The US is out, Nicaragua's in

John Perry

While Donald Trump gives the appearance of wavering over his decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Nicaragua has decided to sign it. It was one of only two countries not to sign in Paris last year; the other was Syria. Nicaragua abstained out of principle: the agreement didn’t go far enough. The target – to keep the average global temperature no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels – was too high, and in any case unlikely to be met. An unfair burden was being put on developing nations and not enough money was being promised to help them build low carbon economies.

I met Nicaragua’s climate change negotiator, Paul Oquist, in June, a few days after Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. I suggested it would be an excellent moment for Nicaragua to change its mind, though claim no credit for the subsequent decision; I can’t have been the only one to think so.

When Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007 after 16 years of neoliberal governments, most of Nicaragua’s electricity was produced by burning oil. Shortages led to daily blackouts. Nicaragua was the poorest country in Central America but had the highest electricity prices. Ten years later, blackouts are much less frequent, prices have stabilised and more than half the electricity comes from renewable sources, with a realistic aim of reaching 90 per cent by 2020. Costa Rica has already exceeded that target, but three-quarters is via hydroelectricity, which may be vulnerable as climate change speeds up. Nicaragua’s energy matrix is more balanced, using wind, geothermal, solar and biomass alongside hydro.

Latin America has plentiful renewable sources for electricity generation; the next challenge in reducing emissions will be transport. Even in the bigger cities, public transport is often inadequate and unattractive to the growing numbers who can afford cars. Weaning people off petrol or diesel cars and onto public transport means a major change in mindset for an elite whose point of reference is Miami. In a continent where railways have fallen into disuse and only the poor take buses, infrastructure investment currently means building more roads.

Latin America is a major supplier of ‘ecosystem services’, principally the huge tropical forests that absorb carbon. North of the Amazon, Nicaragua has the biggest area of tropical forest in the hemisphere, but it is under constant threat from settlement, especially for cattle ranching. Ortega has granted a Chinese company the rights to build an inter-oceanic canal, rivalling Panama, on the grounds that it’s the only way to conserve the rainforest. The income from the canal, he argues, combined with the need to guarantee its water sources, will enable Nicaragua to defend the remaining forests and replant the areas now given over to cattle. The canal company, which has yet to start digging, has just announced a big tree-planting scheme.

Nicaragua has suffered several years of limited rainy seasons; the prognosis is for the droughts to get worse. Coffee production and other crops are threatened by rising temperatures. Yet the country generates only 0.03 per cent of global carbon emissions, a paltry 0.8 metric tonnes per head annually. Costa Rica produces twice that amount per head, the UK eight times and the US twenty times. If developed countries (the US excepted) are serious about the Paris Agreement, they’ll put money into helping poor countries achieve higher living standards without raising emissions. Even the IMF thinks they should do this. But Nicaragua’s scepticism about the likelihood of it happening is more than justified, even if, as an ‘act of solidarity’ with the poorest and most vulnerable nations, it goes ahead and signs.


  • 4 October 2017 at 11:49am
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Despite the "limited rainy seasons" Nicaraguan coffee production for the last two years (according to the International Coffee Organisation) has been exceeded only once in its history, in 2011-12.

    • 4 October 2017 at 6:39pm
      John Perry says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      A valid point although I intentionally said that climate change threatens the coffee crop, rather than that it was already being adversely affected. The prognosis is for more droughts, and also that rising tempratures will affect the quality of the coffee. Nicaragua's coffee has a high reputation, and it often features in the 'cup of gold' competitions, so any climate-related effects on it will be damaging to the country's economy.

  • 4 October 2017 at 1:05pm
    Stu Bry says:
    It's strange to see such a huge project as the canal mentioned in passing.

    This is an interesting article about it

    • 4 October 2017 at 6:35pm
      John Perry says: @ Stu Bry
      Space is limited in the blog so more detail on the canal will have to await another opportunity. Suffice to say at the moment there are few signs of it proceeding, despite the continued attention given to it by the Guardian, etc.

  • 4 October 2017 at 7:22pm
    prangman says:
    Really interesting to hear that despite not having resisted the negative traits that have afflicted other 21st century Latin American leftist leaders (nepotism, corruption, dictatorial leanings or at the very least the desire to stay in power indefinitely) Ortega has actually achieved something that looks a lot like sustainable development, not to mention a massive fall in crime.
    It's no surprise that the rightwing media ignores Nicaragua (who wants to know about a socialist who hasn't destroyed the economy or delivered social reforms funded by a single, highly precarious commodity), but I wonder why Ortega, who in his earlier guerilla incarnation was such a darling of the left in the 80s, and Nicaragua as a whole, is not held up more by the international left as an example of a successful socialist government.
    Perhaps because of said dictatorial leanings? Same could be said of Bolivia,to a lesser degree.

  • 4 October 2017 at 8:14pm
    ksh93 says:
    A significant part of the reason why US per capita Carbon output is more than double that of most West European countries is the love Americans have for their brawny trucks as opposed to cars whose sales are in freefall. A quarter million of these behemoths (including their even bigger "Heavy Duty" brethren) were driven off new-vehicle dealer lots last month:

    In most of Midwestern US (including large metropolitan areas like Dallas, pop. 6 million+) it's common to see a third to half of all traffic comprised of trucks that weigh more than double a family sedan carrying a single high seated individual to his desk job (it's almost always a he).

    There's also an ongoing "Torque War" that has jacked up the stump pulling power of these behemoths to numbers that are about 2-3 times the torque needed by a large bus to transport, say, 50 persons during rush hour in any European city.

    Guns and trucks still make for a potent combination in the hidden recesses of American masculinity:

    Prudent politicians steer clear of measures that might arouse the (easily induced) wrath of this noisy constituency:,_dead_hands

  • 6 October 2017 at 7:34am
    farthington says:
    Clearly it's time for Uncle Sam to do a Honduras on Nicaragua!

  • 7 October 2017 at 6:41am
    pgillott says:
    Article 9 of the Paris agreement is to the effect that developed countries will provide financial assistance to developing ones for both mitigation and adaptation. The amount is not mentioned there, but is reported elsewhere to stick with an intended amount (promised in 2009) of $100 billion per annum by 2020, to continue beyond 2025. The OECD is said to have claimed that the amount in 2013-14 was $57bn, with a paper published by the Indian government saying that it may have been as low as $2.2bn. It seems that even getting an agreed order of magnitude on what’s been given is a matter of controversy, or was in 2015. There was a disagreement about the transparency or otherwise of the OECD’s calculations. (

    On the subject of urban infrastructure in Latin America, praise was given to the transport system of Curitiba in the book Factor Four (Weizsacker, Lovins and Lovins), published in 1998. This was said to have been the fastest growing city in Brazil over the previous quarter century, and to have been planned in such a way as to give access to the city centre “for everyone”, with a well-designed bus system used each day by almost 70% of the population, and relatively low car use and clean air. From what you say, if this has been retained, it’s probably the exception rather than the norm for the continent.

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