Argentina’s Unlikely Climate Push
Can urging from Washington make one of Latin America’s biggest polluters go green?
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: carbon-heavy Argentina hosts a climate summit, Venezuela’s opposition talks to the Maduro government, and Miss Universe El Salvador 2021 wants to legalize abortion.
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Malbec With a Side of Fracking
Argentine President Alberto Fernández is preparing to play what may appear an unlikely role next week: host of a virtual regional dialogue on climate change.
Argentina’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions of 8.89 metric tons as of 2018 are among the highest in Latin America and some 38 percent above the global average. Fernández, for his part, has focused little on renewable energy since he entered office in 2019—instead embracing public subsidies for conventional energy consumption and oil exploration, especially the development of the massive Vaca Muerta shale deposit in the country’s west.
Yet with encouragement from Washington, Buenos Aires will convene digital forums next Wednesday designed to raise Latin American climate ambitions ahead of November’s United Nations summit in Scotland. The event—which Argentina reportedly conceived, and which Barbados, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic signed on to co-host—can be partly attributed to U.S. climate diplomacy in the region. It is especially notable given that this same climate diplomacy has fallen flat with some of Argentina’s neighbors, including Brazil.
Overall, Fernández’s overture shows Argentina’s interest in good relations with Washington. The event may make for positive optics ahead of Argentina’s November midterm elections. And it also comes as Fernández is seeking favorable terms on the restructuring of $45 billion in debt to the International Monetary Fund, where the United States is the primary shareholder.
Kerry’s courtship. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are responsible for 8 percent of global emissions. With a few important exceptions, their various decarbonization policies of recent years “have not been able to significantly reduce emissions or change the path of development toward a low emission future,” Del Rosario University political scientist Matías Franchini wrote in a January article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.
As a result, European countries and organizations have been particularly active in backing Latin America’s efforts at decarbonization—and pressuring when they have lagged. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his team were also quick to launch green diplomatic overtures in the region after the Biden administration took office in January.
But those appeals yielded few behavior changes from Latin America’s top two carbon emitters, Brazil and Mexico. Argentina is the region’s third-largest emitter, and past Argentine governments from Fernández’s Peronist political movement have often taken antagonistic positions toward Washington. Fernández, however, is more moderate, and he welcomed White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Buenos Aires for talks last month.
For Argentina, speaking up on climate carries the potential not only to build ties with the United States but also to deepen regional relationships and seek investment for green initiatives. For Washington, next week’s event is evidence that persistence in climate diplomacy can pay off, as Kerry told Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh last month.
Kerry himself is slated to participate virtually, as is U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. While they may have been invited, Brazilian or Mexican officials are not mentioned in the most recent official event schedule.
Talk versus action. At U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual climate summit in April, Fernández announced a new commitment to increase the share of renewables in Argentina’s energy supply from around 10 percent—the current figure—to 30 percent by 2030. Months before, the country also updated its emissions goals as part of the Paris Agreement, which the watchdog Climate Action Tracker ranked as a modest gain: It moved Argentina’s progress on meeting the agreement’s targets from a rating of “critically insufficient” to “insufficient.”
Argentine energy analysts point out, however, that these new goals have yet to effectively translate into budgeting and policymaking. The country is devoting around 9 percent of its public spending this year to fossil fuel subsidies, according to María Marta Di Paola of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation. That’s over 60 times the amount Buenos Aires plans to spend on a recently announced program to incentivize green development and alternative energy.
Earlier this year, Argentina’s Congress lowered—rather than raised—the amount of biofuels required to be mixed into diesel and gasoline. And environmental issues are so absent from campaigns for November’s legislative elections that activists have organized a social media drive pushing for debates to feature questions on the environment.
A developing country differential? In the past, Buenos Aires has argued that lower-income countries should be held to different emissions standards than rich countries given their need to develop their economies. That same ethos is on display today as Argentine officials stress that fracking in Vaca Muerta is a key step toward boosting export earnings and getting the country on the path to economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even so, a quick look around Latin America turns up examples of how green industrial policy can also serve as an economic engine. Chile, for one, has heavily backed research into hydrogen fuel produced using renewable energy. Its first green hydrogen fuel station was just commissioned by the mining company Anglo American, and more than 40 percent of foreign direct investment to the country last year went to renewable energy.
Argentina has the solar and wind resources for a robust renewables industry. The question of how much they are harnessed to green the country’s energy mix is one of the political priorities that environmentalists hope can shift forward at next week’s event.
Friday, Sept. 3: Negotiations resume between Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro government and the opposition Unitary Platform in Mexico City.
