How Colombia plans to keep its oil and coal in the ground
In February 2020, the lifeblood that kept the tiny town of La Jagua de Ibirico in northern Colombia going stopped flowing.
As the Covid-19 pandemic sunk coal prices internationally, the multinational giant Glencore, through its local affiliate Prodeco, closed the two coal mines in the area.
Since the closure, the sky has cleared up and the air is fresher, says Álvaro Castro, a social leader and local researcher for Universidad del Magdalena, who lives in the town. Birds now chirp in the newly green treetops, and the blanket of coal ash covering the rooftops is gone, he says.
But at street level, the situation is dire.
As 7,000 workers – from a workforce of 7,300 – lost their jobs and contractors left town, nearly 100 restaurants, cafes, hotels and other businesses closed, the local branch of the country’s largest coal workers union says. As a result, according to the town’s mayor, the municipality lost 85% of its income.
Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro, has said the world needs an ‘immediate withdrawal from the oil and gas industry’
Union leader José Ladeut, one of the few still working at Prodeco’s railroad, says this sudden closure of coal mines in La Jagua de Ibirico should be a cautionary tale for newly elected president, Gustavo Petro. “We were the guinea pigs,” he says. “And we weren’t ready. The transition found us still wearing nappies.”
Petro, an economist and former guerilla who was elected as Colombia’s first ever left-wing president in June 2022, rose to power with a socially progressive, environmentally conscious agenda which included a strong message on the need for the country to leave fossil fuels behind.
He promised the nation “a green, not a black future”, and told La Jagua de Ibirico and other towns in the coal corridor they would be an essential part of Colombia’s transition into a future where coal, oil and gas remain underground. In a speech at the COP27 climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in early November, Petro said the world needs an “immediate withdrawal from the oil and gas industry”.
Despite the rising momentum around climate action in recent years, the idea of cutting off fossil fuel supply is rarely made much of by world leaders, even at climate conferences. But there is a rising recognition that it is a crucial part of climate action – even the relatively conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) has said there must be no new investment in new gas, oil or coal extraction projects from now on if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
A recent report from the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester found rich countries need to phase out all oil and gas production by 2034, and poorer countries by 2050, to stay on track with the 1.5C target.
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So far, Colombia is the largest, most fossil-fuel-dependent country adhering to an agenda that explicitly calls to leave fossil fuel extraction behind. “There’s really very few countries in the world that have said anything regarding this ‘leave it on the ground’ idea,” says Paola Yanguas-Parra, policy and energy transition economist at the Technical University of Berlin’s FossilExit Group.
Last year, Costa Rica and Denmark formed an international alliance to phase out production of fossil fuels, called the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance (although under its new presidency, Costa Rica has recently backed away from the alliance leadership). Meanwhile, the South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu recently became the second country to call for a Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty, joining Vanuatu in backing the idea of creating a legal pathway to regulate and phase out the global production of coal, oil and gas. On the coal front, since its launch in 2017, the Powering Past Coal Alliance, has gathered almost 100 countries and subnational governments working to phase out existing unabated coal power generation.
In these cases, however, most official members don’t heavily depend on fossil fuel extraction, says Yanguas-Parra. Conversely, Colombia is among the top coal producers globally and heavily dependent economically on fossil fuels: between 40 and 50% of its exports are coal and oil. Taxes from the sector and dividends from the partially state-owned oil Ecopetrol – the largest company in the country – account for about 9% of the central government’s income.