Climate Change Takes a Back Seat in Argentina’s Elections

Mauricio Macri (left) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (right)
Photo: Casa Rosada

This October’s presidential election in Argentina could be a consequential one for the planet, with center-right President Mauricio Macri running for re-election against former cabinet chief Alberto Fernández of the Peronist Justicialist Party. 

The next president will oversee Argentina’s massive shale oil and gas reserves, cattle-intensive agricultural sector and developing renewable energy market.  With the nation in the midst of an economic crisis, both candidates are sadly prioritizing fossil fuel development over a robust climate agenda.  

Race tightens 

Argentina’s inflation rate is currently hovering at around 57 percent, one of the highest in the world.  The nation’s economic problems became so severe that Macri secured a $57.1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2018, the largest in the organization’s history. The IMF is an institution hated by many Argentinians, who believe it helped trigger the country’s economic crisis in 2001, the worst in its history.  

File:Alberto Fernández.png
Alberto Fernández
Photo: La García

For months, Macri has trailed in the polls to Fernández and his running mate, former populist President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Macri has been edging upward in the polls, with two recent ones showing Macri and Fernández in a very close race

Fernández de Kirchner was widely expected to run again for president but surprised the nation by instead opting for the vice presidential spot on the ticket. Now a senator, Fernández de Kirchner is currently on trial for corruption with fourteen others – allegations that she denies. 

With much of the political debate focused on the economy, important environmental issues have not been aired the way they need to be.

“The biggest conversation in Argentina is always, and unfortunately, will continue to be for some time, the economic situation,” said Enrique Maurtua Konstantinidis, Senior Climate Change Advisor for the Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN).

Vaca Muerta plays a major role 

Argentina’s vast oil and gas reserves remain a major obstacle toward a more robust discussion on climate change.  

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Argentina has about 800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas shale reserves, second only to China, and 27 billion barrels of shale oil. Most of these reserves are located in the Vaca Muerta geologic formation in the country’s Neuquén Basin.

However, Vaca Muerta development relies on hydraulic fracturing (fracking), an extreme technology used to extract oil and gas from shale and other rock formations. Fracking, which involves injecting huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to free reserves trapped deep underground, has been connected with drinking water contamination and adverse health effects, such as headaches, respiratory problems and psychological stress.  Concerns over fracking have led to bans in France, Germany, Ireland, Bulgaria  and Scotland.

Fossil fuel development in Vaca Muerta has dramatically altered life for indigenous peoples and local communities in the region. A 2017 report submitted to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights by Observatorio Petrolero Sur (OPSur) in partnership with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) highlighted the adverse environmental and economic impacts they face and how oil and gas extraction has repeatedly violated  the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)  of indigenous peoples. The report also shows how Argentina’s fossil fuel development is contributing significantly to global emissions and undermines the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

“Argentina’s oil and gas development in Vaca Muerta is trampling on the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Neuquén province, polluting the environment, and impacting the health, water, housing, and cultural rights of these people, without effective consultation or obtaining their prior consent to the development,” said Lucy McKernan, Geneva Representative for the Global Initiative.

Toxic waste from fracking has also been a major issue.  A Greenpeace Andino investigation found companies were transporting fracking waste to illegal dumps in Patagonia.  It is estimated that clean up of this waste will take decades

Both Macri and Fernández are embracing fossil fuel production, rather than debating whether these reserves should be exploited.

“There is no doubt that Vaca Muerta is going to be considered one of the fundamental pillars,” said Roque Pedace, professor and member of the Interdisciplinary Program on Climate Change at the University of Buenos Aires, on the role of the reserves in this year’s election.

Macri has offered a business-friendly approach to Vaca Muerta by opening up the reserves to international investors, with oil and gas development becoming a “signature policy item” of his administration.  

Alberto Fernández has been vocal about exploiting Argentina’s fossil fuel reserves, but also seems intent on diversifying the nation’s energy portfolio.  

“Without a doubt Vaca Muerta presents a great opportunity,” said Fernández. “We have to develop the unconventional and conventional exploitation of hydrocarbons, but also continue to develop renewable energy and continue to develop bioethanol.”

