C2GTalk: An interview with Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
How can the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean help create governance for climate-altering approaches?
2 September 2021
A global and regional discussion is needed to learn about and create governance for climate-altering approaches like solar radiation modification, says Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), during a C2GTalk interview.
The UN’s regional commissions, including ECLAC, can play an important role in bringing together a diverse range of actors in this discussion, including public and private experts in environment, energy, finance, economy and planning.
At the end of this C2GTalk Ms. Alicia Bárcena said “And someday we will have to pay tribute to Maurice Strong…I think of him quite a lot. I believe that he was really anticipating so many of these things. So hopefully someday we and C2G can do something about it”. On behalf of Ms. Alicia Bárcena and Mr Janos Pasztor this C2GTalk is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Maurice Strong.
Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
The world faces multiple interlocking crises, including climate change, biodiversity collapse, and of course the pandemic, just to name three. How can governments start tackling these crises together with the urgency they demand as part of broader efforts to achieve sustainable development, and what is your regional commission ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) doing to promote regional cooperation and to support member states to tackle these challenges?
Thank you. I think this is a very important issue, and I would like to say that today, on top of these interlocking and systematic crises — because we have been seeing these crises emerging already — and I think we have, besides the pandemic, we have climate change, massive migration, inequality, increasing debt, and I would say a weakening of the multilateral system, and this is something that I am really worried about. One of the things that I believe we are facing today in the world is a deepening of the asymmetries. One example of this deepening of asymmetries is the access to vaccines, where the inequality of access to vaccines is dividing the world, fragmenting the world really, with islands of immunity on the one hand and countries that do not have even one vaccine available. That is one example. But the other one is climate change actually, because we also have countries that are very affected by climate change. As you and I worked in the Earth Summit, we know one of the principles of Rio was common but differentiated responsibilities, which has been a problem moreover.
But again, the carbon budget of the world is decreasing rapidly, and access to this carbon budget is very preoccupying because developing countries do not have the technologies and so forth to operate under these conditions and we have to do two things: One is mitigation of carbon emissions; but the other part, which is so important, is adaptation.
Now how are we tackling these three crises? This has been providing, I would say, a cultural and an existential shock. This is where we are today, and I hope there is a realization that we need to profoundly change the development model, which is profoundly unsustainable and unequal, but also is not providing the right stability. It is very low in terms of growth and sustained growth. We also have these cycles that operate normally. Secondly, there is a growing inequality in the world, a concentration of income and wealth, and I think this is something we need to tackle. The other one is the environmental crisis. These crises are so linked in terms of political economy and have curtailed government’s ability to promote development and growth. Today, for example, in developing countries I would say they are focusing more on the emergency. Why are developed countries, which are already providing a lot of money, investment, or at least programs, plans, like the United States or Europe, moving into a new, I would say, Keynesian moment with big investments on infrastructure, but also I would say linked to the green economy? Why are developing countries left behind the developed countries? What can we do? We are providing in ECLAC — this is the second part of your question — how do we move to a virtuous proposal in which of course we have to move into growth, but growth for equality and equality as a driver of growth; but also growth with sustainability, and environmental sustainability as a driver of growth? That is what we are calling a “big push for sustainability.”
We identified very clearly eight sectors under a framework that we call the “big push for sustainability.” This is a concept that came in the past century, and it was called a “big push for the economy,” but now we are calling it “a big push for sustainability.” Rosenstein put this concept forward and we believe that it is these eight sectors that we have identified:
- One is transformation of the energy matrix based on renewable energy;
- The second one is electromobility, going stronger to electromobility in cities of Latin America and the Caribbean. We are an 80 percent urbanized region with many megacities, so electromobility is very important;
- Digital inclusion because we believe that digitalization will also reduce extraction of resources, dematerialization of the economy;
- The bioeconomy;
- Nature-based solutions;
- The circular economy; that is, recycling everything;
- And of course sustainable tourism for us is extremely important. We are working on the impact of the pandemic in tourism in several countries of the region and how to move into a different way of operating tourism;
- And of course the final one is the care economy, which is basically on the shoulders of women. We believe this is wrong. We have to move to a care society, a society that cares for the planet, for people, for women, and not putting all the burden on them. I think the pandemic has shown us that we have to move to a care society.
