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No Oil Producer Wants to Be the First to Give Up the Fuel. Except Gustavo Petro’s Colombia
By Ciara Nugent
Staff Writer

Brazil’s former president was laughing at me. I was sitting opposite 76-year-old Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in an overly air-conditioned studio in São Paulo this March, interviewing him for a story on Brazil’s October elections, for which he is leading the polls. I had just asked Lula if he would be interested in signing up to a bold climate pledge made by Gustavo Petro—then the leftist front runner in Colombia’s 2022 presidential race and, as of this week, Colombia’s president-elect. As part of his campaign, Petro vowed to immediately stop issuing new permits for oil exploration—a big deal in a country where oil makes up 40% of exports, and 12% of government income. Petro also called on Lula, who could become his most important regional ally, to join him. So, would he?

“Look, Petro has the right to propose whatever he wants,” Lula said, smiling and shaking his head as if we were discussing an eccentric old friend. “But, in the case of Brazil, this is not for real. In the case of the world, it’s not for real.”

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For Colombia, it just got a lot realer. Petro, a one-time leftist guerrilla, won 50.47% of the vote in Sunday’s second round vote, narrowly defeating a populist businessman who took 47.27%. After he assumes office on Aug. 7, the president-elect will stop issuing new oil permits on day one. He will then try to establish a 12 year deadline for already-approved exploration to wind down, which would likely require legislative approval. Petro’s advisors say oil produced under those existing contracts is enough to satisfy domestic consumption—if exports are cut—for "at minimum" 23 years if needed. Long before the oil runs out, the government will scale up renewable energy infrastructure enough to replace fossil fuels.

For critics, Petro’s oil policy amounts to “economic suicide.” Many warn his plan to boost agriculture and tourism won’t be enough to make up for lost oil export earnings, potentially leaving a big hole in public finances. And oil industry groups claim production could fall too quickly to sustain Colombian demand until alternative fuels are available, forcing the country to rely on imports.

Such concerns are voiced by fossil fuel advocates and politicians all over the world, and they have created a global stalemate on oil: almost all of the world’s top 33 oil producers have pledged under the Paris Agreement to try to limit global warming to an average of 1.5°C over the preindustrial era. But scientists say none have set timelines to end oil production that align with that goal. To have even a 50:50 shot of achieving the 1.5°C target, according to a recent report by the International Institute of Sustainable development, rich countries need to stop producing oil and gas in 2034, and countries in Colombia’s middle income-bracket must do so by 2043. In climate terms, Petro’s two-decade production phase-out is not ambitious—it’s just about acceptable.

In political terms, though, Petro’s goal is radical. No one wants to be the first to give up their oil earnings or to be accused of risking their energy security—a fear heightened by Russia-E.U. tensions over natural gas since the outbreak of the Ukraine war. (Of the tiny handful of countries that have put a moratorium on oil exploration in recent years, Belize is the only one where oil contributed more than 1% of GDP.)

How did Petro manage to get a majority of Colombians to back his anti-oil platform? Claudia Navas, a Bogotá-based analyst for consultancy Control Risks, says Petro didn’t present his oil plan as a stand-alone climate policy, and, on its own, it probably wasn’t a decisive factor for most voters. Rather, the oil phase-out is part of a comprehensive “vision for change” in Colombia, which appealed to working class people who have been excluded from Colombia’s fossil-fueled economic development, Navas says. After his victory, Petro urged fellow progressives in Latin America “to stop thinking that a future of social justice and wealth redistribution could be built on a foundation of high oil, coal, and gas prices.”

It also helps that Petro could point to renewables as a major opportunity for Colombia. The country already produces almost 70% of its electricity from hydropower, and its varied climates give it above-average potential for both wind and solar, in addition to green hydrogen production. Together, those sources could allow Colombia to export clean energy in the future.

None of this is to say that concerns for Colombia’s economy are unfounded. In the coming months and years, Petro will need to match his lofty rhetoric with a concrete plan for expanding low-carbon industries to replace fossil energy and revenues. His performance will weigh heavily on leaders in other oil producing nations, like Brazil. “The implementation will determine if Petro’s policy generates greater fear in the region about the energy transition,” Navas says, “or pushes people towards it.”

A New Data Point
How Hot Is Europe? This Hot.

A heat wave topping 100°F is setting temperature records in multiple European countries. According to a Washington Post roundup of select weather stations across the continent, some baking hot cities are experiencing historic highs for the month of June. Others are hitting highs never seen before, surpassing even July and August records.

 

To illustrate how off-the-charts this sweltering heat is for the region, we made an actual chart (below) that compares 25 years’ of daily high temperatures in June and July in Biarritz, a coastal city in southwestern France, where the heat wave struck over the weekend, reaching 109°F on Saturday. While that searing temperature is remarkable in itself, it’s even more striking given how early in the year it occurred. Prior to this year, the average temperature for June 18 between 1997 and 2021 was 74°F, according to our calculations using historical temperature data from Weather Underground.

