Climate change reflections – comparing Colombia and New Zealand

Former UNESCO Aotearoa Youth Leader Injy Johnstone has been doing some climate change work in Colombia through a Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Latin America. She compares New Zealand and Colombia’s attitudes and their impacts on climate change.

Injy (centre) with Youth Leaders in Rural Colombia.

Colombia and New Zealand share a lot, including a love of coffee and indigenous wildlife. However, there are significant differences between the two countries. In particular, the differences in policies and inequality levels have implications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. These differences suggest Colombia and New Zealand can learn a lot from each other. As well as the fact that the global and national frameworks for climate change action only have impact if they relate to people’s everyday lives.

While climate change is a global issue, the causes and effects of it are very unevenly distributed around the globe. In terms of contribution to climate change, the average Colombian emits 1.59 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. This is in contrast to the average New Zealander who releases 7.14 tonnes. In terms of car dependence, New Zealand ranks even higher at third compared to Colombia which is 106th in the world. Yet it is Colombia which incorporates car free days or ‘pico y placa’ in their major cities. This policy not only benefits the climate but also improves general air quality and public health. In terms of the even more potent greenhouse gas of methane, New Zealand emits the highest per capita level in the world from our farming. In contrast, Colombia adopts less intensive stock levels and farming methods which are less dependent on fertiliser, which releases further greenhouse gases. These two examples show ways in which New Zealand can learn from Colombia in terms of what kinds of policies are effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet from the IPCC’s latest report on staying below 2 degrees it is clear both countries still need to do more.

In terms of climate adaptation, Colombia ranks 76th in terms of vulnerability to climate change when compared with New Zealand, which ranks second. Generally speaking New Zealanders know what climate change is, as well as what its effects are, which include increasing extreme weather and rising sea levels. We are also fortunate to live at a longitude where the effects are not immediately as deadly. In contrast in Colombia, the huge economic and educational inequalities between urban and rural communities produce a different picture. I found this whilst running climate adaptation workshops in villages in Colombia when locals would describe how floods, droughts and wildfires were worsening at different times of the year with dire consequences for their livelihoods. Yet there was no understanding that climate change was causing it and crucially therefore, what locals could do to adapt to it. Colombia also is at high risk of many different kinds of natural disasters, which when aggravated by the effects of climate change, create much danger. Overall, in terms of prospects for adaptation, New Zealand currently fares better simply due to our fortunate geography and our knowledge of the effects of climate change. Yet both Colombia and New Zealand are missing the next crucial step of local adaptation plans to deal with these effects.

Overall, my experience in Colombia showed me that the global frameworks set up to manage climate change like the Paris Agreement or the Sustainable Development Goals, whilst necessary, tend to remain at that same global level. One reason why UNESCO has achieved so much for the cultural heritage of the world is because you can see and identify the positive impact in communities the world over, through recognising the sign protecting a site. The global plan to manage climate change does not yet have this tangibility. It is therefore crucial that we take learnings from the mitigation and adaptation strengths of countries such as Colombia and New Zealand, to make climate change action a practical reality worldwide.