What we are doing is putting economic evidence into these eight sectors in which we are asking: “How much do we need to invest, how many jobs can they create, and how many emissions can we reduce?” These are the three elements that we are in a certain way pulling together under a model we call the three-structure mode: (1) how to reduce inequality; (2) how to reduce our external dependence — because this region is very much dependent on imports, we don’t have our own technology, so we need to move into that direction; and (3) how do we move into a more carbon-free or a carbon-reduced economy, which I think is the major topic of this interview. So that is what we are doing, dear Janos. We are trying to support governments and society in general with evidence-based information for them to take decisions. And also I would say to put together and to articulate investment. I think this is the major thing: How can governments invest? It is not going to be done only by individual actions. We have to put money into that. So we are trying to articulate industrial policies, environmental policies, and of course private/public partnerships that can bring together these important changes.
The way I see the region that you work in is it is highly asymmetrical in terms of poverty and in terms of let’s call it development in a broad sense. How do you do such a complex set of programs to reach all the people in the region?
First of all, we put the numbers, the hard data. What you don’t measure you don’t care about. So the first thing we do is to break the statistics silence on key issues. For example, on poverty, we are the ones who measure poverty in this region year by year, and I can tell you that today the region has 209 million people in poverty and 78 million in extreme poverty. We were doing a good job in trying to cope with inequality, but inequality has grown at the rate of 2.6 percent in the last two years, and that is very worrisome. So first of all, we put the numbers. Secondly, we are evaluating the impact of what governments have done in the region to cope with these problems, the measures — for example, the basic emergency income.
We have an observatory that we call the Covid-19 Observatory, where we are measuring country by country how much they are investing. This is like a tracker of what they are doing to cope with Covid-19. Then we show them with this measure what is the impact. Just to give you an example: If they didn’t do anything on social, then the poverty rate would be 230 million instead of 209 million — 209 million is terrible, but at least it is less than it should have been without measures — and instead of 78 million we would have 98 million in extreme poverty. So we measure, we do this, and we show governments that the actions they take have an impact, and this is for us extremely important.
Something that I forgot to mention, Janos, is the bioeconomy and the nature-based solutions. We are putting a lot of emphasis there. Why? Because this region is facing great food insecurity. It has increased in such a way that we have 41 more million more people in food insecurity. We believe that nature-based solutions, bioeconomy, and moving into a more sustainable agricultural model or fisheries model would help a lot in this region.
We know that in addition to cutting the emissions of carbon dioxide — already back in 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it very clear that large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) was necessary to remove additional carbon from the atmosphere in order to reach our goals of net zero and also to limit warming to 1.5° C. So my question is: What implications could carbon dioxide removal approaches have on the region’s socioeconomic and environmental goals, particularly the way you describe them in this whole package? How do you see those linkages and how can one achieve these goals, and of course the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specifically? Any thoughts from your side on that?
Those are very good questions. Actually, I must say here and pay tribute to you also, Janos, and to C2G because we have done a study. Together with the Torcuato Di Tella Foundation, we have identified seven carbon dioxide removal measures in Colombia and Argentina. Of course they were identified first, by C2G, but what we are trying do is what would be, I would say, the implementation or the moving ahead of these seven measures in our region.
We have two examples, which are Colombia and Argentina. Let me mention them very quickly.
- Afforestation and forest ecosystem restoration;
- Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS);
- Land restoration and enhancing soil carbon content with biochar;
- Enhancing weathering of rocks for carbon capture in soils;
- Increasing ocean alkalinity to increase carbon uptake;
- Direct air carbon dioxide capture and storage; and finally,
- Ocean fertilization.
What did we do here? How do we approach this?
Number one is: What is the state of the art — knowledge, plans, development?
Where are we?
Second, what are the CDR scenarios for some countries? Are the technologies available?
Thirdly, analysis of the economic, social, and environmental implications.
