Fiddling while Paris Burns

Venezuela made specific commitments to the world in the context of the Paris Climate Accords. It’s not just that we’re behind on implementing them, it’s that we’re way behind in planning to implement them.

Trying to cross la Urdaneta in order to get to the south of La Candelaria the other day, the traffic light changed and I got stuck in the middle of the busy four-lane thoroughfare. Standing there surrounded by cars, buses and incredibly loud honking, I pondered how ludicrous any notion of environmental protection felt. Climate change, global warming or environmental degradation, I thought to myself, felt like stories plucked from a NatGeo documentary.

Luscious, bright green leaves hung from huge trees with enormous unkempt branches along Avenida Urdaneta. Run-down cars and microbuses spit toxic smoke into the air, contributing to the brownish cloud of smog covering the avenue as far as the eye could see, wafting up from our aggressive gasoline subsidy – which makes a café con leche cost five times more than a full tank of gas.

As the acrid smoke fills my lungs, I think about Venezuela’s commitment to reduce its emissions by at least 20% by 2030.

You hadn’t heard that one? Don’t worry, neither has anyone else. But the promise was made, in the context of the Paris Climate Accord.

But is Venezuela doing anything to meet this obligation?

I turned to experts, activists and official reports for answers. My conclusion: essentially nothing is being done. In the words of an environmental activist friend: everything the government does makes you doubt if they’re really interested in implementing the agreement.

Unlike some places mostly the U.S. where important political players believe the whole thing is some monstrous embuste, nobody in Venezuelan public life questions the science of climate change. Yet, as Juan Nagel wrote last year, it’s hard to know what (if anything) Venezuelan politicians really think about the Paris Agreement “because they act as if it had happened in another galaxy.”


So when the global Paris agreement was adopted in December 2015, beyond different media reporting on it and your regular environmentalist celebrating its adoption on TV or radio shows, not much was said about its implications for an oil-dependent country like ours.

A few months later, then Foreign Minister Delcy Eloina went to New York to sign the Paris Agreement on Venezuela’s behalf. In an unusual move, the Maduro regime had previously secured the required legislative approval in one of the last sessions of the then PSUV-controlled National Assembly at the end of 2015. Usually, this works the other way around; first signature and then legislative approval. The agreement will become legally binding for Venezuela today, 30 days after it was ratified (ratification being the final step to make a country part to an international legal instrument).

Yet, nothing indicates we are moving towards the path the Paris Agreement has laid out for the future. That path spins around a two-pronged approach: 1) mitigation, by which countries commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep the planet’s temperature from rising; and 2) adaption, so that countries and communities can deal with the effects of climate change we are already witnessing around the world.

Taking stock  

Climate change expert Juan Carlos Sánchez explained to me that a mitigation plan requires having a real inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. The emphasis on real is because the INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) presented by Venezuela is based on estimates made by the World Bank that don’t account for all sources of emissions; instead these only account for those from fossil fuel burning and cement production.

Ratification is still pending, though, making the agreement still not legally binding for Venezuela.

80% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Venezuela come from three sources: the oil industry, including the Punta de Mata mechurrio; the transport sector; and diesel consumption at power plants.

However, the true amount of Venezuela’s greenhouse gases emissions is unknown: it has been almost 20 years since the collection of data, even though the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) mandates countries to do so (the first and only official communication prepared in compliance with the UNFCCC was presented in 2005 but was based on data from 1999).

Venezuela isn’t a major emitter, if you look at it globally. In terms of emissions per capita though, we’re among the highest in Latin America.

Thus, an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions is needed in order to know where and how to cut. This inventory, Sánchez says, is no minor undertaking: it requires lots of data from different sectors and lots of technical expertise to compile, analyze and interpret them. This could turn out to be complex as in the halls of the Ecosocialism Ministry and within the rest of the government ideology and loyalty come before expertise, leaving it either depleted of professionals capable of doing the job or not counting on those highly trained based on their political preferences (think of it as a political-ideological apartheid of sorts).


Venezuela is also lagging in adaptation. Planning here is sometimes even more difficult than mitigation: drawing a plan requires technical expertise and coordinated work at the regional and local levels. It means staying above ideology and party politics to work together on a common goal across local, regional and central government structures – many of which are in the hands of opposition parties. It requires assessments for local risks and vulnerabilities. And it also takes concerted work by different sectors in order to plan responses ahead of time for the mitigation of medium and long term effects of climate change; such as damages to transportation infrastructure, water shortages, or the proliferation of diseases like dengue or zika (do you picture anyone in the Maduro regime working with the Cámara de Turismo, attempting to set up plans and resources to replace lost infrastructure due to rising sea levels?).

Venezuela isn’t a major emitter, if you look at it globally. In terms of emissions per capita though, we’re among the highest in Latin America.

Just like the mitigation plan, there is no official word about the adaptation plan beyond announcing it in the INDC document.

Banking on oil

As everyone knows, petroleum remains the main driver of Venezuela’s development. As Sánchez indicates in a recent article, this is one of the few issues where both government and opposition coincide: investing in the oil industry and expanding its capabilities. So a political change is no guarantee of a fresh new thinking.

In his now common, politically schizophrenic fashion, Maduro continues to bet on higher prices in international markets while at the same time proclaiming the end of el modelo rentista. But the alternatives to oil as sources of revenue don’t really point us towards sustainable and environmentally sound activities. Jorge Arreaza, until recently Mines Minister, acknowledged that gold and other minerals from the Arco Minero a mineral-rich area in the south of Venezuela – are the most important alternative source of wealth besides oil, despite being heavily criticized and denounced by different actors from the civil society and prominent former chavistas cabinet members, for its adverse environmental and social effects.

Why is this?

Trying to make sense of Maduro and his regime is an exercise in futility.

However, a hint of what might also be behind can be found in the decree convening the Constituent National Assembly, which stresses that a reorganization of the Republic would allow to constitutionally develop “with more specificity on the sovereign rights over the protection of [Venezuela’s] biodiversity and the development of an ecological culture in our society.”

Could it be that Venezuela is hiding behind the sovereignty shield when it comes to actions on climate change, moving away from the Paris Agreement straitjacket of concerted measures? Maybe. If so, this “I’ll do it my way” strategy would effectively align Maduro’s regime with its nemesis, the United States, by isolating itself – either explicitly or implicitly – from global efforts to counter climate change. But it would be bad for the long term perspectives of our country; highly vulnerable to climate change from an environmental and an economic viewpoint.

So while the world continues its course towards renewable energies and trying to adapt to a new climate reality, Venezuela remains in a 20th Century mindset with its feet buried in a pond of oil that might never need to be taken out of the ground.

Luisa Kislinger

Luisa is a one-time career diplomat and all-time human rights and women's rights advocate.