I slump back in my chair. Fermin Koop, the environmental journalist and climate change expert who co-founded and directs Claves21, just told me of how and why Argentina was labelled a “dinosaur” at the historic Paris Climate Summit (COP21) in December 2015 which he attended.
“During Kirchnerism, renewables basically didn’t exist,” Koop sighs, pointing to the fact that just 1.5 percent of Argentina’s Energy Matrix was renewable energy after more than a decade of unbroken Victory Front (FpV) rule.
In government, the FpV failed to reform Argentina’s polluting high-intensity agricultural model and pushed destructive shale oil and gas exploitation, not to mention an abortive plan to build coal plants in Patagonia, with scant reference to the threat of climate change beyond former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s flippant remark that environmentalism was “trendy.”
President Mauricio Macri, on the other hand, was elected on the back of promising to tackle climate change. Since winning the presidency in 2015 he has founded a “Climate Cabinet” of government ministers to discuss how the issue touches their various departments of state and announced the Plan RenovAr, which will develop biofuels alongside petrol, encourage Argentine businesses to build wind turbines in Patagonia and solar panels in the North West.
So why do I say Macri’s approach is hypocritical?
It is a conclusion drawn on the basis of what the Government is saying on the one hand and doing with the other in regard to allied economic and energy policies.
The Kirchnerite government ratified COP21 with proposals to cut emissions by 2030 by 15 percent unconditionally and 30 percent conditionally — if they were given funding to go further by the richer, historically more polluting states via the United Nations Green Climate Fund.
At COP22 in Morocco, Environment Minister Sergio Bergman announced improved targets: Argentina will now aim for 18 percent unconditional emission reductions and 37 percent conditionally.
Thing is, these improved plans are no way near good enough.
Right now Argentina (though a small-scale emitter on the global level) is in the unenviable position of being one of 14 countries including oil giants Saudi Arabia and Russia labelled “inadequate” by the renowned Climate Action Tracker website, which tracks the Paris Agreement commitments and emissions of every country who signed. “Inadequate” countries are those which ratified the COP21 deal but did so submitting proposals that, if adopted like for like on a worldwide level, would mean the international community fails to meet the goals of reducing emissions and warming to agreed, safer levels. Gentle improvements on this suggested by Bergman are still being analyzed by climate tracker, but the early signs are not promising.
From here, it gets worse for Macri from a climate perspective. Not only are his improved proposals to tackle climate change insufficient. Elsewhere, his administration is already undermining them by doubling down on the fossil fuel and intensive agriculture industries that helped create and sustain the crisis in the first place.
Agriculture is a case in point. According to Koop, farming and linked deforestation account for 44 percent of the country’s total emissions (more than any other sector), mostly via the concentrated greenhouse gases like methane and phosphorus that cows produce.
Further, industrial farming of key exports like soy has led to widely-documented destruction of both Argentina’s fertile topsoil and over 70 percent of her native forests (see this report from NASA, for example). Deforestation happens in these cases because intensive farming of single crops wastes the topsoil and so encourages new land to be found and used in the same way.
The devastation of forests to make way for farmland prevents the lost trees from intercepting rainfall (leading to worse floods) and from helping to absorb the warming carbon content in the atmosphere. It also releases a “carbon bomb” of all that carbon they have stored through their life at the moment they are destroyed.
Rather than take the drastic, necessary action to address the ecocide caused by industrial farming — and there are various low-emission farming alternatives — Macri has done the opposite.
Playing to landowning elites in the central provinces, who helped sweep him to victory in 2015, Macri has instead taken all the limits off from industrial agriculture concentrated in that region by cutting export duties on key crops completely. This, in addition to the staging of massive pro-agribusiness expos (like the recent one in BA City’s La Rural Center) are likely to encourage an increase in said destructive practices and Argentina’s emissions too.
‘Muerta’ is right
Macri’s green credentials are no better when looking at fossil fuel extraction and use, as exemplified in the unavoidable saga of the Vaca Muerta Reserve.
Production of shale oil and gas is set to balloon at the Vaca Muerta according to the Government’s latest announcement, where talk of partnering with Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron et al was rife and mentions of both the dangerous consequences of fracking for these resources, plus Macri’s stated position on climate change, were mysteriously absent.
And lest we forget, Macri picked an oilman, the former CEO of Shell Argentina Juan José Aranguren, to be his energy minister after the election, with predictable results.
In the face of cast-iron evidence from scientists about how serious a problem fossil fuels are, Aranguren’s appointment and subsequent policy decisions regarding carbon energy sources continue to appear borderline nihilistic — various scientific reports including this one authored by 14 different NGOs have shown that keeping to the Paris Agreement mandates a “managed decline of fossil fuel production” by all signatories. That means most of the fossil fuels we have left need to stay in the ground if we’re to avoid catastrophic warming.
To say nothing of the continued crushing of indigenous dissent against the drilling and fracking on the Vaca Muerta, plus the environmental degradation and local poisoning that ensues, all in contrary to Macri’s campaign promise to stand up for indigenous land rights.
Then there is the dangers of a mining industry unleashed in the Andes, and in Santa Cruz the continued development of the hydro-electric dam project which the current author once mistakenly hailed as a boon for Argentina’s green turn but is in fact still opposed by environmental NGOs for the destructive effects it is predicted to have on the local ecosystem.
Political advantages of going Greener
Embracing a shift turn away from fossil fuels and Big Agriculture could be a handy political tool for Macri since he would avoid betraying his campaign promises to take the issue seriously. He may also outflank the opposition Peronists — who were empirically weak on addressing climate change while they had the chance — by winning key progressive votes ahead of this year’s fast-approaching midterm elections.
After all, the Government’s current approach is naked hypocrisy. Because it’s a contradiction for Macri to lament the damaging effects of climate change each time low-lying provinces like Buenos Aires and Santa Fe are flooded while at the same time pursue policies actively making the crisis worse — allowing giant energy and agriculture corporations to extract and burn more fossil fuels or raze forests for toxic intensive farming, and so deepen in a direct way the same environmental problems the president says pose a serious threat to Argentine citizens.
The current model of pushing hard on fossil fuels and soft on renewables has helped land Argentina with persistent high poverty rates, as environmental scientists described back in the early nineties:
The Government could outmanoeuvre the opposition and capture progressive voters by killing two birds with one stone and acting to address the current “unsustainable underdevelopment” model.
As described in a growing mountain of academic literature on the issue, tackling poverty and climate change in one fell swoop is necessary and eminently possible, with options from the carbon-debt initiative (where wealthier, historically more polluting countries transfer capital and green technologies to the global South in exchange for keeping their fossil fuels in the ground) to India’s massive solar energy/green jobs project lighting the way forwards.
The current proposals for a green energy transition under the government’s Plan RenovAr amount to dipping one’s toes in the water ahead of a swim while simultaneously backing away. It’s counterproductive. What Macri ought to do is take a deep breath and jump in the pool.