Much like the early 2000s, Latin America could be on the brink of a new “pink tide” – but one that is awash with another colour. Gabriel Boric won Chile’s presidential elections last December promising “development compatible with the environment”. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party is leading polls for elections in October 2022, pledging to combat Amazon deforestation and prioritise climate. And in Colombia, veteran leftist Gustavo Petro, favourite for the elections on 29 May, claims that he will halt oil exploration and invest in the country’s energy transition, if elected.
For Latin America, one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change, according to the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), revitalising a green, environmental agenda seems to be a top priority for newly elected and aspiring leaders alike.
Yet, while there is hope and expectation, there is some scepticism about the more developmentalist-minded leaders’ potential embrace of strong climate and environmental policies. Above all, there is a huge opportunity to prove progressive credentials in the climate arena.
Can the new pink tide unite environment and development?
A glance at the history of the Latin American left shows that political progressivism has not guaranteed advances on climate.
“The first question we should ask is: can we make a correlation between progressive governments and the fight against climate change in the region?” asks Matías Franchini, a climate and international relations researcher at Colombia’s Rosario University. This relationship is clearer in the US and Europe than in Latin America, he says.
Indeed, recent and current conservative governments in Chile and Colombia, respectively, scored notable gains on climate, rolling out renewable energy projects and launching more ambitious emissions reductions targets. However, former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera’s government was criticised for showing weak leadership as co-host of the relocated COP25 climate talks in Madrid, in 2019. Furthermore, both he and Colombian counterpart Iván Duque have failed to ensure that their proposed transitions to greener economies were as participatory as possible by failing to ratify the Escazú Agreement. The regional treaty is widely regarded as the starter pistol for a race to the top in environmental standards, transparency and civic participation regionally. Less than a week into his presidency, Boric has since ratified the agreement.
Franchini also cites Mexico, where former conservative president Felipe Calderón (2006–2012) made more advances on climate and environmental protection than the current president, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), looks set to achieve.
With this new generation, we have a chance to finally leave behind this dichotomy between environment and development
Calderón later became director of the Global Commission on Economy and Climate, which advises countries on economic development and climate risk. AMLO, meanwhile, notoriously failed to even attend last November’s climate summit in Glasgow. “Enough hypocrisy and fads, what we need to do is fight the monstrous inequality that exists in the world,” he said at the time, pitting the struggle for socioeconomic equality against global warming.
AMLO has also attracted criticism for investing billions of dollars in the construction of the Dos Bocas refinery, boosting Mexico’s oil sector in search of what he calls ‘energy sovereignty’. He has also clashed with the renewable energy sector in promoting a constitutional reform that prioritises thermoelectric plants.
Tatiana Roque, a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, is cautious. In her 2021 book, O dia em que voltamos de marte (The Day We Returned from Mars), Roque criticises the developmentalism that the Latin American left has espoused. Such mindsets as AMLO’s, she says, belong to a bygone era.
“We need to be careful not to reproduce the same vision of the past, especially this very marked developmentalist vision in Latin America that incorporates a vision of the future that does not [engage in] dialogue with the urgency of climate change,” says Roque.
The Latin American left has yet to adopt this perspective partly because of its deep economic dependence on the production of environmentally damaging commodities, such as soy, livestock, oil and metals, Roque adds. “We have become too vulnerable to make this [green] transition because of commodities.”
The pink tide of the 2000s
Latin America’s last progressive wave that began in the 2000s swept leaders such as Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Néstor and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina) to power, as well as Lula himself, and his successor Dilma Rousseff. These governments generally benefited from high global commodity prices, driven largely by Chinese demand, to invest heavily in public policies that reduced inequality and poverty.
The role of commodities
The global rise in raw material prices in the 2000s, plus growing Chinese demand, created a positive economic cycle in Latin America, but one that favoured a development model that marginalised environmental agendas. Now, a possible new green wave could be the chance to bring sustainable development to the forefront.
“This first wave, which ran from 2003 to 2014, coincided with a major commodity cycle that totally defined these governments’ successes and failures,” says Mathias Alencastro, a researcher at the Brazilian Centre for Analysis and Planning.
Yet, Alencastro is optimistic. He argues that Latin America’s previous progressive turn was retrospective, fighting the remnants of military dictatorships and the influence of the US in the region. Today, the Latin American left will be pushed to prioritise sustainable development, he says: “Climate policy is precisely what differentiates the first and second wave. Without a positive commodities cycle, the left will be forced to be more daring. The green economy fills that void.”
Without commodities-driven growth, there is an opportunity to seek new forms of development and move Latin American countries away from raw material dependence. In Brazil, for example, progressive sectors have called for zero deforestation in the Amazon and for the development of a bio-economy that generates income and keeps the forest standing.
Chile and Colombia in the spotlight
Much current attention focuses on Boric and Petro. The Chilean’s early moves are promising. He chose renowned climate scientist Maisa Rojas as environment minister. She has directed the Center for Climate and Resilience Research, linked to the University of Chile, co-authored IPCC reports and worked with the former government on Chile’s presidency of COP25 – which ultimately moved to Madrid because of massive protests over rampant inequality and alienation from political decision-making, no less.
