Brazil flag river climate change Global Environment Facility/Baljit Wadhwa/Flickr

Latin America’s Climate Vanguard

Latin American countries can take the lead on framing a new climate change agreement at the UN's upcoming climate conference in Lima. Indeed, by enacting laws that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while encouraging economic growth, the region can set an example for the rest of the world.

SANTIAGO – Latin America may have weathered the global economic slowdown, but for many, the potential impact of global warming, and the measures required to avoid its worst effects, may undermine the region’s fragile political, economic, and social balance – and roll back years of progress.

But economic prosperity and action to mitigate climate change need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, the current election cycle in Latin America, coupled with the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in December in Lima, Peru, provide an opportunity for the region to show how countries can benefit from a low-carbon economy, reduce climate risks, and build long-term prosperity.

Latin American countries are not starting from scratch. Most governments are already crafting policies and drafting legislation on climate change. Mexico was the first emerging country to pass a comprehensive climate-change law, in 2012, targeting a 30% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. Brazil recently succeeded in reducing Amazonian deforestation, and net carbon-dioxide emissions have dropped significantly as a result. Uruguay plans to generate 90% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015, while Chile aims to generate 20% of its power with renewable energy by 2025.

As Latin America’s 2014 election cycle draws to a close, new governments in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica, and presidential hopefuls in Uruguay will be in a position to lead on climate change. At the very least, they must eschew strategies that needlessly undermine existing climate and environmental policies. At best, Latin American leaders can actively facilitate the upcoming Lima conference, which will charge delegates with producing a draft agreement for a new global treaty, to be finalized in Paris next year. The agreement must be both ambitious and fair, in order to form the basis for a global response to climate change that does not jeopardize any country’s future prosperity.

But the Lima conference can do much more than frame a new climate treaty. It can kick-start a major drive to enact climate legislation across Latin America that would create low-carbon, economically resilient societies. Far from putting the brakes on economic growth, a coordinated legislative campaign should be viewed as an essential prerequisite for sustainable development, especially in Latin America. That was a central premise of last month’s flagship report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, which made a compelling economic case for combating climate action and reducing climate risk.

Climate-change legislation also provides a means to reflect the wider concerns of Latin America’s citizens, and to win their support. Legislation can send positive signals to the private sector too, including foreign investors, who may be instrumental in bringing about far-reaching change. Properly motivated, investors can boost renewable energy; invest in sustainable urban transport; encourage innovation; create jobs in cleaner technologies; raise productivity; and help shift the region away from its reliance on finite natural resources.

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The legislative process can also bolster the diplomatic influence of the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean at the UN climate talks. AILAC, which comprises Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, and Peru, can be a critical voice for worldwide cuts in greenhouse-gas emission based on countries’ differentiated responsibilities. AILAC’s “third way” is gaining traction and could prove instrumental in achieving a global agreement.

However, if this new approach is to be credible, AILAC’s progressive rhetoric at the UN must be supported by climate action within countries. It is vital that governments do not see combating climate change and bolstering economic growth as contradictory goals. They do not need to dismantle existing environmental legislation, weaken incipient climate policies, or favor fossil fuels over clean energy sources to ensure prosperity. The recent approval of a carbon tax in Chile suggests that politicians increasingly understand this.

One obvious indicator of progress will be whether governments can simultaneously increase per capita income and reduce per capita emissions. As the Lima talks approach, Latin American countries have a huge opportunity to show their commitment to legislative change at home, and to reaching ambitious climate targets globally.

If the region’s new leaders really wish to show their commitment to change, what better way than to dispel the economic fears surrounding action on climate change? By acting now, they will set their countries – and the wider world – on a new course, giving rise to prosperous, inclusive, and resilient societies this decade and beyond.