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| 4/12/2011 12:00:00 AM

Climate Change And Colombia, Santos' new deal

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos announced new "state of the art regulations" which would make protection of the environment "compatible with economic development". But there is considerable scepticism about the sincerity of his administration’s concern for environmental sustainability.

Speaking during the devastating floods which plunged Colombia into a state of emergency late last year, President Juan Manuel Santos laid the blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of climate change. "Our future challenge will be to adapt to the changing global climate" declared the newly elected premier who, invoking the spirit of Bolivar, urged Colombians to "work together now in order to avoid more disasters tomorrow".
 
Last month Santos renewed his call to action. Sharing the stage with ex-US vice president and environmental activist Al Gore at an event organised in Bogotá, Santos announced new ‘state of the art regulations’ which would make protection of the environment ‘compatible with economic development’.
 
Prosperity – the green way
 
For Colombia the promises and pitfalls of squaring this circle are particularly acute. The country is part of the recently christened CIVET group of well regarded mid-sized developing economies, and with a government pledge to cut poverty by 6% in the next four years continuing economic growth is a non-negotiable priority. Yet, even before last year’s floods, a United Nations Development Programme Report named 'Colombia as most at risk in Latin America to natural disasters caused by manmade climate change'.
 
More than 70% of Colombian territory is vulnerable to global temperature rises. Heavily populated Caribbean coastal areas are threatened by sea level rises, while Colombia’s coffee industry has already reported the ill-effects of recent unusually hot years. This is without mentioning the potential impact on the country’s ecosystems – by some measures considered the world’s most bio-diverse.
 
While this might seem to make Santos’s task unenviable, the president might have been encouraged by Gore’s words at the same event that Colombia ‘can be a leader’ in the fight against manmade climate change.
 
Colombians already omit less than a third of the C02 per capita than their neighbours in Venezuela. An impressive 70% of the country’s electricity comes from hydroelectric sources and the government is committed to expand this percentage.
 
Indeed, the presidential palace has unveiled a string of emission busting policies since last year, such as the national REDD (Reducción de Emisiones por Deforestación y Degradación en países en Desarrollo) strategy and incorporating a commitment to low carbon growth in the National Development Plan currently before Congress. With uncharacteristic spontaneity Santos even indicated he would consider the imposition of a carbon tax after listening to Al Gore’s words on the subject.
 
Mining the depths
 
But there is considerable scepticism both within and without government about the sincerity of Santos administration’s concern for environmental sustainability. According to Edward Davey, the country’s lead advisor on international environmental cooperation, Colombia’s ambitions “are serious on paper but timid in practice”. Deforestation has continued to increase despite the REDD strategy and funds established to alleviate the effects of climate change in areas vulnerable to flooding are ‘ill-conceived’.
 
“Part of the problem” argues Davey "is the hangover left over from decades of economic planning with no environmental criteria at all”. Deforestation, irrigation projects and poor agricultural and industrial practices have increased the risk of flooding and landslides at the same time as drying up water sources and polluting rivers.
 
Perhaps, the most infamous example of this is the damage done to the Cauca River, which receives more than 500 tonnes of contaminants per day owing to the gold mines bordering its banks; among them the open-pit Marmato mine currently managed by the Canadian-owned Colombian Goldfields and many single illegal miners.
 
It is on the issue of mining that some feel the battle over the heart and soul of Colombia’s environment is being waged. In September last year president Santos announced a government crackdown on illegal mining activities, ordering the armed forces to close pits in Lower Cauca and northeast Antioquia province.
 
This was party inspired by revelations that both guerrilla and paramilitary groups were using gold mining as a surrogate for coca cultivation for financing. At the same time the government has encouraged multinationals to establish operations in the country, setting aside large swathes of the country for the exploitation of hydro-carbons which, with one of the world’s largest reserves of coal, it considers a key future engine for growth.
 
According to many, it is this contradiction that best explains the Janus-faced approach of Santos to environmental policy. The emphasis on illegal mining ignores the serious damage caused by large-scale operations, much of it by multinationals.
 
For Brigitte Baptiste, director of Colombia’s respected Alexander von Humboldt Institute, government claims to promote ‘sustainable’ mining are a fiction. Instead, the country must simply choose between environmental quality and mining revenues in certain areas. The decision making process is skewed, however, by the ‘unequal resources,’ that environmental groups and mining companies have to negotiate with.
 
Even protected territories are fair game for large-scale miners, Baptiste has claimed. One example is the controversy over the páramos, areas of Colombian uplands that supply the country’s water and are vital for climate change mitigation. Theoretically excluded by law from exploitation, multinationals continue to bid for government contracts. Recently, Canadian company Greystar had an application for access to one disputed region rejected. A spokesman said it would continue to look for ways to mine in the area.

The business of sustainability
 
While mining continues to trouble environmentalists, many in Colombian business have signed up to president Santos’s low carbon agenda. Carlos Manuel Herrera, chief of environmental affairs at Andi, Colombia’s largest industrial confederation, claims corporate action will be fundamental in tackling these problems.
 
"With new projects we are looking for high technical standards, more social consultation and a benefit analysis of the economic impact on any affected community", says Herrera. While maintaining that economic development is the quid pro quo of reducing poverty, Herrera acknowledges that the increasing ambition and quantity of natural resources projects called for a better management of royalties.

“In the case of the reduction of CO2 emissions there are many things that companies can do themselves – one is investing in energy efficiency, another the forestation of areas as compensation for CO2 intensive activities. However, without effective governmental oversight and taxation, developmental and environmental compatibility will be impossible”.

Most problematic of all for Herrera is the “permanent institutional change”, that is a feature of Colombian environmental regulation. This discourages investment and hampers environmental management. The Supreme Court’s blocking of a proposed Santos reform to the CARs, Colombia’s regional environmental agencies, blamed by many for failing to adequately prepare for last year’s floods, has resulted in yet more confusion.
 
Domestic solutions for a global problem?
 
If Santos is really to concoct the magic potion which has so far eluded developmental economists, environmental groups and politicians for years – the one that turns rapid development environmentally sustainable – he will have to build stronger local institutions and make regulation watertight as well as carefully scrutinising the overtures of big foreign companies.
 
He will also have to encourage and perhaps incentivise Colombia’s business community to invest in energy efficiency and pursue profit with a social conscience. Yet reducing the environmental impact of development inside Colombia is just one part of the equation.
 
Al Gore might talk of Colombia being “a leader” in the fight against climate change, but whatever the achievements made in emissions in Bogotá or Barranquilla, the export of hydrocarbons to economies like China is central to the country’s growth strategy. With climate change being the global problem that it is, it is this contradiction that the president will find hard to overcome.
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