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In-Depth Research & Reports

May 31, 2022

Partner for sustainable pathways

By Paula Caballero and Sarah Gammage

THE CONVERGENCE OF CRISES ON A PLANETARY SCALE collides in ways that translate into exceptional opportunities and responsibilities for Latin America. The vast natural riches of the continent host more than 50 percent of the world’s biodiversity, one-third of its freshwater, and underpin its vital and increasing role as a global breadbasket. The immense landscapes of its forests, watersheds, and coasts also harbor a significant percentage of the nature-based climate solutions needed to shift emission trajectories.1“Nature-based Solutions” are defined by the InternationalUnionforConservationofNatureas “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits,” our-work/nature-based-solutions. Latin America and the Caribbean hold the largest reforestation potential to mitigate climate change.2Bronson W. Griscom et al., “National mitigation potential from natural climate solutions in the tropics,” PhilosophicalTransactionsB(January 7, 2020): 375: 20190126, rstb.2019.0126. But there is a narrow window to effect the transformation needed in a region with spiraling, unabated deforestation, where agriculture and ranching drive 70 percent of land-use change, and one of the world’s most important carbon sinks—the Amazon basin— veers toward an irreversible tipping point.3Science Panel for the Amazon, Amazon Assessment Report 2021, United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, November 12, 2021, amazon-assessment-report-2021/; and Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos A. Nobre, “Winds of will: Tipping change in the Amazon,” Science Advances 5, no. 12 eaba2949 (2019): doi:10.1126/sciadv. aba2949.

The United States and Colombia have a unique opportunity to intervene at this decisive juncture through diplomacy, assistance programs, and commitments to trade agreements sanctioning products that cause deforestation. The two countries have long-standing bilateral relations; in the last few years, high-level dialogues have embraced shared agendas across social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Both have sought to increase the collective ambition in climate change negotiations as part of the High Ambition Coalition.4“The Republic of the Marshall Islands formed the High Ambition Coalition in run-up negotiations to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to the Paris Agreement in 2015, helping to secure key elements of the deal, including the 1.5C temperature goal, the net zero global emissions pathway by the second half of the century, and a five-year cycle for updating mitigation contributions.” High Ambition Coalition website, accessed February 26, 2022, A drive for bolder action has been prominent in their engagement around climate and biodiversity at the recent United Nations (UN) Conference of Parties, the Paris Agreement in Glasgow (COP26), and in the working groups in 2022 supporting the global Convention on Biological Diversity.

Beyond pledges, diplomacy, trade, and official development assistance, investments and efforts must focus on advancing nature-based solutions that shift the greenhouse gas emissions curve while increasing ecosystem resilience, ensuring that the poor, smallholders, and landless benefit. A significant proportion of these emissions (between 35 percent and 60 percent) in Latin America come from the agricultural, forestry, and land-use sectors; these stand at 62 percent in Colombia. Fulfilling commitments under the Paris Agreement will require that Colombia take action across these sectors. 

Moreover, as Colombia and other Latin American economies emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to the challenges it has left in its wake, prioritizing investments in nature-based solutions is crucial to stem the planetary emergency and protect the critical underpinnings of the region’s economies.5A. Bárcena et al, The climate emergency in Latin America and the Caribbean: the path ahead–resignation or action?(Santiago: ECLAC Books, 2020). According to Fastmarkets, “GDP levels at the start of 2021 fell back to levels not seen since 2011. Latin America lost an entire decade of economic progress.”6“How Latin America lost a decade of economic progress,” Fastmarkets, August 12, 2021, https:// In Colombia, gross domestic product fell to levels not seen since 2015.

Yet, as countries seek to stimulate growth and promote recovery, analysis from the UN Environmental Programme underscores that Latin American countries risk missing a unique opportunity to reorient their economies toward just and sustainable growth.7Is the COVID-19 economic recovery building a sustainable future? A snapshot from Latin America andtheCaribbean, United Nations Environment Programme, 2021, Given the vast natural endowment of the continent and that, on average, 23 percent of the land is under the stewardship of Indigenous peoples and local communities—28 percent in Colombia—nature-positive, carbon-neutral, and more equitable development trajectories that uphold Indigenous rights must be supported and advanced.

Countries like Colombia that have made significant investments and commitments to meet their climate goals are vital partners for the United States, despite the challenges inherent in achieving economy-wide shifts to lower carbon trajectories. In approving a national carbon tax on fossil fuels in late 2016, Colombia was a frontrunner in climate finance. In 2017, Colombia approved a measure allowing carbon credits to be used against the new carbon tax, permitting entities to offset 100 percent of their tax liability. From 2017 to 2021, $507 million was levied through the carbon tax and disbursed to cover operating costs for the protection, preservation, restoration, and sustainable use of strategic areas and ecosystems through reforestation programs and payment for environmental services.8B. Kelsey Jack, Carolyn Kousky, and Katharine R.E. Sims, “Designing payments for ecosystem services: Lessons from previous experience with incentive-based mechanisms,” ProceedingsoftheNational Academy of Sciences, July 15, 2008,

The Leticia Pact

The Leticia Pact, spearheaded by President Iván Duque and signed by seven South American Amazon countries, also signaled Colombia’s pledge to tackle deforestation and the illegal activities that threaten the integrity of this unique biome. It spoke to the recognition that strong, aligned political will is needed to bring about the necessary structural shifts. Leaders signed a 52-point action plan. However, implementation has been weak, and traditional communities and Indigenous peoples are demanding a greater voice and agency in this pact.

