Colombia Latin America Politics & Diplomacy United States and Canada
In-Depth Research & Reports May 31, 2022

Advance energy transformation

By Thomas F. "Mack" Mclarty, III

1998: A turning point

ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES of my career was heading the US delegation to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana’s 1998 inauguration.

Like everyone there, I was deeply moved by the beauty of Bogotá in full bloom and the spirit of hope and purpose in the air as the new president declared, “Change begins today.”1Juanita Darling, “Colombia Inaugurates New Leader,” LosAngelesTimes, August 8, 1998, https:// Pastrana’s election marked the beginning of a new era in Colombia’s history and our nations’ long relationship. By the end of Pastrana’s tenure, his hard-won progress toward peace and stability had laid a firm foundation upon which subsequent leaders and the people of Colombia could build.

Yet, 1998 was remarkable for something else as well. Although we didn’t know it at the time, that year would be the warmest year of the twentieth century,2Rebecca Lindsey, “Did global warming stop in 1998?,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, September 4, 2018, global-warming-stop-1998#:~:text=The%201997%2D98%20El%20Ni%C3%B1o,of%20 finding%20a%20cooling%20trend. a milestone on our planet’s feverish climate change journey. Since then, we have experienced nineteen of the hottest years in human history.3“Global Temperature,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, accessed February 20, 2022, The Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a series of increasingly terrifying assessments, what United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres calls a “code red for humanity.”4“Secretary-General Calls Latest IPCC Climate Report ‘Code Red for Humanity’, Stressing ‘Irrefutable’ Evidence of Human Influence,” United Nations, August 9, 2021, en/2021/sgsm20847.doc.htm. And while massive investments are needed to build a clean, green future, success is only possible if the costs and rewards are broadly shared.

As the United States and Colombia celebrate 200 years of bilateral relations, together, we can—and must—tackle the greatest challenge of our time.

Specifically, the United States should continue to support Colombia’s pioneering efforts in energy transformation and environmental preservation, geared toward stemming, mitigating, and, where possible, reversing the damaging effects of climate change. Doing so would secure the ground- work for sustainable, inclusive economic growth.

Despite our relative difference in size, our countries are natural partners in this endeavor. From the Amazon to the Andes, the Pacific coast to the Caribbean Sea, Colombia has the second-highest level of biodiversity worldwide, featuring a rich endowment of energy sources. Both countries are already feeling the impact of climate change, from drought to forest fires. As US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said, our countries know “these consequences are hitting underserved and marginalized communities in our countries the hardest.”5US Department of State, Antony J. Blinken, “Opening Remarks at the Virtual Leaders’ Summit on Climate,” April 22, 2021, summit-on-climate/.

Colombian President Iván Duque, like US President Joseph R. Biden, is deeply committed to regional and global leadership in this area—as recognized by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation in September 2021, which awarded President Duque the Teddy Roosevelt International Conservation Award “for his leadership in establishing significant new and expanded national parks and his efforts to expand renewable energy, pro- mote sustainability, and protect biodiversity in Colombia.”6“ICCF held its annual awards dinner on Monday, September 20, 2021, at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel,” International Conservation Caucus Foundation, accessed March 1, 2022, https://www. conservation-leadership-awards-dinner.

Advancing energy transformation

US-Colombia cooperation in the energy sector is key to diversifying the country’s energy resources.

In 2016, Colombia launched its Plan Energético Nacional Colombia: Ideario Energético 2050, which aims to diversify and make more resilient the country’s energy resources through investments in wind, solar, and geo- thermal power.7Government of Colombia, “Plan Energetico Nacional Colombia: Ideario Energético 2050,” Mining Energy Planning Unit, 2015, pdf. It was one of five Latin American countries featured at the US-organized April 2021 Leaders’ Summit on Climate. At the summit, President Biden announced that US greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 50 to 52 percent, relative to 2005 levels, by 2030. For their part, Colombian leaders reiterated their country’s determination to reduce emissions by 51 percent by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. 

In July 2021, Colombia enacted an energy transition law to promote investment in hydrogen, renewable energy, and sustainable transport.8Colombian Congress, “Through Which Provisions Are Enacted for the Energy Transition, the Dynamization of Market Energy, the Economic Reactivation of the Country and Other Provisions,” July 10, 2021, 10%20DE%20JULIO%20DE%202021.pdf. And at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in November 2021, Colombia put forward an ambitious updated Nationally Determined Contributions goal reinforcing its commitment to urgent climate action.

