COP26: Perspectives from Latin America

By Maria Antonia Tigre*

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) contribute about 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While most LAC countries have taken steps to address climate change through a series of measures, such as forest protection and energy transition, the region’s emissions are steadily growing. Although energy accounts for a large share of emissions at the global level, the primary sources of emissions in LAC come from land-use, land-use change, and forestry and agriculture. The region is also highly vulnerable to increasing climate variability and extremes, especially in coastal cities threatened by sea-level rise. In addition, hurricanes are increasingly common in Central America, and climate change could push millions into extreme poverty. These harmful consequences of climate change are already significantly impacting human rights in the region, in particular the rights of Indigenous people.

All LAC countries have ratified the Paris Agreement and the majority is committed to its implementation. They have set out ambitious climate change plans (so-called Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs) to move towards greener, carbon neutral economies and build resilience to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The submission of updated NDCs was an opportunity for all countries to increase ambition and show progress in other areas, such as adaptation, contributing to sustainable development, participation, and inclusiveness and transparent systems to track progress. However, the 2021 NDC Synthesis Report shows that even though many parties to the Paris Agreement have increased mitigation efforts, these fall far short of what is needed to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5oC. An anticipated 16% increase in global GHG emissions in 2030 compared to 2010 (see IPCC) may lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7°C by the end of the century.

Given this grim scenario, what have countries in Latin America committed to, in the lead up to and at COP26? This post provides an overview of LAC NDCs and commitments announced at COP26, and ongoing climate litigation related to LAC NDCs.

NDCs

Most LAC countries have increased their mitigation targets in their updated NDCs, which were submitted in the lead up to COP26. Of the few NDCs in the region that the Climate Action Tracker has analyzed, Costa Rica is the most ambitious and one of the few countries in the world to align with the 2°C temperature goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement. WWF has identified five Latin American countries (Colombia, Suriname, Dominican Republic, Panama, and Costa Rica) as “NDCs we want.” This ranking is based on ambition, fostering systemic change, inclusiveness and participation in the NDC design process, contribution to sustainable development and systems for tracking progress. Argentina, whose NDC was previously considered highly insufficient, announced at COP26 a 2% increase on its mitigation targets, which represents a reduction in the limit to emissions of 27,7% compared to its first NDC. While this represents some progress, these commitments are still insufficient.  

Chile, Costa Rica, and now Colombia have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. Many countries in LAC have established processes for developing national decarbonization plans, but these have not been finalized. So far, Costa Rica is the only Latin American country to have a decarbonization strategy. Colombia, which accounts for 0.6% of the world’s emissions, announced at COP26 a long-term strategy to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

As notable exceptions to the progression in regional mitigation efforts, Brazil and Mexico have not raised ambition compared with their earlier NDCs. Both countries have changed their methodologies for accounting emissions and could even meet their targets while also emitting more carbon. This regression has given rise to climate litigation, as explained below.

Deforestation

Forests are a crucial ally in the fight against climate change as they remove emissions from the atmosphere, preventing further warming of the planet. Still, this critical climate buffer is quickly disappearing. According to Global Forest Watch, deforestation increased by 12% between 2019 to 2020, with 12.2 million hectares of forest cover lost. Data that came out right after the end of COP26 shows that deforestation rates in Brazil are the worst in 15 years. Deforestation contributes about a quarter of global GHG emissions.  

At COP26, 141 countries signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. This commitment is backed by public funds for forest conservation and a global roadmap to make 75% of forest commodity supply chains sustainable. According to the United Nations, the signatories represent 90% of the world’s forests, responsible for sequestering around one-third of global CO2 released from fossil fuels each year. Signatories include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Mexico. Notably, Bolivia, Venezuela, and French Guiana have not signed this agreement, all of whom have high levels of deforestation and share the Amazon rainforest.

While the Glasgow Declaration has an impressive range of signatories, it risks reiterating earlier failures to halt deforestation and it lacks teeth. In 2014, several of the same nations signed the New York Declaration on Forests, vowing to halve deforestation by 2020 and to end it altogether by 2030. However, a 2020 progress report found that countries failed to meet the first goal and were off track to meet the second. Despite general disbelief that countries will commit to it, the Glasgow declaration differs from the New York Declaration on key issues. Governments, banks, and philanthropies pledged to contribute $19 billion to help stop deforestation. Of this, $1.7 billion is earmarked for Indigenous groups, who are custodians of more than 36% of the world’s forest landscapes. The other funds will go to initiatives such as deforestation-free soy and cattle projects and direct payments for countries that prove they reduced forest loss. Additionally, coalitions of governments and multinational agricultural companies vowed to promote sustainability and forest preservation in commodity supply chains. Twelve major global commodities firms will present their plans on commodity supply chains by COP27, which will be held in Egypt in 2023.