During Fernández-Kirchner’s administration, the government became directly involved in Vaca Muerta after she partially nationalized of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) oil and gas company.  

“Under her watch, shale dreams failed to materialize and business leaders said her heavy-handed state involvement was to blame,” wrote Nick Cunningham on NACLA’s website.

Argentina’s lackluster climate commitments

As Argentina embraces its oil and gas reserves in Vaca Muerta, the climate crisis threatens to upend the country in coming decades.  Argentina places 49th among nations on Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index.   

Precipitation is expected to increase in central Argentina, while decreasing in the Andes, northeastern Patagonia and Comahue. Extreme weather events such as flooding, drought and wildfires have already caused extensive damage and casualties. Glacial melt in the Andes threatens the country’s freshwater supply and rising sea levels will lead to coastal erosion, particularly in southern Patagonia. 

Agricultural productivity is being impacted. A 2018 drought caused soy and maize production to collapse, contributing to a 2.3 percent drop in Argentina’s GDP. Northern Argentina, where agriculture is concentrated, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  This region could see mean temperature increase by as much as 3.5°C by the end of the century.

Deforestation has also taken a devastating toll in Argentina, with the country losing 15 percent of its tree cover since 2000. Land-use change from deforestation is an important contributor to climate change, accounting for 14.5 percent of the nation’s total emissions.

Roughly 45 percent of deforestation in Argentina can be traced to pasture expansion, with an additional 43 percent coming from commercial agriculture.  Argentina is Europe’s top supplier of soya bean meal. But its Gran Chaco Forest, which spans 250,000 square miles in northern Argentina, is being razed for soya production.  Natalia Machain, director of Greenpeace Argentina, called her country’s current situation a “forest emergency.”

The government has not only failed to adequately address these  threats but has also disappointed with its global climate commitments.  Its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which was revised under Macri, seeks to cap 2030 emissions increases by 35 percent from its 2010 levels or 80 percent above its 1990 levels. However, Argentina is on pace to exceed these modest targets, failing to slow emissions growth in its energy and agricultural sectors. Pedace called Argentina’s NDC  “very insufficient.”

Maurtua was also critical of Argentina’s commitments:

“Argentina is a G-20 country and is now considered an emerging economy. It is a country that cannot have an NDC that does not have a peak in its emissions. The first thing that an improved or enhanced NDC for Argentina should have is a peak of emissions before 2025.”

Limited strides on renewables 

Macri has taken some steps to take on climate change.  Under his watch, Argentina created an inter-ministerial National Cabinet on Climate Change and implemented a nationwide carbon tax. Perhaps most importantly, Macri has worked to build up the country’s renewable energy sector.   

Although the majority of Argentina’s electricity continues to come from fossil fuels, renewable energy now comprises nearly five percent of the country’s energy matrix. There are currently over 30 solar, energy, hydropower, biogas and biomass projects throughout the country and another 126 are in development.  

A 2016 law, passed under Macri, provides that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity will come from renewables by 2025. But as Maurtua said, “The truth is that Argentina can do a lot more than that.”

Forgettable climate legacy

Although Macri’s climate agenda lacks ambition, Fernández de Kirchner did little to advance Argentina’s renewable energy when she presided over the country from 2007 to 2015.  Instead, she prioritized other sources.

Some of her positions received criticism from climate activists.  In a 2010 full-page ad in The Washington Post, Greenpeace urged Fernández de Kirchner to halt the construction of a coal plant in Patagonia, claiming “a woman with a long term political vision would not have endangered the glaciers and water reserves of Argentina.”

It remains to be seen what Alberto Fernández’s approach to the climate crisis will be. It is also unclear whether he would be the ultimate decision-maker if elected.  Most voters believe that Fernández de Kirchner would be the one calling the shots.

Although the climate crisis figures to play a minor role in the election, the next president will be instrumental in shaping the nation’s climate agenda over the next four years.   With scientists warning there are only twelve years left to avert climate catastrophe, whoever wins will help determine whether the world’s 24th largest economy can commit to more ambitious climate targets and ramp up renewable energy production.

Until the next president prioritizes climate change over fossil fuel development, the climate crisis will not be treated with the gravity it deserves.

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