There is a huge opportunity and need for continued leadership to effectively reshape extractive modes of production and align incentives toward regenerative practices, sustainable land management, and biodiversity protection that will deliver multiple benefits across this biome. For example, greening development pathways and eliminating deforestation and environmental degradation through trade regulations that enforce more transparency in supply chains offer historic opportunities to address existing inequalities, promote green growth, and tackle the root causes of entrenched poverty and economic insecurity. These same initiatives can also uphold Indigenous land rights, enable more secure titling, and resource oversight mechanisms that increase transparency and traceability in supply chains, reducing the threats against existing protected areas and Indigenous communities.

Deforestation and decarbonization

However, as the Climate Action Tracker analysis underscores, “Reducing emissions from deforestation is a vital part of Colombia’s climate action, but to fully decarbonize its economy, Colombia would need to focus on other sectors, especially energy and transport.”9“Colombia,” Climate Action Tracker, accessed February 25, 2022, countries/colombia/. Colombia updated its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) target in December 2020, but the NDC demonstrates that it intends to rely primarily on land-based mitigation measures to meet 70 percent of the reductions needed for its updated target. Moreover, despite bold commitments to extend new protected areas through initiatives like Manacacías National Park, deforestation levels continue to rise, and current forest protection policies are not adequately resourced or enforced.


In addition to ensuring that sufficient resources are forthcoming for forest protection and enforcement, it is essential to strengthen collaboration on other fronts. There is ample room for targeted collaboration around methane. At COP26, the United States, with partners, led a pledge signed by more than one hundred countries to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent. According to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, there was a record increase in methane emissions in 2021.10“Increase in atmospheric methane set another record during 2021,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, April 7, 2022, atmospheric-methane-set-another-record-during-2021. Colombia is also actively supporting the Global Methane Pledge and has developed a standard for methane emissions introduced in early 2022 that focuses primarily on emissions from mining and extractives.

The Colombian Ministry of Energy and Mines aims to contribute to the pledges made at COP26 to reduce methane leaks by 2.7 million gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. However, in both the United States and Colombia, the leading source of methane emissions is livestock. In Colombia, 32 percent of emissions are from enteric fermentation, so there is a valuable opportunity to collaborate further on this front.


Similarly, the Americas need to live up to ambitious commitments on restoration and achieve its obligations to protect 30 percent of land and sea by 2030, an initiative known as 30 by 30.11This is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30 percent of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. E. Dinerstein et al., “A Global Deal for Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets,” ScienceAdvancesVolume 5 Issue 4 (April 19, 2019), org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aaw2869. Colombia is taking courageous steps to develop a new National Biodiversity Law, consulting broadly across different sectors and reviewing other countries’ laws and policies. This will enable it to meet its 30 by 30 promises eight years ahead of schedule, as announced at COP26.

Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama announced the creation of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor initiative at COP26,12“COP26: Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama Announce New Protections for ‘Ocean Highway’,” National Geographic Society press release, November 2, 2021, which would increase the size of their protected territorial waters, creating a fish- ing-free corridor covering more than 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) in one of the world’s most significant migratory routes for sea turtles, whales, sharks, and rays. The United States has played an important role in spearheading increased protection for the world’s oceans; this is another critical front for enhanced and continued hemispheric collaboration along the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Prior to COP26, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry announced US support for regional initiatives such as Renewable Energy for Latin America and the Caribbean (RELAC), through which countries will endeavor to achieve a regional goal of at least 70 percent renewable energy capacity by 2030. As an active member of RELAC, Colombia has committed to reaching at least 70 percent of renewable energy participation in the region’s electricity matrix by 2030. Both countries should continue to pursue these commitments actively, leading to more ambitious and rapid decarbonization.

Colombia is well-positioned to act as an effective mediator at the September 2022 Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity in Kunming, China and the next UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, in Egypt. Colombia has an established global presence as a country that helps bridge positions, and it should leverage its domestic efforts to call for increased action on climate, biodiversity, and finance across these critical agendas.

Looking ahead

The United States and Colombia can play a key role in engaging on the global and regional stage supporting green recovery and nature-positive futures. They can use the commitments and frameworks they have pledged to uphold to shift the balance of fossil fuels and renewables in their energy sourcing. The two countries can potentially follow the route of the European Union13European Commission, “Questions and Answers on new rules for deforestation-free products,” November 17, 2021, and the United Kingdom14Government of the United Kingdom press release, “Major shifts in private finance, trade and land rights to protect world’s forests,” Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs et al., November 2, 2021, in legislating that trade involve only deforestation- and conversion-free commodities such as soy, beef, coffee, cacao, and palm oil. They can support Indigenous guardians of the forests and uphold their human and environmental rights. They can pledge to protect oceans and restore reefs. They can lead with funding that resources their commitments to sustainability at home and in Latin America.

As Colombia and the United States celebrate two hundred years of diplomatic history, the time is ripe to leverage this partnership to boldly address the environmental challenges of our time.

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: A worker is vacuuming the floor at the venue of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 12, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman