Pedro Castillo's Climate Challenge

File:Presidente Pedro Castillo jura de manera simbólica en histórica Pampa de Ayacucho 3-54 screenshot.png
Photo: Presidencia de la República del Perú

Peru’s new President Pedro Castillo has promised to bring radical change to a country in turmoil. Castillo, a 51-year-old schoolteacher and union leader, ran as a political outsider with Peru Libre, defeating Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori. 

Castillo, who took office on July 28, campaigned on an unapologetically leftist platform. His message was one of fighting poverty and drafting a new constitution, drawing a stark contrast to Fujimori’s brand of right-wing populism.

Among the many questions to be answered by this new administration is what kind of environmental agenda it will adopt.  Although climate did not play much of a role in his campaign, Castillo recently pledged to uphold Peru’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 to 40 percent by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

A Devastated Nation

In recent years, Peru has been devastated by political instability, as well as the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis.

Over the last four years, Peru has churned through five presidents and two congresses.  In 2018, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski Godard resigned shortly after being impeached. He was succeeded by Martín Vizcarra, who created a constitutional crisis by dissolving Congress following a second vote of no-confidence for his proposed Cabinet. Vizcarra was eventually impeached and succeeded by two interim presidents.

This lack of continuity has created a crisis in governance, making it difficult to establish a coherent environmental agenda.

“To establish clear policies of sustainability in this political context is absurd,” said Henry Córdova, Coordinator for the Movimiento Ciudadano frente al Cambio Climático (MOCICC). “It is unmanageable.”

Peru submitted a revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement in December 2020 under interim President Francisco Sagasti. Peru is responsible for about 0.3% of total global emissions, with nearly half coming from land use, land-use change, and forestry sector activities. 

The new NDC is an improvement over the country’s 2016 submission, setting an absolute emissions target 6 percent lower than in its 2016 NDC. The revised pledge seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 to 40 percent by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Still, its 2020 targets are deemed “insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker.

Adding to Castillo’s challenges is the devastating toll the pandemic has taken on the country. Peru has the highest death rate in the world, with the virus claiming nearly 200,000 lives. The official death toll shows that nearly 0.6 percent of the people have died due to COVID-19.

The economic impact of the virus has been dreadful in Peru, resulting in an 11.6 percent drop in GDP in 2020. And that includes a 30.2 percent crash in the second quarter. The economy has bounced back somewhat in 2021, but has not reached pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, poverty has jumped from 20 to 30 percent during the pandemic. 

The economic devastation that Peru has faced has the potential to pave the way for a green recovery.  Emissions dropped 14 to 16 percent in 2020 from their 2019 levels, according to the Climate Action Tracker. The pandemic and corresponding economic crisis could lead to a 10 to 13 percent drop in projected emissions by 2030. 

Peru’s climate vulnerability and crumbling infrastructure make a green recovery all the more necessary. Temperature increases, glacial melt, sea level rise, changing precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events have made Peru the third most vulnerable country to climate change. Large-scale agribusiness, illegal logging, alluvial gold mining, and other unsustainable practices are driving deforestation rates in the Amazon. 

The Peruvian Amazon has also suffered from 500 oil spills in the last 20 years, caused by operational failures and the corrosion of infrastructure. What’s more, pollution from the mining sector has taken a devastating toll on rural communities. 

“There are possibilities for economic reactivation by mainstreaming the climate change approach,” said Maria Grazia Campos Veintemilla of the Center of Climate Innovation and Sustainability. “Every budget item should be designed from a decarbonization approach to the economy, a vision that should be shared by the Ministry of the Economy and the Ministry of the Environment.”

Maria Grazia Campos Veintemilla

A New Cabinet

Castillo’s proposed cabinet consists of a mix of ideological allies and political moderates.

While the appointment of officials such as former World Bank economist Pedro Francke as Finance Minister helped ease some of the tensions with more moderate supporters, other picks have been contentious. 

The nomination of Marxist Congressman Guido Bellido as Prime Minister and chief of Castillo’s Cabinet sets up a possible showdown with Congress, which must approve Castillo’s entire proposed cabinet with a vote of confidence. Castillo’s Peru Libre party only holds 37 of the 130 seats in Congress. Of the remaining 93 seats, 5 are held by the left-wing coalition Juntos por el Perú, while the rest are held by center-right or far-right parties.

Among the more intriguing selections was the appointment of Rubén Ramírez Mateo, a lawyer, as Minister of the Environment.  Although his resume reflects some environmental experience, including serving as an advisor to the Commission of Andean, Amazonian, Afro-Peruvian Peoples, Environment and Ecology, Ramírez is not well known in Peruvian climate circles, according to Córdova.

