Amb. Nathalie Cely Suarez: Ecuador can lend America a hand on climate change

U.S. President Obama surprised many during his second inaugural address when he counted climate change, which received little serious attention during the presidential campaign, among his top second-term priorities. If he is serious about tackling climate change in his second term, President Obama will need new allies and partners in countries that have already made meaningful gains on climate change, such as Ecuador.

Ecuadorians hold a unique role in the climate change debate. It was in Ecuador, home to the Galápagos Islands and Yasuní rainforest, that Charles Darwin studied the world’s highest concentration of biodiversity and developed his Theory of Evolution. Our national identity — from our indigenous people to the mosaic of heritages that make up the modern state — is tied to our unique sense of life and our common purpose to protect it. Environmental rights are enshrined in our national constitution, which also commits the country to “the promotion of efficient energy, the development and use of environmentally clean practices and technologies such as renewable, diversified energies with low environmental impact.”

Ecuador has also gone through its share of environmental traumas. In the 1970s, foreign oil companies entered the country and caused billions of dollars of environmental damage. Ecuador learned from these experiences, instituting two important changes: holding all companies to the highest of safety and technological standards, and implementing a national plan to shift the country’s energy matrix to clean renewable energies.

Part of this national plan is the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, a bold commitment by Ecuador to leave 20 percent of its oil underground — and to prevent the emission of an estimated 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. These 846 million barrels lay underneath Yasuní National Park, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse locations on the planet.

During the 2012 campaign, President Obama committed to greater cooperation with Latin America, and climate change is a perfect place to start. The U.S. can engage with countries like Ecuador on several fronts to push forward true action.

First, bilateral technical cooperation and exchange can be enhanced. By 2016, more than 90 percent of Ecuador’s energy will be supplied by renewable energy sources, saving more than $100 million in annual fuel costs and enabling us to export clean energy. The lessons learned from this experience — particularly on the impact of these “transitional issues” on our culture and economy — can and should be shared with the U.S.

Second, Ecuador is launching a regional science, technology and innovation hub, Yachay City of Knowledge, which will gather the hemisphere’s leading technology companies and research institutes to work on forward-thinking solutions to global challenges such as climate change. A number of leading U.S. and international companies, governments and educational institutions are joining the project, and further collaboration has the potential to yield enormous advantages for all involved.

Third, the U.S. should look to progressive plans put forth by Ecuador such as the Yasuní-ITT initiative, which has already garnered more than $200 million in support from international sources. Firm U.S. collaboration could ensure its success. Ecuador also unveiled a bold proposal at the recent United Nations climate change meetings to institute a small tax on oil purchased by developed countries, which would have minimal impact on everyday consumers but a tremendous impact on global climate change. By supporting Ecuador’s proposal, the U.S. can finally deliver on its global climate change promises, such as the 2009 pledge to help finance an ambitious $100 billion Green Climate Fund to help developing countries, which three years later remains woefully underfunded.

Today, as the U.S. experiences its own “environmental awakening” sparked by a series of recent tragic natural and man-made catastrophes, and President Obama works to live up to his second-term pledge, it’s time the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2 looks outward to those like Ecuador who are willing to lend a hand.

Cely is ambassador of Ecuador to the United States.