Science & Research

Discussion explores Chinese-Latin American relations

Day-long event analyzes countries’ growing contributions to global climate change

By
Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2014

“We really want to talk about two sides to this story,” said Guy Edwards, a research fellow at the University’s Institute for the Study of the Environment and Society and co-director of the Climate and Development Lab, Friday at an event entitled “Chinese-Latin American Relations: Toward a More Sustainable Paradigm in a Warming World?” held in the Watson Institute for International Studies.

Though fewer than 20 students attended the discussion in person, the event was “mostly tailored towards (alums and scholars) listening online and following us on social media,” said Sophie Purdom ’16, a member of the lab who helped organize the event. The group in attendance shifted often throughout the event. The morning’s 90-minute panel presentations and 90-minute question-and-answer session were live-streamed on the CDL’s website. Students from the CDL also posted live tweets from the event.

Keyboards clicked throughout the morning as students and panelists took extensive notes on the presentations.

Co-organized by the CDL and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the Watson Institute, the conference aimed to analyze the opportunities and constraints in Chinese-Latin American relations toward creating sustainability, according to a handout available for attendees. The exponential speed of growth over the last decade in trade and investment between China and Latin America has surprised many analysts, Edwards told The Herald.

He said the conference is particularly “timely” — China’s recent announcement of its goal to cap its emissions by 2030 marked a significant “change for the Chinese, who only a few years ago were not willing to take on any commitments whatsoever.” The international community aims to reach a global climate change agreement by 2015, Edwards added.

Edwards said he hopes small conferences like Friday’s help push for “broader agendas” in policymaking that include environmental concerns more than concerns for natural resource investment and commodities alone, adding that “both China and Latin America are very vulnerable.” In January 2015, a forum held by the Latin American and Caribbean states will involve China for the first time, Edwards said. The meeting will launch the 2015-19 China-Latin America Cooperation Plan, he added.

Panelist Lisa Viscidi, director of the Energy, Climate Change and Extractive Industries Program of the Inter-American Dialogue, provided context for Chinese-Latin American relations and sustainability by comparing energy use between regions. While approximately two-thirds of emissions result from energy and one-third from land use in most countries under the “global norm,” Latin America’s emissions are “reversed,” Viscidi said, adding that the region’s energy is “extremely clean compared to the global norm” due to Latin America’s dependence on hydropower rather than coal.

Several speakers emphasized the damage of deforestation as part of land use in Latin America. Rebecca Ray, a research fellow at Boston University’s Global Economic Governance Initiative and an economics PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, zoomed in on this issue as she presented the preliminary results from her case study of eight Latin American countries.

“The most important source of deforestation in Latin America is not just the extraction projects, is not just the dam projects, but is the roads getting there, overwhelmingly,” she said. Roads, railroads and commercial waterways bring humans, ranches and small settlements, she said, adding that “this is especially true in countries like Ecuador … that border places that have a lot of civil unrest.” Displaced people settle the “brand new roads opened up into the jungle,” she added.

Ray’s discussion of the carbon intensity of trade between the two regions particularly interested Purdom, who said she hopes to write an op-ed based on some of the speakers’ research.

Kai Salem ’18 also said she especially enjoyed Ray’s presentation and how the event offered the opportunity to think outside “the U.S.-centric point of view.”

Panelist Sandra Lopez, who works at the Inter-American Development Bank, discussed low-carbon development strategies in Latin America, highlighting Mexico’s EcoCasa sustainable housing program. EcoCasa received United Nations recognition for its 27,000 efficient homes that reduce greenhouse gas emission by 20 percent “compared to conventional homes while improving quality of life (for) low income families,” Lopez said. She called the program “a good example of collaboration, of resource mobilization from different governments, development banks and multi-donor funds.”