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Colombia: A in theory, D in practice

The country’s new climate targets are bold but rely too much on reducing deforestation and changing land use. What about fossil fuels?

Juanita Rico
2 November 2021, 12.00am
Charred logs are seen on a stretch of the Yari plains in Caqueta, Colombia, March 2, 2021
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REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez/Alamy Stock Photo

Colombia announced its new carbon reduction targets at the end of December 2020. Its goal was more ambitious than the previous one, both in size and methodology.

The country’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) aims to ​​reduce greenhouse gases by 51% and ‘black carbon’ emissions by 40% in 2030 compared to 2014. But the plan relies heavily on land use, change in land use, and reductions in deforestation.

In particular, its policies to tackle emissions from the energy and transport sectors are inadequate. Colombia is the world’s sixth-largest coal exporter, so it is essential that it has a plan to phase out coal – but it doesn't, as this country report from pressure group Climate Transparency shows.

So is Colombia capable of accomplishing its goal of reducing emissions by 51% by 2030?

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More than a third of Colombia’s CO2 emissions come from deforestation, mainly in the Amazonian region. Protecting the Amazon should be key to the Colombian climate agenda. It is not. In fact, deforestation is getting worse. More than 171,000 hectares of forest (an area twice the size of New York City) were lost in 2020, 8% more than in 2019.

It is not necessary to deforest the whole of the Amazon in order to unbalance it

Crucially, it is not necessary to deforest the whole of the Amazon in order to unbalance it. Rodrigo Botero, director of Colombia’s Sustainable Development and Conservation Foundation, has said that the country could witness the fragmentation of large ecosystems in the near future.

This could lead to what ecologists call the ‘tipping point’ – a point of no return – in which the functionality of a significant ecosystem starts to collapse. In the case of the Amazon, it is likely to switch from rainforest to savannah, which will store much less of the earth’s carbon.

Colombia’s president Ivan Duque said that not only will the country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030, but it will achieve zero emissions by 2050. This month, he also announced, with Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro, that he will defend the Amazon and work towards a real transition of the energy sector. But is it possible?

Maybe, and maybe not. It all depends on what path Duque's government takes in the coming years.

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Deforestation not enough

To achieve its stated goals, the Colombian government is relying primarily on the land sector: 70% of the total mitigation measures of the new targets relate to land use. But this completely ignores other more aggressive mitigation options in other carbon-heavy sectors of the economy – such as energy supply and transport.

Although President Duque has talked widely about how he supports the transition towards renewables, the country has yet to set explicit, quantifiable targets for reducing the use or production of fossil fuel. No dates have been set to phase out coal or stop the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

If we consider that fossil fuels still make up 75% of the country’s total energy mix, further action seems urgent. However, it is not happening soon.

As on other occasions, the Colombian government's actions contradict its good intentions.

In December 2020, President Duque approved the first pilot contract for fracking in the south and central regions of Colombia – even though there is a current moratorium on fracking. Why sign such a contract if he wants to achieve zero emissions by 2050?

He has openly supported fracking, and it is expected that he will lift the moratorium next year, giving the green light to fracking projects across the country.

Colombia wants to be perceived as a country focused on protecting its biodiversity, with ambitious climate-change targets. However, the possibility of it actually achieving its new NDC currently seems remote.

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