Another key pick is Foreign Minister Héctor Béjar Rivera, who is expected to play a critical role in the country’s climate negotiations.  An 85-year-old sociology professor, Béjar was the founder of the National Liberation Army during the 1960s and served five years in prison for his role in the guerrilla movement. Along with Bellido, Béjar is one of Castillo’s more radical appointments. 

Castillo named Ivan Merino as the Minister of Energy and Mines. Merino, a mining specialist, has advocated for the continued development of Peru’s mining sector, as well as natural gas, alternative energy and electric transportation.  He recently told Reuters that mining companies should help improve infrastructure, respect indigenous communities, and provide environmental protections.

Castillo’s Agenda

Climate change was not addressed in the debate between Castillo and Fujimori.

“Neither raised the issue of the environment,” said Córdova. “They didn’t discuss deforestation or energy transition. The big environmental issues were not present in the second round.”

Castillo did take aim at the mining sector, making it a focal point of his campaign. Peru is the world’s second largest producer of copper, as well as a top producer of silver, gold, and zinc.  Foreign mining companies have dominated the sector, which comprises roughly 10 percent of the country’s GDP. Castillo wants to increase taxes on mining companies to help fund social programs.

“Within Peru Libre’s characteristics is a vision of development, an extractivist politics as a way to better redistribute wealth,” said Córdova.

In his address to the nation on July 28, Castillo promised to pursue an ambitious climate agenda.  He targeted a 30 to 40 percent cut in emissions by 2030 and a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, consistent with the latest NDC. He announced his administration will push for the approval of biodiversity plans and the application of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. 

Castillo also addressed the pressing issue of deforestation in the Amazon: “Now we must reverse this trend, the Amazon will be our inheritance to the next generations and we will fulfill our responsibility. It is my commitment.”

While his speech was encouraging, it remains to be seen how the government will meet the proposed climate targets.

“Increasing climate ambition by 30 to 40 percent is a good thing. The problem is that when we see the possibility of implementing the NDC in Peru, a strong mistrust arises,” said Córdova. “The worrying thing about the NDC of Peru is that only 16 of the 62 mitigation measures have a complete economic evaluation, which means that the government itself does not know how it is going to implement them and how it is going to generate the way to implement them in the regions and especially in the localities. Accompanying this is the fact that the budget assigned to the implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures is quite small.”

Béjar and Ramirez have both stated the new administration will move ahead with the ratification of the Escazú Agreement. Under President Vizcarra, Peru signed the agreement in 2018 but has yet to ratify it.

The Escazú Agreement is a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations to protect the human rights of environmental defenders and provide public access to information.  It is the first environmental treaty of its kind in the region.

“We have to ratify and promote the Escazú Agreement, which leads us to a commitment to indigenous peoples to achieve environmental justice,” said  Ramírez.

A Shakeup in Climate Diplomacy?

It will also be worth watching how this new presidency will affect the country’s negotiating positions ahead of this year’s U.N. climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow.  

Along with Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Paraguay, Peru is a member of the Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC). The negotiating positions of these countries often contrast with the region’s other prominent negotiating bloc, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which includes Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Even in the early days of the administration, Foreign Minister Béjar has moved to shake up regional politics. Béjar announced plans to strengthen ties to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Andean Group, as well as to reactivate the Union of South American Nations. Peru will likely soon leave the Lima Group, a multilateral body created with the goal of ending the current Venezuelan government led by Nicolas Maduro. Peru wouldjoin Mexico, Bolivia, and Argentina as nations that had signed the Lima Declaration and then abandoned it.

Clearly, the Castillo Administration is taking a very different approach from previous administrations.

“We are against repression in Peru and in all countries. Our policy has to be democratic for dialogue to exist rather than confrontation, and that includes Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile,” said  Béjar. “We aspire for the people to dialogue rather than confront each other.”

As of now, there is no indication that Castillo, Béjar, and Ramírez are planning a major shakeup ahead of COP26.

“We still do not know the environmental and climate political agenda of the new Minister of the Environment,” said Osver Polo, who tracks the international negotiations for MOCICC.  

Polo went on to say: 

“At least in the message it is clear that we are aiming to decarbonize. It is a clear position, fulfilling his commitment of 30 to 40 percent and that he keeps his word before the United Nations Framework Convention. Now, in practice, what we have to see  is what they are going to come up with.”

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