Colombia chooses life at COP28 and sets example for Africa

On 2 December, President Gustavo Petro announced the COP28 climate talks that Colombia would formally join the bloc of nation-states seeking to negotiate a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Colombia is now the tenth country to call for an international treaty to phase out fossil fuels with a comprehensive just transition framework. It is the first major fossil fuel exporter to endorse the initiative.

This is what President Petro said at COP28 as he announced the decision:

“It is a paradox that, at this table, together with populations that could disappear, there is a country like us, which also depends on oil, and which is committed to endorsing a treaty that implies zero new exploration projects in the world. My own society would say ‘how would the President produce such economic suicide?’, given that we depend on oil and coal. But this is not economic suicide. We are talking here about an ‘omnicide’, the risk of extinction of life on the planet.

“Here we are avoiding ‘omnicide’ on planet Earth. There is no other way, the rest are illusions. There is a very powerful economic power around oil, coal and gas. And they act to prevent changes, to maintain, in a suicidal way, their possibilities for more years of profit in the short-term. Today we face an immense confrontation between fossil capital and human life. And we must choose a side. Any human being knows that we must choose life. I have no doubt which position to take: between fossil capital and life, we choose the side of life.”

Colombia now joins VanuatuTuvaluFijiSolomon IslandsTongaNiueTimor-LesteAntigua and Barbuda, and Palau in calling for a Treaty to phase out fossil fuels, in addition to the European ParliamentWorld Health Organisation101 Nobel laureates100 cities and subnational governments, hundreds of scientists, health institutions, faith groups, civil society organisations, and more than half a million individuals.

The latest Production Gap report confirmed once again what the scientific community has been telling us about the importance of phasing out fossil fuels. We are currently on track to extract and burn twice as much fossil fuels in 2030 than what we’re allowed to if we’re going to meet the climate challenge of keeping global temperature below 1.5 by the end of the century.

Colombia’s example to the Global South

Colombia is taking a leadership role that many countries in the Global South can learn from. In a way, Colombia has the same structural deficiencies that challenge most countries in the Global South. Its export revenues mainly come from raw materials, cash crops, and low value-added manufacturing (crude oil 23%, coal 10%, gold 6%, coffee 6%, cut flowers 3%, etc). Meanwhile, its imports tend to be much more diversified, including refined oil products, core crops like corn and wheat, and high value-added manufactured products like industrial machinery, automobiles, and pharmaceutical products.

Like many countries in Africa, Colombia’s structural trade deficit puts downward pressure on its exchange rate, which in turn pushes the country into an endless cycle of external borrowing to desperately stabilise its the exchange rate (to avoid imported products bringing inflationary pressures), which accelerates the external debt vicious cycle. Colombia’s debt service has routinely hovered around 30% of export revenues.

The dominant narrative being pushed by fossil fuel companies in the Global South is that our countries have a right to develop and have the right to use our natural resources and our territorial sovereignty to do so. They also play the emissions game by persuading our governments that we shouldn’t listen to Global North-funded climate activists and that, since we haven’t exceeded our carbon budget, we should be allowed to continue fossil fuel extraction. This is a dangerous distraction aimed at securing additional demand for fossil fuels in a world that is set to decarbonise and shift away from dirty energy. It is also designed to lock the Global South into an obsolete, expensive, inefficient, unhealthy, uncompetitive, uneconomical energy system.

It is precisely because Colombia has a right to development that it should choose to diversify its economy and invest in food sovereignty, agroecology, renewable energy sovereignty, and high value added industrial policies.

Demand for Colombian oil and coal is stalling and will decline rapidly in the next couple of decades. What should it do today to avoid a major crisis when its export revenues collapse while its debt service continues to rise? To exercise its right to develop, it should adopt a strategy that reduces its external debt burden, builds resilience, and produces a more sophisticated economic development model that leads to structural transformation.

A version of this article was originally published at Global South Perspectives.