For centuries, Latin America has suffered from the indiscriminate exploitation of its natural resources to be exported as raw materials that have driven, above all, the economic development of industrialized countries. This exploitation, accompanied by systematic land dispossession practices, has left serious social, environmental and economic consequences for the region. In the 15th century, European ships came in search of gold to finance the progress of the colonizers; in the 19th century, the rubber rush brutally enslaved the indigenous communities of the Amazon; and in the last century, the fossil economy replicated the extractivist model and made many of our countries economically dependent on hydrocarbons such as oil, and minerals such as coal.

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But the dependency does not end there. While producing countries exported fossil fuels, most becoming dependent on the associated tax revenues, the world economy for its part became increasingly dependent on its use as a fundamental source of energy for industry, transportation, domestic consumption, and as a base in the production of plastics and chemicals. The demand for these products and their raw materials drives a model of excessive exploitation of natural resources that has left the world on the brink of collapse.

the main challenge

Changing this economic model is the main challenge that countries face today to limit the increase in global average temperature to a maximum of 1.5°C, and at the same time strengthen the resilience of ecosystems and communities against the present and future impacts of a changing climate. The answer, to a large extent, lies in achieving a just energy transition. And for this, Latin America has a fundamental role that it must play strategically with a view to guaranteeing that this transition is planned, fair and that it brings distributed benefits to the region based on equity.

Latin America is already one of the most vulnerable regions to the effects of climate change; And from there comes the regional trend of increasing its climate commitment in many of its countries. Without this degree of ambition, it would be impossible to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid losing our natural wealth due to the pressures generated by the international market. The challenge as a region is not minor. We cannot allow history to repeat itself and continue condemned to an extractivist economy. The urgency cannot lead us to make decisions lightly and leave gaps that will pass bigger bills to the next generations.

Most of the Latin American countries have a participation of more than 30% of renewable energies in the primary energy matrix, and 60% in the electrical matrix. In other words, we have a more favorable starting point than other regions to achieve electricity generation based 100% on renewables. In addition, the region has a strategic location with favorable climatic conditions to generate energy from sources such as wind and solar energy. According to the Renewables 2022 report, from the International Energy Agency, the installed capacity of non-conventional renewable energy generation in Latin America is expected to increase by 45% (+130 GW) in 2027.

The region potential

But, it is not the only potential. The region has important reserves of zinc, copper, cobalt and lithium, among other strategic minerals, which are necessary for the production of technologies that allow the generation, distribution, storage and use of energy from unconventional sources. According to the International Energy Agency, a transition scenario, aligned with the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change, would imply an increase in lithium demand of some 42 times; and that of cobalt and graphite would increase more than 20 times compared to 2020 data. The way in which the region decides to position itself in the face of the need for these minerals will determine the economic and development model for their extraction and commercialization.

It would be a mistake to waste the potential that the region has to generate, even to export renewable energy from non-conventional sources, but it would be a catastrophe to take advantage of it in an unplanned way and without establishing limits that allow us to protect our communities, our economy and our biodiversity in the midst of transition.

Neither the renewable energy projects nor the extraction of minerals necessary for the transition are exempt from impacts. Faced with the implementation of renewables, for example, in Colombia there are already conflicts between indigenous communities, companies and the Government for the use and possession of the land that is needed for the development of these projects. In the case of minerals, several communities in the Arequipa region, in Peru, have gone on strike to demand better living conditions in the copper exploitation areas; in Chile, water is scarce in the areas where this metal is exploited; and in the area known as the lithium triangle (located between Argentina, Chile and Bolivia) the impacts of its extraction are already being seen, since to produce one metric ton approximately 500,000 gallons of water are required. And the list goes on.

Latin American governments

Faced with this panorama, it is imperative that governments guarantee the highest social and environmental safeguards both in mining and in the generation of renewable energy. This includes guidelines and monitoring and sanction procedures to prevent the dumping of hazardous waste in water sources; guarantee the correct participation of local communities; address and manage water stress derived from the extraction of these minerals; avoid or address the generation of higher greenhouse gas emissions; avoid the violation of human rights and the degradation of ecosystems, and at the same time, develop mineral reuse and recycling policies, just to mention a few points that should be in the roadmaps and the governance structure that is developed.

must read and understand the geopolitical context very well when deciding how and for whom they are going to produce the minerals necessary for the transition and renewable energies, and how to use their comparative advantages strategically, since they cannot forget that Its mission is also to decarbonize its own energy and electricity matrices.

It remains for us to define whether the acceleration of the energy transition that will characterize this century to guarantee environmentally sustainable, socially fair and responsible processes, and that enable regional cooperation and development.

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