We have done this analysis together with you, and for all these CDR options there is a precedent in the region, and this is something that we need to take into account.
I would say the most present measures are afforestation, forest ecosystem restoration, and bioenergy production. The option that is not present in our region at all is the direct air carbon dioxide capture and storage (DACCS). This is something that maybe we need to move along these lines, but we don’t have that yet. So I would say the region is a little bit behind other parts of the world in terms of the understanding of the need to restore the natural ecosystem’s function in this region. This is so important because, although we are a very mega-diverse region, I think we are yet a long way from having the politicians understand that the most important thing to do actually, is to capture carbon, and I would say the protection of nature, afforestation, and forest ecosystem restoration could be very important, and land restoration, by the way, and enhancing soil and carbon content with biochar. Of course, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage has been done, by the way, by some of our indigenous peoples and traditional mechanisms that they have used for agriculture as well as enhancing weathering of rocks for carbon capture in soils. These are things that I would say our people, our peasants, our, as I say, indigenous peoples were doing before, so we have to rescue that knowledge.
Of course, increasing ocean alkalinity to increase carbon uptake is a very important one. We have a tremendous amount of ocean access in this region, and oceans can be a great option, not only to increase alkalinity but also to fertilize oceans. So these are the things. What are the findings? I think this is something that we need to see, for example, in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals. The main findings are that we have to diversify the economy of this region. Why? Because South America is very much oriented — and I am worried that this pandemic is even deepening this trend — on “reprimarization”, which means extractive industries, because the prices of mining are better and because the prices of food are better. These are, I would say, providing the wrong incentives in the sense that we are going more into extractive industries and doing the wrong things instead of the right things. We have to make them understand that is not the best way to move.
This of course brings the risk of competition for land, for food, for biomass, for energy, and the use of agrochemicals is I would say the other very high risk. You can see what is happening in Brazil, for example, in the Amazonia, where deforestation is growing at an astonishing rate, but also the use of agrochemicals or chemicals in general. So how to implement large-scale CDR approaches is something that we really need to do. We have been evaluating effects on the three types of CDR that this region is already putting in place: afforestation that can really deliver half of the SDGs, at least 10 of the 17 SDGs, by the way; and also with impact on SDG 8, decent work, etc.; industry innovations.
So what we are trying to do is connect the CDR solutions with the SDGs because that is another way of pulling together what these solutions can bring of course to the 2030 Agenda but also to the development of this region, because when you just talk about environment — you know this and I know this too — governments tend to take aback and say: “Oh, no, no, no. We don’t have time now to deal with the environment. We have emergencies.” Even in this region, the environmental budgets are going down. So we have to connect this with the economy and with social development. That is what we need to do, and that is what we are trying to do.
The other thing the BECCS (Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage) is the process of extracting bioenergy from biomass and capturing and storing the carbon by removing it from the atmosphere could really positively have a lot of impact on clean energy, on decent work, on industry, and innovation, so we believe this can also be very good. Enhancing soil content with biochar, the charcoal — as I said, this is something that has been done by countries already in the region. We did an analysis of only these three — the afforestation, the BECCS, and the biochar — in these countries that I mentioned, Colombia and Argentina, and I think we have a couple of results that can be placed to you — I know that these could be something we can talk about — but we have been measuring how much these three CDR techniques can bring to the economy, to social development, and to the environment.
We are evaluating the key constraints for implementation; the key, I would say, positive impacts, which I think are many; and key potential negative impacts as well, because that is another thing we have to do, to see what could be the three things and mention that to the countries as examples.
Can I just ask you to go a little bit deeper here because you have spoken a couple of times of connecting these carbon removal approaches to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), to the economic development, that there is no money in environment, so on and so forth. Could you imagine turning this around completely and say that actually we need a development-oriented carbon removal? That is, the focus is on development and a side effect, if you will, an important one, is the removal of carbon, to really do that. Do you see that happening in the region?