Tuesday, Sept. 7: Bitcoin becomes legal tender in El Salvador.
Wednesday, Sept. 8: A Latin American high-level dialogue on climate action is co-hosted by seven countries in the region.
Tuesday, Sept. 14: The U.S. trade embargo on Cuba is currently set to expire, though it is expected to be renewed.
What We’re Following
The cost of U.N. sex abuse. U.N. peacekeepers stationed in Haiti between 2004 and 2017 fathered children with scores of Haitian women—and cut contact with many of those children and their mothers. A new report from BuzzFeed News’ Karla Zabludovsky looks at a landmark December 2020 ruling in a Haitian court that ordered a peacekeeper from Uruguay to pay $3,590 per month to the child he left behind.
Zabludovsky traced Haitian women’s legal battles for accountability and compensation from the peacekeepers, many of whom hailed from Brazil and Uruguay. Reports of abuse by U.N. forces are not unique to Haiti, and the ruling could set an important global precedent.
Brazil’s energy woes. Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão said the country’s ongoing drought—one of the worst in a century—could lead to energy rationing. Most of Brazil’s electricity is generated via hydropower. Government agencies have been ordered to cut back on energy use by 20 percent, and energy prices for consumers were hiked on Wednesday.
Uruguay at the NDB. On Thursday, it was announced that Uruguay has joined the Shanghai-based New Development Bank (NDB) along with Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates. The NDB was launched by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa in 2015, and it has so far financed around 80 projects worth $30 billion.
Medicinal cannabis in Panama. On Monday, Panama’s legislature became the first in Central America to approve the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. President Laurentino Cortizo is expected to sign the bill into law. Mexico’s Supreme Court legalized medical marijuana in 2017, but its Congress only passed a law regulating its use earlier this year.
An unconventional Miss Universe El Salvador. Twenty-five-year-old Alejandra Gavidia holds a degree in public administration, but she had such difficulty finding a job earlier this year that she applied on a whim to a beauty pageant—and won. Bucking convention, the newly-minted Miss Universe El Salvador is also vocal about being asexual, a topic she discussed in a recent interview with El Faro. She has criticized the Nayib Bukele government’s poor stance on women’s and LGBT+ rights, called for the legalization of abortion, and said that she herself would like to be president.
Despite these positions, Gavidia was also recently hired as an innovation officer in her country’s federal government. It was an uncharacteristic show of pluralism from an administration quick to strip opponents of positions of influence. Just this week, Bukele’s allies in congress approved a fast-tracked bill that will require some 30 percent of sitting judges to retire.
Question of the Week
As part of its push toward a green economy, the Argentine government plans to invest in the mining of lithium, which is used in batteries for electric cars and solar energy systems.
Together, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia contain what percent of the world’s lithium reserves?
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the three countries combined account for 58 percent of the world’s lithium reserves, prompting heightened international interest in lithium mining and concerns over how the mining process itself can be environmentally sustainable.
In Focus: Venezuela’s Opposition Engages
Divisions in Venezuela’s opposition have hampered their ability to work against President Nicolás Maduro’s democratic backsliding in recent years, but they are moving toward consensus on two key issues at a very pivotal moment: Negotiations in Mexico City with Maduro’s U.N.-recognized government of Venezuela resume on Friday. They may be able to move the country past its political stalemate.
On talking. Opposition figure Freddy Guevara, who was freed from prison to be able to attend the Mexico City talks, said that his theory of change had shifted from one of “military schism” or “total overthrow” to that of a negotiated solution. Indeed, the opposition alliance’s official name—Unitary Platform—also represents movement away from an initial insistence that Guevara’s fellow party member Juan Guaidó be recognized as Venezuela’s interim president.
This is evidence that the opposition is willing to not only talk but also make some concessions. And it bodes well for possible agreements, wrote the International Crisis Group’s Phil Gunson. Equally promising are assurances from the United States, Canada, and European countries that they are open to phased sanctions relief for Venezuela, rather than holding out for an all-or-nothing political shift.
On voting. The Unitary Platform also announced it will run candidates in November’s regional and municipal elections, a reversal of its pro-boycott stance during last December’s legislative elections. After that vote, Maduro’s party gained control of what had been Venezuela’s only significant opposition-led governmental body.
Guarantees on the conditions for November’s elections, though, are still on the negotiating table in Mexico City. Even if the talks fall through—as they have four times since 2014—the potential to regain some power within Venezuela’s political system offers another path forward for the opposition.
In the short term, researchers from the Washington Office on Latin America and the U.S. Institute of Peace say the Mexico City process deserves robust international backing and bears the chance of much-needed progress for Venezuela.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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