It would be downright euphemistic to say that 2020 has been a challenging year. The pandemic destroyed lives and economies and the world will never be the same. Covid-19 derailed almost everything – almost everything.
Despite it, there are genuine reasons to be positive about the last 12 months: China pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060; a change of administration in the White House revived hope of international cooperation on climate and respite for Latin American countries forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. The region also strongly backed the Escazú Agreement to protect biodiversity and frontline defenders.
Here are our reasons to be thankful in an otherwise wicked year.
1. Escazú on the brink of becoming a reality
With its approval by the Argentine and Mexican congresses last month, the Escazú Agreement is now one step away from becoming a reality.
As soon as either one ratifies this regional and globally unprecedented treaty that seeks to improve access to public information, citizen participation and justice on environmental issues in Latin America and the Caribbean with the UN, it will reach the magical number of 11 countries needed to come into force.
This was a major breakthrough following almost six months of paralysis due to the pandemic and the accompanying social and economic crises. The fact that two of the region’s five major economies have ratified could help sway other countries where it’s still being discussed — Colombia, Peru and Costa Rica — to commit to an accord to protect environmental defenders in the world’s most world’s most dangerous region.
2. Agribusiness pledges to tackle deforestation
2020 saw the scale of deforestation in Brazil’s share of the Amazon rainforest surge to a12-year high as 11,088 square kilometres were destroyed. However, facing increasing pressure from investors and clients, agribusiness giants working in Brazil finally made their own commitments, to tackle the problem, setting their own activities apart from the country’s poor performance on environmental protection.
Chinese trading giant Cofco International announced plans in July to achieve full traceability of its direct soy suppliers in Brazil by 2023. While the plan has flaws, if concluded, it would be a meaningful contribution to curb devastation of the Cerrado biome, the second biggest ecosystem in Brazil.
After losing key investors, Brazil’s meatpacking giant, JBS, announced an even bolder plan, to track all its indirect suppliers by 2025, an effort that could transform the Amazon’s growing beef industry. The announcement, made in September, came only a few months after a key competitor, Marfrig, released similar plans.
There is a good dose of skepticism among environmentalists about whether companies will truly execute these plans. Similar commitments have been announced and abandoned in the past. But they at least show agribusiness multinationals are feeling pressured. Moreover, there is no reason to believe concerns about their environmental footprints will lessen after Joe Biden takes office as US President with a promise to reinstate his country’s environmental commitments.
3. Electric buses rollout across Latin America
The transport sector in Latin America is responsible for 35% of the total greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. That’s higher than the global average of 23% and has been growing since the 1970s. But change is coming. Latin American countries are moving towards cleaner public transport in their most populated cities.
Nearly 2000 electric buses are currently running across the region and many of them became operational in 2020. At over 400, Chilean capital Santiago, has the largest electric fleet in Latin America and the largest of any city outside China. Cali, Bogota and Melledín introduced the first electric buses in Colombia as did Montevideo in Uruguay.
There’s still a long way to go, as the current fleet represents 1% of all buses on Latin American streets. Aware of this, the ZEBRA partnership – a collaboration between C40 Cities and the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) – secured this year commitments from investors and manufacturers to accelerate the deployment of electric buses.
4. New climate pledges ahead of COP26
This year was supposed to be a landmark one for the environment, with high hopes on climate change, oceans, biodiversity and fisheries. And while Covid-19 largely disrupted everyone’s plans and postponed big summits like COP26, there was some positive news as countries presented more ambitious climate pledges.
Colombia aims to reduce its emissions by 51% by 2030 through an energy transition, clean mobility and a reduction in deforestation. It represents an improvement on its prior 20% goal. Perú committed to a 40% emissions cut, 10% more ambitious, while Argentina will reduce emissions 26% more than its initial 18% target.
There was also good news outside Latin America. China, the world’s largest emitter, committed to carbon neutrality by 2060 and to reduce carbon intensity by 65% by 2030. The EU agreed to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030, more ambitious than its previous 40% target, while US President-elect Joe Biden raised hopes of further climate action
5. A change of tone in the White House
Joe Biden’s eventually emphatic victory in US presidential elections in November brought relief to many quarters. At home, it appeared to mark an end to a period of national division, exacerbated by inflammatory rhetoric. Elsewhere, it generated renewed hope of US cooperation in UN fora, including in the World Health Organisation and the UNFCCC’s faltering climate negotiations.
Yet, in many places, including in some BRICS countries, well wishes for Biden were not immediately forthcoming. And experts predict few substantial policy changes under the 78-year old when it comes to China. It’s likely Biden will maintain a number of Trump-era positions on trade and investment relations with China – and on China’s relations with the world – on assuming office on January 20. As well as the prospect of the Trade War rumbling on, Biden is unlikely to want to be seen as backing down on China’s influence in Latin America.
All that said, and as international relations professor Barbara Stallings put it in a recent interview with Diálogo Chino, the US will at least “take its knee off Latin America’s neck” when it comes to the region’s choice of international partner. If Latin America is to rebuild its societies and economies sustainably in the wake of the pandemic, it must cooperate on development with an array of countries – and certainly China.
After such a gruelling year, the possibility of engaging with China without the prospect of immediate rebuke from Washington, as was customary under Trump, will at least allow Latin American countries to breathe a short sigh of relief.