This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Colombia- Bogotá – Despite belated efforts from the world’s nations to address the global warming challenge, it is now clear that temperatures will inevitably rise and that environmental and social consequences will follow. And yet, though it may be too late for humanity to prevent temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius globally, governments and citizens are still in a position to mitigate the consequences by effectively preparing to what is coming. Hence the looming question: will the world rise to the challenge and enact the necessary policies and incentives to adapt to climate-change or will it rest idle while it unfolds?

Considering the complexity of the issue and the multiple influencing variables, it is natural that the way in which countries and governments are to respond will vary. The major polluters, for instance, should focus primarily in reducing their carbon footprint as quickly as possible lest temperatures become intolerable. Meanwhile, countries set to be particularly affected by global warming–say, emerging economies that are likely to suffer from severe floods and droughts–should prioritize adapting their territories and infrastructure to withstand natural phenomena, while still trying to reduce their emissions.

Take Colombia, for example. With a population of 48 million people–roughly 0.65% of the world’s population–it contributes a mere 0.44% to global carbon emissions. And yet, for multiple reasons, it is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Recently, natural disasters have become more intense. Between 2010 and 2011, La Niña wrought havoc all around the country when torrential rains led to the flooding of multiple municipalities, the destruction of the home for thousands of families, and an economic damage tally of 2% of Gross Domestic Product. Meanwhile, the most recent El Niño left 30% of the country without potable water for several months and considerably increased the risk of power outages across the nation.

Perspectives are even more worrisome in the future. A recent study by the National Planning Department (DNP for its acronym in Spanish) showed that climate change could affect the productivity of the agricultural and transportation sectors. Agricultural yields of subsistence crops such as rice, potatoes and corn could decrease at an annual rate of 7.4% due to increased temperature and changes in precipitation patterns. With no adaptation measures in place, the effects would be suffered by the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

To date, Colombia’s vulnerability to climate events is explained by its location, its rapid and disorganized urban growth, a lack of investment in climate resilient infrastructure, and the degradation in the country´s natural capital. Only 3% of current land-use plans include natural hazards analysis, 28% of the population lives in flood prone areas, and half of Colombia’s natural ecosystems are under threat. Moreover, and despite recent improvements, deforestation is still one of the main causes of natural capital loss. This, in turn, is the result of illicit crops and illegal mining, as well as extensive cattle ranching. A plethora of causes that are not exactly unique to Colombia but, instead, common in other emerging economies.

With such a dire diagnosis, what is Colombia’s plan to cope with climate change? To ensure that the country sustains its recent gains in economic and social development, the government has decided to re-focus growth strategies towards green growth–i.e. implementing policies that not only increase economic productivity, but also ensure the efficient use of natural resources and the protection of natural capital.

The first step towards this goal came along with the country’s 2014-2018 National Development Plan. For the first time in Colombia’s history, this Plan acknowledged green growth as a cross-cutting development strategy and set three clear objectives in this regard: (i) advancing towards a low carbon and sustainable growth; (ii) protecting and ensuring the sustainable use of Colombia´s natural capital; and (iii) achieving resilient growth while reducing the country´s vulnerability to climate change and natural risks. To make these come to fruition, the Plan defined accompanying targets: the share of renewable energy in the power system should increase by 11%, the annual rate of deforestation should decrease by 25%, and 100% of the population should be covered by climate-change adaptation plans.

Further, in pursuit of sustainable growth, the government has marked as its priority to revamp its energy sector to diversify its energy sources and significantly increase the use of non-conventional renewable energy sources (NCREs). Thus, in 2014 it enacted a new law to foster the use of NCREs via their integration to the energy market and to increase their use in non-interconnected zones. To achieve the former, long-term energy contracts that consider the nature of NCREs–wherein electricity generation is dependent on climate conditions–will be implemented. Though no special treatment will be granted to these energy sources, by devising contracts where payment is conditional to a set amount of energy supply previously agreed upon–as opposed to an amount that varies with energy demand–the national regulation will allow for mitigating the risks of NCREs initiatives. Other measures, such as overhauling the way in which energy payments are calculated and introducing smart grids to allow consumers who generate their own power to sell their surplus, are also on the way.

As for increasing the use of NCREs in non-interconnected zones, the government is encouraging the setup of business ventures conducive to providing isolated energy solutions in far-away areas. These are likely to involve the use of solar and wind energies, and will benefit the 3% of the population that has yet to enjoy reliable energy supply.

These measures are of course work-in-progress and will need to be constantly revised if the country is to establish an effective and long-term sustainable growth strategy. Mindful of this, the DNP has launched the “Green Growth Taskforce”, an initiative that will issue encompassing policy recommendations that are in line with this goal and will comply with climate-change related commitments pertaining to the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement agendas.

When it comes to climate-change, Colombia is aware of the difficulties lying ahead. To cope with them, it has set an ambitious policy plan that involves not only acting in the short term, but also setting up the institutional framework that will be needed in the long run. Certainly, much more will need to be done if the country is to effectively adapt to climate-change and reduce its contributing share to global warming. But in the meantime, valuable policy lessons are being drawn and sustainable growth as an all-encompassing goal is finally becoming attainable.

Colombia is thus aware of and rising to the climate-change challenge. Hopefully, its experience and lessons will contribute to preventing other emerging economies–and advanced ones–from remaining idle.

1. Director General at Colombia’s National Department for Planning.