UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host a Climate Summit next week in New York in an effort to get initiatives on the table that could make the UN-imposed deadline of a legal climate agreement by 2015 possible. The list of confirmed guests include nearly 120 heads of state, along with other lower-ranking country representatives. It is expected that this meeting will be the largest gathering of world power on the topic of climate change since the 2009 Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference. The idea, the Secretary-General has urged, is for world leaders to announce bold actions that they are planning to take in their countries in order to counteract carbon emissions. Perhaps Mr Ban is hoping to provide a platform on which a brave little country could say something like “We have lots of oil under a carpet of the most biodiverse nature, but if you guys want, we’ll leave it there.” Maybe that would shock world leaders into reflection; a revolutionary concept about how to prevent instead of fix what’s already broken. Or maybe that already happened and the Secretary-General is fishing for more initiatives that heads of state the world over can trample. In view of the upcoming major gathering of world powers to discuss solutions to climate change, here is the story of one initiative that went from being a climate change solution to yet another climate change problem. The Yasuní National Park on the eastern edge of Ecuador is an ecoregion of nearly 10,000 square kilometres. It was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989 and is home to world records of both fauna and flora diversity and quantity. Among its countless species of birds, mamals and amphibians hidding in thick rainforest, live two of the world’s uncontacted indigenous tribes. Nowadays one can also see enormous barges transporting a plethora of machinery up and down main rivers; over 300 workers are now commuting deep into the pristine national park in order to set up oil excavation facilities, which the Ecuadorian government projects will result in its first 10,000 barrels of oil by March of 2016. It was President Rafael Correa who first brought the attention of the world to Yasuní in 2009. His government made a bold proposal at the Copenhagen UN Climate Change Conference to receive compensation in order to not extract the oil reserves under Yasuní. He wanted $3.6 billion delivered to an account that his government would manage, or else, Yasuní would be in danger. Lesson #1: No matter how simple the proposal, in the game of politics it’s all about the terms and conditions. Perhaps it was a bit over the top for Ecuador to essentially blackmail the rest of the world — more on this here – in order to not destroy what little it has, still, a few governments bought into it and would have been happy to pay their carbon consciences away had Mr Correa not insisted on keeping the money by the bedside table. The Yasuní ITT Initiative gained some support over the next four years of campaigning and negotiating. Meanwhile, at home, the Ministry of Environment was approving environmental impact studies for oil exploration in Yasuní. The government was both touring the world with its revolutionary proposal and preparing a Plan B at home: to set up oil drills in the national park. Lesson #2: Ecological initiatives that upon failing would result in more destruction to the environment than there was to begin with are probably not a good idea. On 14 August, 2013, President Correa said in a televised announcement that the Yasuní ITT Initiative had come to an end. “The world has failed us,” said the Ecuadorian president to his countrymen refering to insuficiency of funds — about USD376 million — gathered. Less than two months later the government approved the infamous Plan B. The news alarmed environmentalists around the world and particularly Ecuadorian ones. There was an immediate reaction that resulted in various groups making appeals to the government to reconsider the destruction of this precious place. Eventually one group came forward: Yasunidos became the official voice of those against excavation in Yasuní. Following Ecuadorian law, they tried to gather enough signatures to present to the National Electoral Council (CNE for its Spanish name). Through the CNE, the Ecuadorian government said that any given issue could be called into a national vote given that at least five percent of registered voters made the request. As such, Yasunidos needed to collect 584,323 signatures of registered voters in order to allow a public vote on drilling for oil in Yasuní. By April this year, Yasunidos turned in an official petition with what they reported was 673,862 signatures. Upon revision, the CNE announced on May 6 that only 359,761 signatures were valid, hence not enough support was presented to call to a national vote on the issue. None of the appeals made by Yasunidos were considered. Later that month an independent study conducted by university professors confirmed that under official regulation, 667,334 of the signatures were in fact valid and represented real Ecuadorian voters. On the day the study was released, President Correa told a group of journalists that “It was not in his plans to call for a national vote on the Yasuní issue.” Lesson #3: Democratic governments do not always act in representation of its people. Big surprise. Yasunidos continued to demand explanations from the CNE, but their voices — and those of arguably 667,334 people — have gone unheard. President Correa will not be one of the 120 heads of state attending next week’s summit in New York. Ecuador will be represented by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which, in diplomatic language translates loosely to “we’re there in spirit”. Meanwhile, the next Climate Change Conference is scheduled for December right next door in Perú. Perhaps by then Ecuador’s national oil company could have paved roads across Yasuní and offer tours to the areas of excavation to attending diplomats who spent so long listening all about the untouched natural wonders of our UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Yasuní ITT: Lessons from a Carbon Emission Pipedream