Colombia: Ready to Expand Environmental Policies

By Luis Gilberto Murillo*

Lush view of mountain range in Colombia

Jardín, Colombia by Pedro Szekely / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombia has provided important leadership in implementing integrated, pro-environment taxes in the country, but there is urgent need for it to do more.  In 2017, Colombia became one of three countries with the greatest advances in implementing fiscal mechanisms to control emissions, one of the principal tasks on its agenda for full membership in the OECD.  But experts believe that the deepening of the global socio-ecological crisis caused by climate change demands broader, accelerated fiscal mechanisms to protect the environment and sustainable development.

  • In 2015, Colombia, as part of its Paris Agreement commitments, set the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2030. A recent report by the Comptroller General of the Republic concluded that the Colombian national economy will need to undergo a significant restructuring to meet that goal and make the country resilient in the face of extreme climate events such as floods and droughts.  The Comptroller report opened the door to discussion of fiscal tools for action and environmental protection, with special priority given to controlling deforestation, water conservation, and improving air quality. Environment taxes on carbon, plastic bags, and motorcycles with motors above 200cc have been a starting point, but the Comptroller assesses that they haven’t been effective enough.
  • The government today has much greater resources – more than 700 billion Pesos (about US$227 million) per year – than before. Moreover, the launch of Colombia’s unique voluntary carbon market, bringing important projects and a flow of resources to rural and ethnic minorities (Afro-Colombians and Indigenous communities), has already demonstrated the positive impact of green taxes.  The program to tax plastic bags has reduced their use by 30 percent in just the first year of implementation, 2017.

Debate over how and where to invest the resources created by environmental taxes will certainly be important.  Most observers believe that the central criterion should be how well projects change the attitudes and behavior of those involved.  Projects will be key, but the contribution of each individual to save the planet will be even more important.

  • The recent finance law, introduced by the current government and approved by Congress, missed a valuable opportunity to adjust existing green taxes and create new ones, especially regarding progress in promoting electric vehicles, innovative renewable energy production, and control over the use of plastics other than bags. Upcoming legislation provides ample chances to expand environmental taxes to achieve these goals.  A better balance between various taxes – on capital and labor on one hand, and pollution and environmental degradation on the other – could lay the foundation for progress.

The gains made thus far underscore the importance of having a strategic vision and discipline.  Improvisation will fail; steady work, technical rigor, and political wisdom are required for progress.  An important first step will be the designation of a technical mission to head the National Planning Department, which is charged with leading and coordinating the country’s development agenda in the medium and long term.  Such a technical mission, along with the Comptroller team, can guide public debate and keep it squarely on the national public agenda.

March 1, 2019

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a CLALS research fellow and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, with almost 30 years of experience in the areas of environment, sustainable development, and peace building.

Chilean Watershed?

 

Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Michelle Bachelet / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Sunday’s presidential primaries in Chile – the country’s first ever –reaffirmed former President Michelle Bachelet’s leadership of Concertación and cleared the way for a faceoff in November between herself and the Conservative candidate, Economy Minister Pablo Longueira.  Bachelet trounced challengers within her center-left coalition, winning 74 percent of the primary vote, and seems poised to build on the astounding 81 percent approval rating she had in 2010 when her first term ended.  (Current President Sebastián Piñera’s approval rating now hovers around 40 percent, a two-year high for him.)  Conservative Longueira will have the advantage of Piñera’s incumbency, but his party’s somewhat weaker performance on Sunday – with about 27 percent of all votes cast – and his slim 3 percent margin within the coalition suggest a tough campaign ahead for him.  Most observers deem Longueira’s performance in Piñera’s cabinet to have been competent but unexciting, and they predict an easy Bachelet victory in November.

Whichever candidate wins, Chile faces an evolving set of challenges.  Its commodities-driven economy is slowing down, and a stubborn gap between rich and poor is fueling demands for tax and education reforms.  Chile is ranked the most unequal country of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Widespread demonstrations by students, teachers and professors have been demanding free tuition from preschool through university, and key labor unions are increasingly joining these mobilizations for reform.  Accepting her primary victory on Sunday night, Bachelet said voters were motivated by a desire for tax and education reform as well as a new constitution to replace the one created under dictator Pinochet in 1980.  She has also said that if elected she will halt the controversial HydroAysén project, which would build five mega-dams on two of Chilean Patagonia’s rivers.  Despite this rhetorical shift leftward and her role as the leader of the Socialist Party, such statements are not expected to lead to significant policy shifts; Chilean observers say she will continue to hew closely to the market-friendly policies that helped make Chile one of the region’s most stable countries during her first term.

Bachelet’s and Longueira’s competition may fail to excite the electorate in November, when voting will not be obligatory for the first time, and low turnout could deprive the victor of the mandate needed to lead thorough change, an arguable requisite  to increase the credibility of democratic institutions.  Empowered by two years of protests, student leaders are not leaving things entirely up to political elites.  Many are also running for office and aspire to bring a new perspective and direction to reforms in Chile.  International attention has focused in recent weeks on popular mobilizations in Brazil, but as recently as last week, tens of thousands of Chileans marched through the streets of Santiago and other major cities, challenging the credibility of the existing political order.  Bachelet has made deals with some of the protest leaders – agreeing, for example, not to run a Concertación candidate against one of them in a congressional race – but their demands are unremitting and strategic, and the winner of the upcoming election faces  a real challenge in trying to satisfy them.