Article 6 – Carbon Markets

A significant point of contention at COP26 relied on implementing Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. International emissions trading under Article 6 had yet to be finalized, given disagreements on effective rules on transparency and robust accounting. Article 6 establishes two mechanisms for the trading of carbon offsets. The first allows a state which overachieves its climate target to sell the remaining credits to another state, so the latter can use it to reach its own climate-mitigation targets. The second encourages States to trade carbon credits to pay another to build renewable energy sources. COP26 saw lively discussions on carbon markets, resulting in the elimination of double counting for compliance markets and a framework for carbon markets. Yet concerns about how Article 6 addresses human rights – significantly hundreds of Indigenous communities in LACT – have been largely unaddressed. While discussions on Article 6 have been contentious within Latin America, states could significantly benefit from carbon markets. Brazil, for example, would benefit from measures to protect the Amazon. Carbon pricing initiatives could help reduce emissions at a lower cost, and LAC has gradually developed several mechanisms as part of broader structural tax reforms. This trend will affect companies operating within Latin America, as states strive to reach net zero emissions. Approximately 22.5 million jobs could be created as a result.

Methane Pledge

At COP26, the United States and the European Union launched the Global Methane Pledge to reduce global methane emissions to reach the 1.5oC target. More than 100 States have signed this pledge, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru. The goal is to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. In Latin America, the largest mitigation potential comes from the livestock subsector. Brazil, in particular, is a significant contributor to methane emissions related to livestock. Cattle-ranching is a significant source of income in LAC and accounts for much of the GHG emissions in the region. If the measures in the methane pledge are successfully adopted, cattle ranching can be significantly reduced in LAC states that have signed it. Central to the successful reduction of methane emissions are financial subsidies and grants to the agricultural sector to provide incentives to reduce methane emissions.

Climate Litigation

Despite the increased ambition from countries LAC, two large emitters, Brazil and Mexico, failed to comply with the progression requirement in the Paris Agreement. Significantly, this regression has led to emerging climate litigation claims which are largely grounded on the constitutionally recognized right to a healthy environment. In October 2021, Observatório do Clima (O.C.), a network of 71 civil society organizations, filed a class action at the federal court of Amazonas against the Environmental Ministry and Brazilian government (Observatório do Clima v. Environmental Ministry and Brazil). The case is the latest on a growing climate litigation trend in Brazil. The petition questions explicitly the updated NDC in the context of Brazil’s National Policy on Climate Change (NPCC and subsequent regulation), which was adopted in 2009 based on Brazil’s international commitments with the UNFCCC, as well as the National Plan on Climate Change, adopted in 2008 and composed of a series of sectoral plans. The NPCC establishes a binding commitment to reduce GHG emissions between 36.1% and 38.9% by 2020 against a 2010 baseline.

The decreased ambition in Brazil’s NDC was previously questioned in another case (Six Youths v. Minister of Environment and Others). The court preliminarily found that it cannot be considered less ambitious since the NDC includes a carbon neutrality target. The decision was appealed. In this new case, the plaintiffs assert that the updated NDCs effectively violate the Paris Agreement, the national legal framework, and the principle of non-regression. The claim brought by O.C. is broader as it relates to the country’s climate policies in general (see more about the case here).

In March 2021, Greenpeace filed an amparo, an emergency proceeding, against the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, the Inter-secretarial Commission on Climate Change, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, the Council of Climate Change, and the Mexican President, questioning Mexico’s revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) (Greenpeace v. Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático and Others). The NGO argued that the NDC failed to respect the principle of non-regression in human rights law and asked the court to suspend its effects. In September 2021, the Eleventh Collegiate Court in Administrative Matters of the First Circuit decided to suspend Mexico’s 2020 NDC. The court considered Mexico’s mitigation commitments to be regressive and therefore suspended its effect. In its place, Mexico’s 2015 commitments on mitigation and adaptation for the 2020-2030 period apply.

Conclusion

Despite progress in the updated NDCs, current ambition remains insufficient. Countries have agreed to revise their NDCs in 2022, and hopefully LAC will show further progress while also implementing the commitments already made at the national level. Alternatively, new climate litigation claims will likely arise, further contributing to a growing trend at the regional level.

* The author would like to thank Lavinia Bhaskaruni for her research assistance.