Unprecedented pre-summer heat is a hallmark condition of global climate change, which is causing longer, drier summers around the world. Persistent heat waves of this scale are dangerous; Spain and Germany have been battling wildfires amid the scorching temperatures, France canceled outdoor festivities to limit heat exposure over the weekend, and Italy’s health ministry issued health alerts and emergencies for more than a dozen cities through June 23.

Quick talk…
… with climate scientist Johan Rockström

Last month Rockström, a climate scientist specializing in water resources, co-launched a Global Commission on the Economics of Water with a group of economists and politicians. They argue that, like climate change, the world’s growing water scarcity crisis can be seen as a market failure: our capitalist system has neglected to factor in how economic activity diminishes water supplies, and how that diminishing in turn threatens economic activity. I spoke to Rockström for a story about the idea of a global price on freshwater—one option the commission is exploring to correct that market failure.

 

What is wrong with how the economy treats water? Don’t we all pay for the water we use like any other resource?

No. You do pay water bills for the water that comes out of your tap; that’s in the order of 250 liters per day, for people in the wealthiest parts of the world. But actually, we use in the order of 3,000 liters per person per day. It's the water behind the meat, vegetables, and cereals we eat, and the products we use. We're now in a situation where we have a totally free resource that we're not putting any economic value on, which we are threatening through human activity.

 

How are we threatening water as a resource?

Partly through the way we use water: our water is often drawn unsustainably from rivers into irrigation systems, and rivers are often polluted. But we also have increasingly strong evidence that we’re threatening the very source of freshwater: rain. For example, we're deforesting the Amazon rainforest, which generates 40% of its own rainfall [through evapotranspiration.] We’re not factoring that [degradation] into the economy, and therefore not into governance or management of water either. It’s a market failure.

 

Is the solution some kind of water market, similar to a carbon price to limit pollution, that encourages companies to reduce their water use?

I think one could definitely think of some form of water market. Perhaps instead of penalizing those who do something wrong like emitting carbon, you could pay those who do the right thing with water. So you could have a system where you put a value per cubic meter of freshwater, and you would pay the farmers that secure rainfall by managing biodiverse, rich landscapes, which maintain rainfall. And you could also charge those who are contributing towards degrading that.

 

Would charging businesses or countries for their water impact make prices higher for consumers?

My colleagues in the food system science domain are recognizing that one of the big challenges we have is that food is too cheap, because we're not factoring in all the externalities of ecological damage we're causing due to our food systems: climate damages, but also the hydrological damages. And of course, this should be handled through the industries factoring in the cost, but it will translate into higher food prices, which creates enormous reactions among consumers. We have to address it head on, though. Because we know that as long as we have these market failures, we will continue to destroy the functioning of the Earth’s system. And in the end, we will have so much water scarcity that we will have increasing food prices anyway. We have to find a smart way of doing this.

What Else to Know
The Climate Toll On Children’s Health

We already know that children today will have to deal with worse economic and societal climate change impacts in their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. But a review article published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week suggests that kids will also suffer greater health impacts from changes in our environment. My colleague Tara Law breaks it down.

Read More »
Build Your Home From Plants

The construction industry accounts for a staggering 11% of carbon emissions. But there are alternatives to carbon-intensive materials like steel and concrete. I looked at a new mortgage scheme in the Netherlands that is trying to encourage the use of “bio-materials” like straw and wood by offering lower interest rates on mortgages for plant-based homes.

Read More »
Corporations Don’t Want To Account For Their Climate Impact

The Biden Administration is trying to pass a new SEC rule that will require companies to report both their greenhouse gas emissions and the risks their assets face from climate change. The rule has the potential to transform how businesses approach the climate fight. But, guess what? Many corporations and fossil fuel advocates are trying to quash the reform. Vox has a good explainer.

Read More »
E.U. Fossil Car Phase-Out Under Threat

Last year, the E.U. announced a de facto ban on new fossil-fueled cars from 2035. But this week German finance minister Christian Lindner said that Germany, the world’s biggest exporter of automobiles and the E.U.’s center of gravity, would not support the legislation. As Politico reports, the comments set up a clash between Linder’s liberal Free Democrat party and their coalition partners, the Greens, who see the car policy as a central plank of the E.U.’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Read More »
Police Investigate Amazon Killings

New details have emerged about the killing of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Amazon rainforest. Police have arrested three men, who witnesses said had threatened Pereira the day before he disappeared. “It is believed they were worried Pereira had evidence of their illegal fishing trips in the area, much of which is reserved exclusively for Indigenous tribes,” The Guardian writes.

Read More »
Thank You For Reading

This edition was written by Ciara Nugent, with the Data Point by Emily Barone, and edited by Kyla Mandel and Elijah Wolfson. We welcome any feedback at climate@time.com.

 
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