A Personal Journey Through Climate Change

Peru, my home country, is among the world’s top ten most vulnerable countries to climate change (Tyndall Center, 2004).

Climatic vulnerability is determined by a territory’s degree of susceptibility, which varies according to its exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity to climate change (UNEP, 2009). Peru’s vulnerability relates to a wide range of impacts, from the retreat of tropical glaciers in the Andes, to the higher probability of natural disasters with El Niño Southern Oscillations (ENSO) and its effects on health, agriculture, transportation, infrastructure, etc. (Ministry of Environment – MINAM, 2014).

Andean glaciers: signs of climate change

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Mom, me and sister at Pastoruri (1992)

I remember back in 1992, when I was 8 years old, sliding downhill with my sister on a “straw sled” from the peak of Pastoruri, one of Huaraz’s most accessible mountains on the ‘Cordillera Blanca’ of the Andes.

The Peruvian Andes comprise 71% of the world’s remaining tropical glaciers, which are receding 20 to 30 meters each year (MINAM, 2010).

el comercio pastoruri
El Comercio newspaper article- Farewell Pastoruri

Glacier retreat is one of the most evident signs of climate change, and in Peru, we are experiencing such impacts in one generation… 25 years after my family trip to Huaraz, the snow of Pastoruri is almost gone…having lost 52% of its snow cover.

Amazon highways

During my last year at University, I had a unique internship with Inkaterra in Tambopata – Madre de Dios. This hotspot of the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse places in the world.  Sadly, it is threatened by illegal mining and deforestation (WWF, 2015). (Check out this video flying over Madre de Dios showing the deforestation by illegal mining).

Photo Credit: Inkaterra Asociación

Peru’s green house gases (GHG) emissions are less than 1% of the world’s total. From this, 47% are from deforestation due to land use change (MINAM, 2009). But this is not deforestation from commercial activity, instead, it originates in poverty, as people migrate from the Andes in search of opportunities in the Amazon.

Route of Interoceanic Highway

While I was living in Tambopata, the Southern Interoceanic highway, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans crossing Peru and Brazil through the Amazon, was under construction. This project poses an on-going controversial dilemma: On one side, a positive opportunity to connect and help development reach isolated populations, improving people’s livelihoods, but on the negative side, this highway provides more access and opens new roads to facilitate deforestation. On average, from 2000 to 2013, over 113.000 hectares were deforested annually in Peru, and this number is not decreasing (El Comercio, 2016). Reconciling development and conservation in the Amazon remains a complex and difficult challenge.

Lima and water stress

I was born and raised in Lima and now live here with my family.

Lima and its 10 million people

Lima is the second most populated capital city in the world located in a desert, after Cairo. While Peru has abundant water from the Amazon basin on the east side of the Andes, the Pacific coast, which is fed by rivers from the west side of the Andes, experiences extreme water stress (World Bank, Water and Sanitation Program, 2016). The increasing impacts of climate change affecting mountain hydrology are reducing the water flow available downstream, altering the ecology and livelihoods of millions of people. In Lima, we open the tap and water flows unsurprisingly, water is cheap and taken for granted. This will change over the next decade. In addition, Peru’s energy sector could be affected since almost 60% of Peru’s electricity comes from hydropower (IDB/CEPAL, 2014).

The formal climate change framework

In 2006, I began my first professional experience related to the climate change framework, at Compañía Eléctrica El Platanal (CELEPSA). Platanal is one of Peru’s largest private hydroelectric projects (220MW). While large hydroelectric projects are controversial because of the impacts of huge dams and population displacements, hydroelectric projects in river basins west of the Andes are a positive exception. This is because they take advantage of significant altitude changes over small distances that do not need large dams, and minimize impacts on local populations, which on the other hand benefit from a more regulated river flow year round. This is the case of El Platanal and the Cañete river.

The Cañete river and Platanal campsite and project under construction

At El Platanal, I was responsible for registering the project to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Platanal reduces over 500 thousand tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) per year.

Under the CDM framework, I attended the Carbon Expo event in Cologne, Germany, where Platanal was a very attractive project for Europe to buy Carbon Emission Reductions (CERs). Before the carbon market crashed, Platanal sold 1 million CERs, corresponding to its first two years of operation, generating over 10 million US dollars of income, which were crucial for financing the project. But then, with the economic crisis of 2008, the CDM lost ground.

Personally, I still believe the CDM was a positive option to foster the transition to a low-carbon economy of developing countries, with the financial support of developed countries, as it enhances the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Hopefully, some similar scheme will be implemented soon.

The COPs: from Copenhagen to Paris

 In 2009, I attended the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) for the first time, as part of the LSE delegation . It was COP15 in Copenhagen. No need to go into details, other than recognizing that the disappointing results were discouraging.

I guess I was so disillusioned from the climate negotiations that I left the scene for a while,  and undertook a new challenge;  to embed sustainability into the “retail world”.

In 2014, I was called back to action into the climate change arena, to get the Peruvian private sector on board, when Lima was preparing to host COP20. That is how the Líderes+1 adventure started. Líderes+1 (“Leaders plus 1” in Spanish) is a platform that has recruited a representative group of 30 Peruvian institutional and business leaders from different sectors (energy, tourism, finance, agriculture, etc.). (You can read more about Líderes+1 on my previous post)

COP20 in Lima was a very positive step up for the climate change negotiations. Successful initiatives were launched at COP20, such as the Lima-Paris Action Agenda to promote non-state actors involvement in relevant areas such as energy, resilience, forests, etc. Also, the Nazca Platform (named after the Pre-Incan Nazca lines) was created to register global low carbon emission initiatives. It was wonderful to be part of such a positive experience for Peru, where the private sector has begun to participate more actively.

Líderes+1 event at the Peruvian pavilion during COP21

Throughout 2015, the Líderes+1 group gained ground and in December of 2015 we attended COP21 as part of the Peruvian delegation. I was 7 months pregnant at Paris, feeling so energized and hopeful as history was made!

COP21 was a success, uniting leaders of 195 countries to agree on the first universal binding climate agreement ever, recognizing the global challenge to decouple growth from GHG emissions and emphasizing the need for the transition to a low-carbon economy. Plus, it was a historic and ambitious agreement based on science. cop21-unfccc-paris-agreement-1550x804There are clear targets of 2ºC as maximum average global temperature rise (and aspiration of 1.5ºC).  For the first time, there is a predictable framework for the financial sector to foster decarbonisation and to help developing countries with this transition. The discourse is positive, emphasizing the opportunities and co-benefits of a low-carbon economy for the private sector to get involved in catalyzing the change.

We have come a long way, and there is still a long way ahead. While the Paris Agreement has set a framework to work together in the same direction, it is important to recognize that there is a need to clarify in detail how to operationalize all the actions. Citing Peter White from the WBCSD, “we now need to move from ambition to implementation”.

Reflecting upon this journey, I have come to understand that we care and protect what we know and experience. For me, sustainability and the transition to a low-carbon economy are so obvious because I directly connect with my childhood days and the snow, with my adventures through the trails of Tambopata, with the strength of the river moving the huge turbines in Cañete, and with the joy and hopefulness of the Paris agreement… I wish more people could experience such connections so they cared more to act now. I hope that in the future, our journey goes beyond just economics and growth and focuses more on the connection of humanity with nature.

(Background photo credits: Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica)