“All roads lead to Rome,” runs the old saying, and sure enough today finds President Alberto Fernández in the Italian capital for the G20 summit with Glasgow as tomorrow’s destination for the COP26 United Nations Conference on Climate Change. For the next few days the intense electoral fray (with infighting as much as the external competition) will be banished from his mind as he tackles global problems. Or so it might be hoped – there is always the danger that his monothematic obsession with debt relief will crowd out all else or that he will play to domestic galleries with the midterms now only a fortnight away.
Little point in trying to chart a summit already in progress ahead of the event – especially since the G20 leaders will be looking at a world in a twilight zone between pandemic and recovery with the virus still causing havoc (the official global Covid-19 death toll is arriving at five million as these lines are being written, having already reached it early this month according to other sources) but with mass vaccination bringing life much closer to normal in numerous countries, including Argentina. So let us skip Rome for now and move straight onto Glasgow, leaping from the Eternal City to eternity.
COP26 is taking on a far grander challenge than the G20 summit with a clearer agenda – nothing less than saving the planet while the objectives (such as zero net carbon emissions worldwide by mid-century and keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Centigrade) both predate and will long follow the Scottish conclave. Some seek to intertwine this existential crisis with the coronavirus pandemic by presenting the latter as nature’s warning against climate change but this is mixing apples with oranges – humanity has long known worse plagues in centuries with far more respect for nature. Nor do the solutions have to be technophobe – electric cars are only one example of technology’s capacity to correct itself. There is absolutely no need to add to this enormous challenge which is quite big enough to stand alone.
And what will President Fernández bring to this table? A firm commitment to reducing emissions already in the course of this decade. An objective as noble as it is ambitious but some chapters in this government’s track record prompt suspicions that this commitment is no firmer than the assurances of lower fiscal deficits bound to accompany any agreement with the International Monetary Fund if and when it comes. Thus its enthusiasm for Vaca Muerta fracking (hailed as the cash cow to solve many of Argentina’s pressing economic problems) has reached such lengths that this year Frente de Todos caucus leader Máximo Kirchner pushed through Congress a law raising the bar for carbon-neutral biofuels production from Argentina’s agricultural abundance in favour of oil. This government’s extreme subsidies of electricity and gas billing across the social spectrum, more electorally driven than ever, are an open invitation to energy guzzling. One sector poised to embrace this invitation is Bitcoin farming or mining or whatever they call it, which drools at the prospect of hundreds of subsidised megawatts – studies by prestigious Cambridge University have revealed that worldwide bitcoin energy consumption (due to the intense computer programming required against fraud etc.) overtook both Holland and Argentina early this year – and yet a government starved of investment only seems to welcome this interest. Meanwhile, the Paraná River sinks ever lower.
Nor does the minister accompanying Fernández to Glasgow inspire confidence but this reproach should in no way be limited to the current government. Environment Minister Juan Cabandié owes his portfolio to being a La Cámpora militant leader rather than any previous contributions to these issues but all his predecessors since 1991 have been political appointments without any prior experience of environmental activism with the single exception of Romina Picolotti (convicted for corruption a month ago after a 14-year trial). In general, green thinking in Argentine politics spells greenbacks rather than environmental conservation – a tendency underlined by the total absence of the issue in the electoral debates earlier this month.
Against this backdrop it can only be hoped that President Fernández makes a substantial contribution in Glasgow beyond nebulous commitments or trying to dilute his government’s red ink with debt-for-nature swap proposals. But this is not just about Argentina – the whole world is running out of time (has already done so in many ways with much of the damage already done irreversible for decades) to save itself from catastrophe.