Colombia Shows Leadership in the Race Against Climate Change

February 11, 2021

by Walter Vergara, Mario Finch, Paige Langer, Rogerio Studart, Sebastian Keneally | World Resources Institute

Colombia Shows Leadership in the Race Against Climate Change

As the world reaches a tipping point of climate change, with irreversible consequences that will further disrupt livelihoods and economies, the next UN climate negotiations — called COP26 — in Glasgow will help reveal how serious global leaders are about solving this crisis.

Colombia was one of the 71 countries that submitted updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement by the 2020 deadline, reinforcing their commitment to urgent climate action. Although Colombia represents only around 0.4% of global emissions, its NDC is one of the most ambitious in the Latin America and Caribbean region thus far, and is much more closely aligned with the country's objective of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. While Colombia’s government still needs to clarify some implementation details, the announcement indicates that the country will address land-based greenhouse gas emissions related to deforestation and agriculture, and move forward with a transition to clean energy and transportation.

Colombia’s first NDC submission in 2015 committed to reduce emissions economy-wide by 20% below business-as-usual emissions by 2030, and up to 30% with appropriate international funding support. The 2015 target is now completely outdone by the new 2020 commitment of a 51% reduction in emissions compared to the projected emissions in 2030. This enhanced NDC not only paves the way for significant climate benefits, but it also will contribute to a more rapid and inclusive economic recovery after the devastation caused by COVID-19.

Here are three elements of Colombia’s NDC that can provide lessons for other developing countries in the process of enhancing their 2015 NDCs.

1. Stronger Land and Transportation Targets in Colombia’s NDC

Land-based climate action: 58% of Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forests and other land use, making the land sector critical to achieving its new 51% emissions reduction target. In 2019, close to 160,000 hectares of land were deforested in Colombia, but now the country is committing to reach net-zero deforestation by 2030.

Colombia pledges to move forward with plans to undertake massive landscape reforestation and restoration projects as part of its NDC. This coincides with initiatives to plant 180 million trees by 2022, as well as to conserve the Amazon rainforest and Páramo grassland ecosystems. That is on top of the country’s commitment to protect and restore 1 million hectares of land through Initiative 20x20, a Latin American partnership already supporting several projects in the country. Landscape restoration efforts in Latin America can provide sizable local economic and social benefits, such as increased income from ecotourism, gains in agricultural production and avoided costs of food insecurity.

Moreover, by creating additional protected areas, implementing REDD+ (a system of payments for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) and using other international carbon markets, Colombia is using both domestic law enforcement and international finance to support local communities. These commitments will help Colombia achieve zero deforestation and fulfill promises made under the Leticia Pact, which commits Amazonian nations to protect this rainforest ecosystem of global importance.

Promoting clean transportation: Electrifying Colombia’s transport system and promoting non-motorized transport like walking and cycling can help Colombia achieve significant economic benefits, while at the same time reducing emissions. The new NDC explores efforts to expand existing Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRTs), electrify bus fleets and increase cycling. For example, Colombia’s Active Transport and Travel Demand Management program (called NAMA TAnDem) — which seeks to increase the share of trips made by bicycle above 5% in all Colombian cities by 2030 — is a key entry point.

According to remarks by Bogotá’s Mobility Secretary Nicolás Estupiñán at a November event, Bogotá’s cycling share is already roughly 13%. Combined with measures to increase cycling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NDC creates a perfect opportunity to increase ambition across many other cities as well. This shift will be in line with modeling that indicates a dramatic increase in cycling could save the world $24 trillion cumulatively between 2015 and 2050, and cut carbon dioxide emissions from urban passenger transport by nearly 11% in 2050 compared to a scenario without a strong cycling emphasis. Moreover, such an effort would help reduce the estimated 8,000 deaths from outdoor air pollution occurring in Colombia each year.

2. Integrating Climate Adaptation into Development Policy

A country’s success in achieving its NDC targets can be bolstered through the proper integration, or mainstreaming, of climate change considerations into national and local development plans. As a developing country, Colombia’s strengthened NDC takes important steps to demonstrate coherence between national policies and long-term commitments to the Paris Agreement and other global goals, which have traditionally operated in silos.

Through more robust technical modeling and stakeholder engagement, Colombia has stepped up its NDC’s climate adaptation components by better aligning its 30 sector-specific NDC goals with the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, through which they seek to honor the principle of intergenerational equity. This type of policy alignment — integrating climate actions into green growth and sustainable development initiatives — will continue to shape the country’s long-term carbon neutrality goals.

3. Aggressively Reducing Black Carbon Pollution

Black carbon — a short-lived climate pollutant also known as soot — is responsible for deteriorating air quality and serious health problems around the world, including cardiovascular and respiratory disease and premature death. Black carbon is also linked to reduced freshwater resources in Colombia. When soot settles on glaciers in the Andes, it causes the glaciers to absorb more sunlight and heat, resulting in increased melting. In its new NDC, Colombia has committed to reduce black carbon by 40% compared to its 2014 emissions level. This commitment makes Colombia the second country globally to set a quantified emission reduction target for black carbon in the 2020 round of NDC updates.

Aligning Colombia’s Full Domestic Policy Portfolio with its Climate Goals

Colombia’s enhanced NDC sets ambitious targets for achieving greenhouse gas reductions, but to achieve its NDC, the country will need to better align its climate goals with key domestic policies.

Fossil Fuel Divestments

To meet its NDC commitments, Colombia must address how it will phase out coal and fracking, something it has not yet specified in its NDC. While technological developments and favorable economics now support green investments, governments still need to enact policies to facilitate the low-carbon transition. For example, Colombia could consider policies to discourage investments in the fossil fuel industry and prevent the accumulation of stranded assets. A mechanism to encourage companies to retire fossil fuel assets in the power generation and refinery sectors would further support such a policy.

Investments in Clean Energy Technologies

Colombia could also consider policies that would promote smart power transmission and distribution infrastructure, which would support energy generation from variable renewable resources. A fully renewable electricity system would properly make use of Colombia’s substantial but often untapped hydropower, solar, wind and geothermal resources. Currently, hydropower fulfills the lion’s share of electricity demand in Colombia (over 70%). Complementary resources like wind and solar, combined with the ability to develop geothermal fields, could generate zero-carbon electricity and help Colombia join the exclusive club of countries, such as Iceland, Costa Rica and Paraguay, who have already achieved 100% or nearly 100% clean electricity.

Climate Action in the COVID-19 Recovery

Governments and private sector entities around the world are mobilizing unprecedented funds, currently over $14 trillion, to help countries respond to COVID-19 and fund stimulus packages to recover from the pandemic. These investments can do double duty for both the economy and climate. Ongoing research has found that spending on a wide variety of climate actions — including forest and landscape restoration and renewable energy, can create greater economic benefits and more jobs than investments in fossil fuels.

Colombia’s COVID-19 recovery packages should align with the climate actions outlined in its new NDC and its net-zero by 2050 target. Doing so would send clear long-term policy signals and trigger additional finance for the technological advances and continued climate action needed to achieve Colombia’s Paris Agreement and carbon neutrality targets — while contributing to a faster and stronger economic recovery.

Setting an Example for Enhanced NDCs

Even with these areas for future improvement, Colombia has put forward an ambitious NDC, addressing the dual crises of the environment and economy in a way that seeks to uphold equity commitments, as promised in the NDC, and long-term climate ambitions. The policies laid out in this NDC can transform domestic industries and put the country on the right path toward decoupling economic activity from carbon emissions. As countries continue to submit enhanced NDCs in 2021, Colombia’s NDC can set the bar for other nations.