You see, the thing is that not yet, excepting in a couple of things. I think people are realizing the economic and social importance of afforestation. This is our role actually, Janos. The role of my Commission is to show the economic and social importance. As I said before, the ministers of finance or the ministers of planning or economy want to hear how best they can do. So yes, I think there are some examples, and let me give you a couple of examples. We have measured how much you need to invest to move the production of electricity from carbon-based to renewable energies, and we calculated for the next decade, which is 2030, how much we would need to invest. We need to invest around 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) every year, and that would generate 7 million jobs, which is a basic thing that we need to do, and also we can reduce 30 percent of carbon emissions. So we show this example, and this is extremely important because then governments say, “Okay, this is important.”
We are also measuring — for example, I presented yesterday the foreign direct investment (FDI) that comes into the region, and we can see that the investment that is coming much more to the region is precisely on renewable energies. So this is a big incentive.
Renewable energies is something, and BECCS can produce clean energy, and this is what we are talking about. It also can produce jobs and generate BECCS plants operation, for example, jobs created for BECCS. We are trying to see what type of plants and what type of investments can be associated to BECCS because then how many jobs you can produce, so with the three impacts in a way. And then with biochar I think we also have — and of course we are doing the same with reforestation — how much will we need to invest? What is the profit behind it? But not only reforestation with a single species, because that is another problem that can lead to more problems. We cannot do that. We are offering solutions about how much money they need to invest in these three areas at least — afforestation, BECCS, and biochar — what type of logistics do we need for the three, what type of investment we need for the three, and what type of industrial development is behind it actually.
What we are talking about here is industrial policy because that is the bottom line. We need to change the way we produce. So we are connecting these three with industrial policies that are needed, what type of regulatory frameworks we need, what type of public investment is needed, who are the actors behind this so they can be brought to the table, and of course we have to show, which is the major problem today, how many jobs can be created — jobs, jobs, jobs — because this is the main question that everybody is behind.
There are new ideas to lower global temperatures by reflecting sunlight into space in order to reduce the risks of overshooting temperature goals, such as through the so-called solar radiation modification (SRM) techniques. These include ideas to brighten marine clouds or even to spray reflective aerosols into the stratosphere. How and in what form might decision makers consider the risks and benefits as well as the governance challenges and opportunities posed by these approaches compared to the expected impacts of climate change? More specifically, how could the region of Latin America and the Caribbean bring justice and equity considerations to the table in these global solar radiation modification discussions?
The IPCC has been quite clear on this, that in addition to emissions reductions carbon dioxide removal will also be needed if we want really to go to net zero and thereafter net negative emissions. But solar radiation modification could be quite controversial, and that is where we need to collaborate with you, because what we need to do is to make sure that we understand, first of all, the distributional effects — again asymmetries. Solar radiation modification could be catastrophic for some countries, much like it will be with runaway climate change. We probably need to develop compensation schemes to make sure that what we do globally does not affect some and put others into — you know. We know the problem is global. That is the thing. We know it is global. I think the developed countries need to understand that if they are going to engage in solar radiation modification, which I think is tremendously important for the global climate, there have to be studies of who loses and who wins globally to address the asymmetries.
Today I think we are in a very bad situation in terms of adaptation. The financing for adaptation is very low in comparison with mitigation, so countries are becoming very frustrated, at least in my region, I have to say.
I think we need an approach to this that we have to say two things, I guess: how to scale up the technological uncertainty of these solutions — we need to know I would say how to bring more certainty to these technological solutions, to apply precautionary principle, I think; and then critical governance issues, such as governance, including a ban for the risk scenarios, in other words a capacity to take informed decisions.
Where to discuss this? That is a very key question because when we do this only in the framework of climate change, we know that it is not the whole set of actors that need to come to the table. I think we need a global discussion but also a regional discussion, and that is where I believe ECLAC can play a good role, and the economic commissions in general, because besides needing a national discussion country by country — I don’t think that is going to help us that much — we need to have a regional discussion to bring the awareness of the decision makers to the table, and that is where C2G can help us a lot because I don’t think this is general information already. I think people need to understand what SRM is and what does it bring and does it include brightening marine clouds or spraying reflective aerosols into the stratosphere, and how that is going to impact the climate — not the global climate, but the annual climate.