Under the US Build Back Better World agenda, Colombia aspires to develop sustainability technology such as carbon capture and storage and wind and solar farms.9Government of the United States, Fact Sheet: “President Biden and G7 Leaders Launch Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership,” White House, June 12, 2021, briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/12/fact-sheet-president-biden-and-g7-leaders- launch-build-back-better-world-b3w-partnership/. The Ministry of Energy and Mines recently published the National Hydrogen Strategy and Road Map to continue the de-carbonization of the energy sector by promoting investment in renew- ables.10Government of Colombia, “Colombia’s Hydrogen Roadmap,” September 30, 2021, https://www.

Recognizing that private investment is often the most significant barrier to developing renewable energy infrastructure, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been helping Colombia establish renew- able energy auctions.11“Auction Design Support to Colombia,” US Agency for International Development, October 2019, helping%20Colombia%20develop,investment%20in%20its%20energy%20sector. Colombia’s third renewable energy auction was completed in October 2021, with power purchase agreements going to eleven solar projects, representing 796 megawatts of combined capacity.12“Nuevo hito en la Transición Energética: Colombia multiplicará por más de 100 veces su capacidad en energías renovables,” Minenergía, October 26, 2021, web/10180/historico-de-noticias?idNoticia=24314285. This signifies an extraordinary opportunity for US companies to compete and develop transparent, sustainable projects in Colombia.

USAID has also been helping strengthen human capital for a clean energy future through efforts such as the USAID-National Renewable Energy Laboratory partnership, which provides comprehensive workforce training to Colombia’s energy sector.13US Agency for International Development and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “USAID-NREL Partnership: Readying Colombia’s Energy Sector Workforce,” accessed February 28, 2020, One specific aim of the collaboration is to help Colombia ensure its energy transformation is gender inclusive.

These initiatives with holistic approaches to community engagement indicate opportunities for further investments. Training Colombians to build and integrate clean energy technology into their grid advances gender parity, infrastructure, and sustainability, among other goals.

Speaking for the trees

Colombia has set an impressive example for combating climate change and deforestation—something other Latin American and Caribbean countries could learn from and replicate.

One signature endeavor is Operation Artemisa, a joint effort launched in 2019 between the Ministries of Environment and Defense to crack down on illegal deforestation and the trafficking of plants and animals inside Colombia’s national parks. As Bogotá’s City Paper journalist Richard Emblin said, “Since launching in 2019, Artemisa’s 22,000-strong jungle guardians have managed to recover more than 146,000 hectares of tropical forest belong- ing to Chiribiquete National Natural Park and the Llanos de Yarí watershed. Hundreds of military sorties have resulted in arrests of persons charged with environmental crimes, including setting fires in protected parkland, toxic chemical dumping, illegal mining, and animal trafficking.”14Richard Emblin, “Colombia’s Operation Artemisa extends frontline to ocean protection,” City Paper, January 24, 2022, frontline-to-ocean-conservation/29213.

In January 2022, the Colombian government expanded Operation Arte- misa to patrol the seas, with a goal of protecting coral reefs, atolls, marine wildlife, and the fundamental right to water.15Ibid.

Back in 2013, the United States and Colombia advanced mutual progress on environmental protection with the US-Colombia Environmental Cooperation Agreement, which established the Environmental Cooperation Commission to spearhead joint activities to promote conservation and sustainability.16US Department of State, “U.S.-Colombia Environmental Cooperation Agreement,” April 19, 2013, Additionally, the Environment Chapter of the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement requires both countries to maintain current levels of domestic environmental protection and strive for higher environmental standards. The United States has been a strong ally of Colombia’s efforts to protect its natural heritage, helping conserve more than four million hectares of land and sea through various projects in the last twenty years.17US Embassy Bogotá, “A one-hundred-year commitment to conservation and childhood in Colombia,” May 25, 2021, conservation-and-childhood-in-colombia/.

During his October 2021 visit to Colombia—his first trip to South America as a Biden administration cabinet member—Blinken described USAID’s Páramos program, which, in his words, is “working with nineteen Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities to protect 500,000 hectares of Colombia’s forests.”18US Department of State, “Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez at a Joint Press Availability,” October 20, 2021, blinken-and-colombian-president-ivan-duque-marquez-at-a-joint-press-availability/. According to Blinken, the collaboration has “already generated 6.2 million tons of carbon offsets.”19Ibid.