“With this new generation, we have a chance to finally leave behind this dichotomy between environment and development,” says Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa Institute, a Brazilian climate think-tank. “But we still have the reluctant ones, like the Mexican leadership, who will do as little as possible.”
Matías Franchini says that during the past 20 years of alternating between the centre-left governments of Michelle Bachelet (2006–2010 and 2014–2018) and centre-right Sebastián Piñera (2010–2014 and 2018–2022), Chile has successfully built a state policy of decarbonisation. The goal was to achieve emissions neutrality by 2050, and the country has already invested in reforestation projects and clean energy. By 2025, 20% of energy production will come from non-conventional renewable sources, such as wind or solar, according to national climate plans. “Boric does not represent a break, but rather the continuation of a trend,” he says.
Although Colombia’s Petro belongs to a previous generation of progressives, he represents the country’s main chance of a first ever left-wing government. He has lamented Colombia’s shift from coffee-growing to oil and coal: today, about a third of Colombia’s exports depend on the oil industry. China and the US are the main buyers.
The environment rose up the agenda in Colombia under the Juan Manuel Santos government (2010–2017), which incorporated green issues into the historic peace agreement with the FARC. Signed in 2016, the document committed to the resettlement of vulnerable communities, reforestation in areas affected by the conflict, and combating illegal mining, among other provisions.
Climate action then gained new momentum under Duque. The current president said during COP26 that the country will slash emissions by 51% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Reaching these goals, however, relies on curbing deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, which has spiked since the FARC vacated densely forested areas. Little attention has been paid to overhauling the fossil fuel-dependent energy sector.
Plans to transition to renewables involve greatly increasing the use of natural gas in energy supply – and Colombia has scant resources without fracking new reserves. Support for the oil industry also remains. “In this sense, Petro’s discourse is more interesting, but unrealistic in political terms,” argues Franchini, who is sceptical of the proposal to block new oil industry projects. “The space for Petro to make a quick transition is difficult in political and economic terms.”
The road ahead may be challenging, but environmentalists in Colombia have been buoyed by the recent selection of Francia Márquez as Petro’s running mate. A tireless environmental campaigner whose activism has earned her a Goldman prize – often dubbed the “Green Nobel” – Márquez is now in line to become the country’s first black female vice-president, and could lead powerful defence of environmental and social causes at the highest level.
Can Brazil’s leader change the game?
If elected, Lula, who governed Brazil between 2003 and 2011, will become the only leader to ride both of Latin America’s pink waves. His government was ambiguous in the environmental area. Alongside Marina Silva, his then Minister of the Environment, Lula devised a sustainable development plan that led to reduced Amazon deforestation rates of more than 80%. At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, he demanded other countries commit to a global agreement.
Agribusiness development also became state policy. The sector expanded rapidly during the commodities supercycle in the first decade of the 2000s. At that time, China became the main buyer of Brazilian soybeans and minerals and, subsequently, the country’s main trading partner. In 2021, China imported about US$87.3 billion worth of goods and services from Brazil.
Amazon deforestation increased again in 2012 under Rousseff and has broken records since 2019 under Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismantled Brazil's environmental and climate policies.
So what can be expected from Lula’s potential return?
Opinions are divided. Alencastro is sure that Lula, a veteran and internationally respected statesman, knows how to up the rhetoric on environment: “He is a leader that follows global trends and knows how to feel the world's transformations. He has already understood very well that the climate issue is something that needs to be incorporated from a programmatic point of view.”
The former leader has also suggested that a possible third term will focus on making the transition to a green economy. “We need to think about the environment, the Amazon, but also the sewage in the favela. We will take the environmental issue very seriously. Today, development, economic growth and investment have to be linked to the environmental issue,” he tweeted in February.
It is essential to promote a new green pact that promotes the ecological transition to a low-carbon economy
A prospective plan for a potential Lula government, drawn up by the Perseu Abramo Foundation, a body linked to the Workers’ Party, says it is “essential, in addition to combating the environmental devastation caused by the current government, to promote a Green New Deal, a new ‘green pact’, which promotes the ecological transition to a low-carbon economy.”
“This green pact is going to happen by will or by force. Either this transition will be agreed upon and planned, or it will happen with losses and damages, because it will be imposed,” says Unterstell, for whom there are still no clearer signs of the direction Lula intends to adopt, nor who will form his team. “We are in a decade where it is not a question of good manners, of putting a green stamp on things. We are dealing with a different crisis. The markets are already redirecting themselves in a way that appears overwhelming,” she adds.
Roque believes that the main job for the charismatic Lula is to return Brazil to relative democratic normality and develop policies to lay the foundation for a more ambitious environmental project: “I don't think that Lula will prioritise a new development model based on the urgency of fighting climate change. But he could be the way out of this completely exceptional moment we are living in and essential for developing policies that go beyond Lula himself.”