Let me give you an example. In this country, Chile, we are facing a tremendous drought. You cannot imagine. So people here are talking: “What are we going to do? Are we going to bombard the clouds?” They are talking about even that, so not only to brighten the marine clouds but to break them. So we need to put this into perspective. We need to bring this to the table. We believe that ECLAC would be a good place to bring these issues to the table and to discuss them because we also bring to the table a different crowd, let’s put it that way, not only the environmental crowd — they could come to the table of course — but the energy ministers who are going to be asked about this, and of course the ministers of finance who are going to put the money, and the planning ministers, and of course I would say the economic ministers in terms of who are those who are working with industries and with companies and with the private sector.
But basically I think we need to do some homework — and I think we can do it together with you, I hope — to understand the pros and cons of SRM and, as I said before, if this is going to deepen the asymmetries or not.
What can we learn from the pandemic in regard to this issue? Does the world need a kind of a mission to address solar radiation modification, a sort of big mission project, and what would that look like?
You are totally right. I think a mission — just like Mariana Mazzucato talks about these missions. I believe you are right. If we don’t have a global mission to understand why we really need to reduce the risk of overshooting temperature — because at the end of the day, Janos, the drought we are going through, the floods in China, etc., are a result of the bad things we have done — and I would say we need a big solution because we are not going to solve this problem gradually. This is what we need to make people understand. So we definitely need a mission approach.
What does a mission approach need?
First of all, public investment. We understand that. If the United States is talking about putting a $3 trillion budget into the economy and they are talking about $8 trillion in the future, and Europe is putting at least €750 billion into the economy, can’t the two of them, together with China, put together a mission approach for SRM? I think this is very important. But we need the public first. The mission to the moon was public. Now, of course, we have the private sector trying to go to the moon in tourism. Okay, fine, but that is a different story. The thing is that we need a mission that is engaging public investment and engaging private actors.
I think the World Economic Forum could play a very important role because we need transnational corporations to understand why they need to engage on an SRM mission. And then the developing countries need to understand why this is important for them too, so that climate change does not affect them like we are now suffering — flooding, droughts, etc., etc. So the two areas might be very important. But I would do a mission with a Mazzucato externality.
How do you feel about the state of multilateralism these days in general, but also specifically to address the issues that we have been talking about so far? What do you see maybe as the biggest challenges of our multilateral system, and what can we do about it? What would you do about it?
First of all, I think we have a big, big positive side of multilateralism, and that is that Secretary-General António Guterres is very much, I would say, aware and committed to this issue. We, of course, have the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as you know, with Patricia Espinosa, etc., and the process is ongoing. But my impression is that multilateralism is weakening in one sense. I don’t see this — well, of course, I must say that Joe Biden took the leadership in bringing the heads of state together to discuss this topic, but I would say it is still not addressing the key solutions — for example, the thing you and I were talking about before, can SRM be a mission or not, things of that sort. How can the world really come forward with a big proposal that tackles the challenges of the Anthropocene by the way? I think that the multilateral system, and not only the UNFCCC — the General Assembly, of course, is a very important place — but we also need to bring all the agencies, all of them — the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the best scientists. We need to have a truly interagency commitment to the solutions, not to the diagnosis — no, no, no, no. We need to move a step forward.
We have been working on this for 30 years. We know the problems. Now what we need to bring to the table are the solutions, and for the big solutions what are the sacrifices, what are the costs, and what are the investments that need to be made?
I think that today, although the multilateral system has some relative autonomy of course, it is fundamentally — and you know this — a result of the interaction among countries, and this is a problem. The multilateral system is not only the summation or the addition of countries. It is also the relative power. It is about power at the end of the day. Who has the power to do what? Today the competition between China and the United States for technological leadership is taking us to an extreme, I would say. So what we need to do maybe is to see how we bring these two, because the two are technologically very powerful, to the table — together with Europe, by the way; Europe is in the middle. What we need to do is to have a global pact that is behind this commitment. It is not enough that Joe Biden brings everybody around the table and that John Kerry is around the world trying to commit everybody. We need something much more a “big bang.” Let’s put it that way.
