By Erika Mouynes, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Panama
In April 2021, the UN’s Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change provided the latest in a long line of dire warnings, telling the world what many already know: climate change is real, and the international community is squandering its chance to limit the consequences. World leaders need to approach this crisis with the urgency it deserves. As climate change is a global problem, it cannot be solved by isolated countries – the only way forward is through collaboration and diplomacy.
Too often, climate is treated as a diplomatic afterthought, forgotten in favor of whichever crisis is occupying the moment. By the time that climate change becomes the singular foreign policy catastrophe of our lifetimes – through massive natural disasters, unprecedented waves of migration, disruption of supply chains, wildfires that sweep away entire communities, and more – it will be far too late to stop it. The international community needs to make climate change its collective prerogative today – and not through empty words, but with consistent action.
As foreign minister of Panama, I am proud to say that Panama has been a standard-bearer for this philosophy, putting climate at the center of our policies and discussions on the global stage. This is not just for altruistic reasons – Panama has a personal stake in halting climate change. According to the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center, Panama’s extended coastline puts our country at particularly high risk from sea level rises, potentially impacting one million people and $31 billion in capital.
Indirectly, climate change and its accompanying natural disasters will accentuate mass migration and economic instability, both of which stand to uniquely impact Panama, a passageway for migrants and a major international trade artery. To avert these consequences and preserve our local biodiversity, Panama is bringing fresh resolve to the international effort to limit global temperature rises.
Our goal has been two-fold. First, we are focused on introducing Panama’s climate story to the international community – as one of only three carbon negative countries in the world – and cooperating with partners to ensure our model is sustainable in the long-term. Second, we want to translate Panama’s domestic climate momentum to the international stage, working through international mechanisms – or creating new ones – to catalyze meaningful global action on climate change.
Panama has reached carbon negativity through a combination of steadfast conservation commitments and an ambitious clean energy transition program. Our country has already extended safeguards to at least 30% of its land and sea territory, nearly a decade ahead of schedule. By creating national parks on land and extending protections to over 98,228 square kilometers of water, Panama is doing its part to ensure that its natural beauty and biodiversity will be maintained for future generations. Just this year, Panama approved an innovative policy giving legal rights to nature, protecting its right to exist, persist, regenerate, and be restored.
Beyond the face-value benefits of preserving natural ecosystems, conservation on land and at sea protects carbon sinks which draw CO2 out of the air. Panama has already committed to restore 50,000 hectares of forest land nationally, which will contribute to the removal of approximately 2.6 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050.
While conserving carbon sinks is essential in fighting climate change, any plan to tackle temperature rises is incomplete without addressing the reduction of carbon emissions at the source. Already, in 2021, Panama produced 82% of its electricity from renewable resources. Our government is also providing tools to organizations looking to make the switch to renewables – through our National Reduce Your Footprint Program, public and private organizations alike can access tools to monitor and reduce their carbon output.
The Panama Canal also plays into Panama’s sustainability story. Most know it as a vital artery for international commerce, enabling the passage of roughly $270 billion worth of cargo per year and serving as the backbone of Panama’s economy. Fewer people know that by cutting the distance ships have to travel, the Canal reduced CO2 emissions by 16 million tons in 2021 alone when compared to alternative routes. Through its Green Route strategy, the Canal also incentivizes transiters to comply with the highest environmental performance standards.
Together, these initiatives have made Panama a country which emits less carbon than it absorbs. I am proud to be a leader in a country that is showing the world what is possible when governments take climate change seriously. But the difficult truth is that none of my country’s innovative climate actions will save our people, economy, or biodiverse ecosystems from the consequences of climate change if the international community fails to cooperate on this issue. This is a fight that we can only win together. That is why steering Panama towards a policy of green diplomacy abroad has been such a priority, putting climate at the heart of our international work and extending our domestic progress on climate to international fora.
Whether through working with likeminded partners in existing international institutions, like annual UN COP conventions, or creating new instruments to drive climate action, Panama is committed to making a difference on a regional and global scale. For instance, we’ve launched a Carbon Negative Alliance with Bhutan and Suriname, the only other carbon negative countries in the world. Together, we are demonstrating how countries with different demographic, environmental, and economic make-ups can make meaningful contributions to the fight against climate change. As an alliance, we are sharing best practices with other countries and advocating for larger global climate ambition.
Last year, Panama partnered with Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador, members of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (ETPMC), to expand our collective marine protections, creating the largest protected marine area in the world. By connecting each country’s protected marine areas, the ETPMC preserves vital migratory routes for biodiverse marine species. This April, Panama assumed the presidency of the ETPMC. As President Pro Tempore, for the first time in the organization’s 20-year history, we are promoting renewed involvement from ETPMC countries’ foreign ministers, seeking to throw new diplomatic weight behind global conservation efforts. This will help the ETPMC not only make good on the conservation commitments we have already promised, but find new avenues of international collaboration and new alliances to ensure the conservation and protection of our planet as a whole.
In March 2023, Panama will host the eighth Our Ocean conference, convening governments, industry, civil society, and academia to forge deeper ocean protection measures. This is a prime example of the kind of work necessary to build a healthier, sustainable world: bringing together all involved parties to address a global problem.
When I speak about climate change, I do not pretend that the path before us will be easy. The challenges are real, but Panama is living proof that with sufficient political will, investment, and creative thinking, it is within our capacity to significantly reduce them.
Panama will continue to serve as a model, leading the world in conserving our carbon sinks while transitioning to clean energy. I will continue to put climate at the core of my diplomatic work, championing Panama’s success story and convening international actors to inspire climate action worldwide. For Panama, the world’s coastal nations, and an entire generation of young people, I call on my colleagues around the world to join us. The future of our planet very literally depends on it.