Ecuador Steps Closer to Historic Climate Change Deal

An agreement between the government of Ecuador, the United Nations, and industrialized countries concerned about the causes of climate change could protect one of the world’s most biodiverse tracts of rainforest while keeping 846 million barrels of oil safe in the ground. Though the idea has been years in the works, Ecuador recently moved a step closer to finalizing a deal that could set a precedent for developing countries around the world. If all goes according to plan, industrialized countries like Germany and Spain will be paying Ecuador to leave a fifth of its sizable oil reserves undeveloped, preventing carbon emissions and protecting a wealth of plant and animal species in the country’s Yasuni National Park.

For years the administration of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has been struggling with a dilemma: how to protect the South American nation’s incredible biodiversity and contribute to the fight against climate change while growing economically in a country where oil makes up 60% of national exports. In 2007 President Correa hit on a partial solution. That year the government of Ecuador approached the United Nations, offering to leave hundreds of millions of barrels of oil in the ground underneath Yasuni National Park if industrialized countries would pay Ecuador half the market value of the oil in compensation—a figure estimate at $3.6 billion.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of the deal is it would prevent about a fifth of Ecuador’s oil reserves from being extracted, burned, and contributing to climate change. Yet the climate impacts of the plan go even further, because protecting Yasuni Park would prevent deforestation that also contributes to the causes of climate change. The protected forest also holds other types of value: not only is the Ecuadorean Amazon one of the most biodiverse forests in the world, Yasuni National Park is home to two of the last remaining un-contacted indigenous tribes in the world.

Unsurprisingly, when the plan was first proposed industrialized countries were quicker to praise the idea in theory than they were to actually offer up funds to make it work. However European countries like Germany, Spain, France, and Belgium have all come forward and said they would contribute, the crucial missing link being establishment of an independent United Nations trust fund to watch over distribution of the money. That final piece fell into place last week, making prospects for the project’s success very good. If industrialized countries follow through on their pledges, Ecuador could soon begin receiving funds designed to help it leave oil under Yasuni Park undeveloped.

Ecuadorean leaders say the money received from rich countries will go to help Ecuador develop a clean energy economy and reduce its carbon emissions still further while enabling sustainable economic development. If a country that has relied so long on exploiting its oil reserves can break its dependence on fossil fuels in this way, it could pave the way for similar initiatives in other countries. Nearby nations like Peru, which is moving fast to develop oil reserves at great expense to tropical biodiversity, might begin to think twice before taking their oil out of the ground.

Further, a successful partnership to save Ecuador’s rainforest and keep carbon emissions out of the air would help demonstrate the international cooperation to prevent climate change is possible. Agreements like that being brokered by Ecuador are just a small part of the kind of international framework needed to truly prevent catastrophic climate change. But implementation of President Correa’s bright idea could inject a much-needed note of optimism into international climate talks this year and beyond.

Photo credit: lana.japan on Flickr

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.