPs, and I was also involved in the legislation of the Convention on Climate Change. The only treaty with reasonable vigor, an adequate design, and sufficient legal force was the Kyoto Protocol. However, it collapsed in 2009, largely because the United States—a great architect of this protocol—left it unratified during the government of George Bush. Once the Kyoto Protocol collapsed, work on the Paris Agreement began until the signature 2015 agreement. 

Looking at everything that’s happened since 2015, we honestly don’t have reasons to be optimistic. Greenhouse gas emissions have clearly increased, and with the estimates of fossil exploitations currently underway, we’re very likely to surpass the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold before the end of the century. It seems that developed countries don’t have the right attitude—they sign agreements, but they don’t keep their word.

Of course, the major takeaway from this COP is the Loss and Damages Fund. This will be celebrated as a great achievement, but that fund was created during COP27. These types of announcements are meant to foster hope and testify to progress, but the problem of implementation remains. Back in 2009 in Copenhagen, developed countries committed to provide $100 billion a year starting in 2009 for mitigation and adaptation. Thirteen years have passed since then, and that goal has yet to be met. On top of that failure, it’s an insufficient sum. To illustrate the point: Africans estimate that they need around $700 billion in concessional resources for mitigation and adaptation—seven times the committed amount.

The question is: if developed countries are not complying with the Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, why would they comply with the Loss and Damage Fund? Without resolving the compliance question, how can we claim the Fund as one of the great triumphs of this meeting?

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