Climate change: The enemy that could unite Colombia?

Chiribiquete/Charles Besancon

Colombia, a country long embattled by factious politics, drug warfare and guerrilla violence, may soon unite its polar extremes against a common enemy. But the common foe this time won’t resemble a political party or guerrilla organization. Colombia’s most pressing issue could become the one thing capable of unifying it: climate change.

On August 7, former M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro replaced Ivan Duque in the Casa Nariño, promising to become Colombia’s first “environmental president”. Petro has also been branded “Colombia’s first leftist president”, language that in Colombia connotes radical and guerrilla associations.

Canada’s Justin Trudeau was quick to congratulate the Petro and Márquez team, tweeting “I’m looking forward to working with you both on priorities like democracy, gender equality and climate action.”  And the US Embassy in Bogotá stated President Gustavo Petro would become a global climate leader.

But can the divisive new leader deliver?

Colombia’s all-encompassing 1991 Constitution grants protection to rivers, legal representation to endangered habitats and “the right to a healthy environment” to all citizens. One of the most liberal constitutions in the world has also facilitated the development of a national environmental consciousness.

Indeed, climate change, the incoming president‘s signature issue, resonates deeply with a majority of Colombians. A 2021 Yale study over Facebook found 85 percent of Colombians think climate change will be a major threat to Colombia over the next 20 years.

Petro’s win was facilitated by tools he has mastered, including social media to mobilize social protest and use of exaggerated rhetoric to expand his political bases. Among a tirade of electoral promises is to immediately halt all oil and gas exploration, and make fracking illegal.

The test for Petro’s effectiveness will lie in his ability to work with Congress, shifting from political grandstanding towards dealing with reality. Colombia’s meticulously crafted renewable energy transition plan already channels oil revenues into renewable energy, including hydrogen generation as an important clean energy vector.

Petro’s Keynesian Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo has already backpedaled, admitting halting oil from day one is infeasible. Oil currently represents 45 percent of Colombia’s exports and a significant contribution to its GDP.

Colombia is poised to succeed on the environment under Petro; but that progress will be owed to the foundation laid by his predecessor, Iván Duque. Over a chaotic four years that has seen an economy-shattering global pandemic and a Russia-backed national protest movement, Duque quietly implemented an impressive number of historic environmental initiatives, despite his administration’s hesitancy to ratify the Escazú agreement. Ex-President Duque’s emissions reductions law is among the most ambitious in the hemisphere. The Escazú agreement is an environmental justice and transparency treaty signed by 25 Latin American countries. Duque also committed Colombia to 51 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality for Colombia by 2050.

With the programs set in place over the past four years, Colombia is poised to meet its clean energy goals. According to the Ministry of Energy and Mining, under Duque’s watch Colombia has increased its installed capacity for the creation of renewable energy 100 times.

Examples include Parque Solar Canal del Dique, with 5.6 MW installed capacity, projected to eliminate 6,600 tons of CO2 emissions per year.  In January, President Duque inaugurated “Guajira 1”, the first of 10 wind farms, adding a total of 1.7 GW to the national grid. And the petroleum group Ecopetrol, Colombia’s largest oil company, inaugurated a solar farm with installed potential of 61 MW.  The farm will help meet the oil company’s energy needs.

The real proof of Petro’s effectiveness will lie in the realization of the Project Finance for Permanence agreement – a US$245 million deal with the Colombian government to protect 30 percent of the national territory by 2030. The project was facilitated by WWF and a long list of public and private partners. In a statement WWF CEO Carter Roberts noted the project is important “because it charts a course for other nations to follow in financing the protection of their own landscapes and seascapes”.

To be sure, the extent of future damage from global warming is full of uncertainties.  Climate change looms like a surrounding enemy, capricious and indiscriminate. But amid social tensions, Colombians seem to finally have something they all can agree on, climate action now.  They value their immensely diverse land and are conscious of being one of the countries most at risk from the ravaging effects of climate change.

If a 2016 Nobel-prize-winning Peace Accord couldn’t bring Colombians unity, perhaps a shared commitment to the environment will. Regardless of who takes the credit, the world can only hope Colombia will grow into the international environmental leader it is poised to become.

About the author: Kristina Foltz is a Rotary Cultural Ambassadorial scholar. dividing her time between Mexico and Bogotá. She writes about Latin American affairs.