Another USAID program, Amazon Alive, is helping the Colombian government prevent and prosecute environmental crime. According to a USAID fact sheet, expected results include reducing, sequestering, and avoiding the emission of 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, improving natural resource management on 1.3 million hectares of biologically significant lands, increasing the number of formal charges against environmental crime offenders by 30 percent, and training 10,000 people in sustainable natural resources management, biodiversity conservation, and natural cli- mate solutions.20US Agency for International Development, “Amazon Alive Overview,” last updated: October 6, 2021,

The signature outcome of Blinken’s visit, as part of the US-Colombia high-level dialogue, was a joint declaration committing to renew and advance the strategic alliance.21Governments of Colombia and the United States, “Declaration of principles for a long-term cooperation and friendship between the Republic of Colombia and the United States of America,” US Embassy in Colombia, October 21, 2021, As part of that announcement, the United States pledged $50 million to support Colombian efforts to combat deforestation in the Amazon, conserve biodiversity, and increase environmental security.

Addressing climate change and energy transformation also impacts other areas of bilateral importance, including combating illegal mining, coca cultivation, and other security challenges that have regional spillover effects.

In 2018, the United States signed a memorandum of understanding with Colombia to expand bilateral cooperation to combat illegal mining and minimize its negative impacts on governance, the economy, and the environment.22US Department of State, Congressional Testimony, “Illicit Mining: Threats to U.S. National Security and International Human Rights,” Richard H. Glenn, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, December 5, 2019, https://2017-2021.state. gov/illicit-mining-threats-to-u-s-national-security-and-international-human-rights/index. html. In addition to the clear-cutting23Joshua Collins, “Fires in the Jungle: Coca Production and Deforestation Accelerate in Colombia,” Sierra Club Magazine, November 17, 2021, production-and-deforestation-accelerate-colombia. of virgin Amazon basin jungle areas to grow coca,24Elisa Botero, “Coca Production, Deforestation and Climate Change,” Columbia Climate School website, March 24, 2010, deforestation-and-climate-change/. there is tremendous environmental deterioration in places where narcotraffickers set up field coca processing plants25“Coca and Colombian Environment (COLCOCA Case),” Shaffer Library of Drug Policy, accessed February 28, 2022, and poured leftover precursor chemicals into the ground and waterways. The holistic US-Colombia counternarcotics strategy, launched in October 2021, prioritizes countering environmental crimes that sustain and fuel narcotrafficking groups.26Government of the United Sttes, “The White House Releases Details of the New Holistic US-Colombia Counternarcotics Strategy, White House, October 25, 2021, Efforts include reforestation and building resilience through a robust monitoring and security patrol element.

The recently proposed United States-Colombia Strategic Alliance Act of 2022 by US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) aims to expand engagement on inclusive economic growth and environmental protection, along with other objectives.27US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations press release, “Senators Menendez, Kaine Unveil U.S.- Colombia Strategic Alliance Act,” March 9, 2022, release/senators-menendez-kaine-unveil-us-colombia-strategic-alliance-act. This would boost the successful track record on bilateral climate action and biodiversity conservation.

Challenge = opportunity

As much as US-Colombian cooperation in these areas is about combat- ing threats, it also presents tremendous opportunities for the US private sector. Investments bolstering climate resilience and renewable energy sources can expand the economy, create jobs, and promote equity in Colombia, the United States, and worldwide.28Government of the United States, Fact Sheet, “Supporting Economic Growth While Tackling Climate Change,” White House, November 15, 2021,

At a time when the global public expects more of the private sector than ever, environmental, social, and governance standards are not a sidebar but a mainstay of successful businesses. Colombia ranks among the top ten developing economies as a foreign direct investment destination. Green growth initiatives in the sustainable ranching and timber sectors are promising collaboration targets as companies seek to boost their environmental scorecards. The US private sector leads in raising standards for investments that protect and support employees, local communities, and the environment. There are several companies installing mining or agricultural projects fueled by wind and solar power generation; this model can and should be replicated.

Moreover, Colombia’s strategic location as a link between Central and South America serves as a regional transportation, distribution, and trade hub for which energy innovation can be spread across the hemisphere. And as an active member of regional and international organizations, including the Pacific Alliance, Organization of American States, and UN, Colombia can use its platform to promote mutual aspirations for environmental protection and energy transformation.

For these reasons, continuing and fortifying US-Colombia cooperation on energy transformation and climate change mitigation is in our mutual— and the world’s—interest.

The Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center broadens understanding of regional transformations and delivers constructive, results-oriented solutions to inform how the public and private sectors can advance hemispheric prosperity.

Image: People on a motorbike passes by a Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA gas station closed due to the lack of fuel, in San Cristobal, in the western state of Tachira, Venezuela January 27, 2022. Picture taken January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez