06/19/2013 - 15:44

Ecuador challenges the world to step up

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in ...

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Sara Alvarez has spent two years at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, deep in the heart of Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest. She studies spider monkeys, following them through the jungle for more than 10 hours a day. Together with a colleague who studies titi and saki monkeys, a few other scientists, and four journalists, including me, who have been invited here by the Ecuadorian government, she is taking a rare break from her fieldwork to float down the Tiputini River. We don life jackets and jump into the refreshingly cool, mud-brown water, figuring that the swift current will protect us from caimans, a species related to the alligator.

We are here because this is a hotspot of biological diversity. There may be more types of plants and animals living in this region of Ecuador than anywhere else on the planet: at least 10 species of monkeys, nearly 600 kinds of birds, more than 300 types of reptiles and amphibians, and literally countless species of insects. Unfortunately for the wildlife, there is another thing here that is far more abundant than in most places on Earth: oil.

This poses a quandary for Ecuador, a poor country that relies heavily on oil exports for income but is also an eco-tourism destination. As oil development continues to push deeper into the Ecuadorian rainforest, the government has put forth a unique proposal to protect a still-pristine tract covering about 700 square miles: It has invited other nations—most pointedly, those that grew rich on fossil fuels and are now worried about global climate change—to pay to leave the oil underground. At a time when the United States and other relatively wealthy nations are doing far too little to combat climate change, Ecuador’s proposal represents an innovative way to reduce emissions, and to protect habitat for monkeys, other wildlife, and indigenous humans in the process.

Taking initiative. One-fifth of Ecuador’s known oil reserves are located beneath the three easternmost blocks of Yasuní National Park—the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini sections, collectively known as ITT. They lie beyond the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in a remote area populated by only a few small groups of native people, some of whom live in voluntary isolation from the rest of the world. In a proposal called the Yasuní ITT Initiative, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has offered to forego oil drilling in these blocks in exchange for $3.6 billion from the international community. In so doing, the country would leave some 850 million barrels of oil untouched, and about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide un-emitted.

The $3.6 billion is roughly half the revenue the Ecuadorian government would otherwise get from the oil, says Daniel Ortega, an adviser in the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ecuador would sacrifice the other half if foreign countries donate an equivalent amount to a trust fund administered by the United Nations Development Programme. The fund would be used to build renewable energy projects and fund community development in Ecuador.

“We think that is our share of the contribution,” Ortega says of the sacrificed billions. “We cannot do it alone.” Ortega, Correa, and Secretary of State for the Yasuní ITT Initiative Ivonne A-Baki all describe the go-halfsies proposal as “co-responsibility.”

The initiative was announced in 2010 and is hugely popular within Ecuador, but only a few European and South American nations have agreed to support it, promising about $50 million to the fund so far. Major outreach efforts just began this year, though, and Ecuador has a 13-year timeline for reaching its $3.6 billion goal.

“Unburnable” carbon. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, at least two-thirds of the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels must remain underground to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Any increase beyond that level is widely acknowledged by climate scientists and governments around the world as “dangerous” warming that is likely to result in extreme weather events, coastal inundation, decreased food production, and loss of biodiversity.

But while burning up all the world’s oil, gas, and coal reserves would be highly hazardous to the environment, fossil-fuel-rich companies and governments regard their reserves as financial assets and won’t be easily persuaded to write them off. (Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin's executive director, wrote about how such a scheme might work.) Keeping reserves underground will require collective action, not only by Ecuador and other fossil-fuel-producing nations, but also by fossil-fuel consumers.

Unfortunately, most nations have offered little more than statements of good intention in the fight against climate change. Ecuador is a notable exception. The country’s Yasuní ITT Initiative is part of a broader concept called Net Avoided Emissions: It would create economic incentives for developing countries to voluntarily refrain from undertaking emissions-generating activities such as oil drilling and deforestation.

President Correa has also proposed a “polluter pays” global carbon tax, known as the Daly-Correa tax. (Economist Herman Daly first presented the idea in 2001, but it attracted little interest at the time.) Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), including Ecuador, would levy the tax on oil exported to affluent countries and use the revenues to help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop renewable energy.

Everybody’s problem. The concept of co-responsibility recognizes that fossil-fuel companies are not the only ones to blame for climate change. The banks that loaned money to these companies are co-responsible, as are the investors who put their savings in those banks. Everyone who drives a car and uses electricity is co-responsible. I, too, contributed to the climate problem when I became co-responsible for burning a lot of jet fuel on my way to Ecuador. I landed on opening day at Quito’s new airport, a project paid for by oil exports.

Although carbon dioxide emissions in the United States last year were the lowest since 1994, the United States has cumulatively injected more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other nation: about a fourth of the world’s total. Also, an estimated 20 percent of the reductions in US emissions over the past 15 years has come from outsourcing manufacturing to countries such as China and India, contributing to their rising carbon footprint.

Airports, roads, and boat engines have made it easier for researchers like Alvarez to reach the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, but these developments also threaten her research subjects. She is a part of the Proyecto Primates, or “monkey project,” that is studying the diet and behavior of monkeys around the Tiputini station. The project began in the 1990s at another research station 19 kilometers closer to civilization, where hunting was already affecting wooly monkeys. Roads and pipelines built for oil extraction brought settlers, who hunt the monkeys and sell their meat in oil boomtowns on the edge of the rainforest.

If oil development is extended into the Yasuní ITT sectors, it will bring hunting and the risk of oil spills deeper into the forest. Tapping the oil would also increase carbon emissions, making it a loss not only for biodiversity but also for the world’s climate. And for Alvarez, who has known some of the area’s monkeys since they were born, the loss would be even more personal: “They are like my family.”

Everyone who uses oil is accountable to that family. By introducing the notion of co-responsibility, Ecuador is asking everyone to step up.