I believe that the Secretary-General can help with this big bang, first of all by bringing all the system together. I think we are very dispersed right now. We have a Food Summit, a Financing Summit — we have too many summits I would say — but need one that says: “Hey, guys” — as we are doing here — “we have interlocking, interrelated, systemic crises today. How do we address them fully and seriously?” Starting with vaccines, by the way. I think the countries are very frustrated. You can’t imagine how the developing countries are very frustrated with the system, with the United Nations, and we are facing a reputational risk honestly, because the United Nations needs to come and say: “Hey, guys, no, no, no, no.” Yes, I know, for example, UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) is doing a very good job with the new Executive Director, who is saying “We need to make peace with nature.” Fine. But how? I think this pandemic has shown us that we really, really need to have a big bang on this, Janos, and I think time is running out. I think one of the proposals C2G can bring to the table — and all of us — is this mission-oriented approach maybe for the seven, not only for the SRM — maybe not the seven; we have to choose probably two or three that are global because SRM is global. The other ones are national.
I think we have to divide these solutions that we are putting on the table on carbon reduction and say, “Which are of a national nature and have to be taken by governments individually and which have a global nature that need the action of a multilateral system.” The G20, by the way, can also play a very key role.
Still, how does the world maintain hope in this kind of a situation, without shying away from the gravity of where we are, but at the same time having hope for those solutions that you have talked about? How do we do this? And how do you do it yourself because you are facing this every day?
Well, you see, the thing is that one of the ways to bring hope — first of all, we have to say there is no space for pessimism. Of course we are pessimistic, but we have to have hope. This hope is basically in the new generation, Janos. I think that the young people are much more aware of the importance and of the risks they are running. Our generation — and mine because I am older than everybody else — have done things wrong and we have to recognize this.
Now how do we bring hope to the table?
First of all, by bringing everybody to the table because the governments alone are not going to make this happen. We need civil society. We need a new social pact. We need a new social commitment that has to be accompanied by a fiscal commitment globally. The issue, for example, of taxes — we need the multinational companies onboard — but we need civil society. We need the young people to push us forward because what we are talking about here is a change of a development paradigm, a change of mindset, and I think the pandemic has been terrible on that, but at the same time it has been giving us a lot of lessons of humanity, of solidarity, of fraternity, which at the end of the day is what humanity needs to do. So the only way to make it as a species — the other thing is that we might disappear. The planet is not going to disappear. It is really life that can go away, biodiversity, and us included. But this is I think the risk. It is a big risk for humanity. We are I would say at risk of disappearing as a species and collapsing.
We don’t want to frighten people, but we need to make everybody understand that we can really move towards a more inclusive, humane, and compatible life, which has to move away from extreme consumption, which is what we are doing today.
And I would say the capitalistic model has to change. I am not talking about moving to another political system. It is not an ideological way of thinking, but globalization and extreme consumption are taking us to the wrong side.
Young people are understanding this. More and more I see young people making their own decisions. They are not eating meat, for example. Many, many, many young people are saying, “No, no, no, I don’t want to eat meat because I don’t want to.” Do you see what I mean? So there is a change of culture. We are tapping into that, Janos, tapping into civil society. That’s why we went into the Escazú Agreement. That’s why we are working on environmental democracy. That’s why we are bringing information to civil society. Governments okay, private sector, okay, but they have so many vested interests, so we have to tap into civil society that is a more civic framework that we are working in. That is why, you will remember I worked on environmental citizenship, trying to build consciousness of different actors of the importance of these issues.
Thank you very much. With this hopeful note in terms of engaging youth and engaging civil society and all other stakeholders, I think we have to bring this discussion to an end. Thank you very much, Alicia Bárcena, for participating in C2GTalk.
Thank you, Janos. And someday we will have to pay tribute to Maurice Strong. I hope we can do it together someday because I think of him quite a lot. I believe that he was really anticipating so many of these things. So hopefully someday we and C2G can do something about it.