On taking office in 2019, Argentine president Alberto Fernández reshaped the national government, reinstating the ministry of the environment that had been relegated to secretariat status by his predecessor Mauricio Macri as part of his austerity programme.
The man chosen for the position was Juan Cabandié, a former congressman and founding member of La Cámpora, the Kirchnerista youth organisation. Cabandié has a long and personal connection to political activism and the human rights movement. He was born in 1978 to a captive mother at the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), a notorious detention and torture centre for political dissidents during Argentina’s last dictatorship.
In an exclusive interview with Diálogo Chino, Cabandié set out Argentina's new climate change goals and demanded funding from developed countries for increased action. He also discussed upcoming changes to the management of native forests and the creation of new national parks.
DIálogo Chino [DC]: Argentina presented a new climate contribution (NDC) at the end of 2020, raising its level of ambition. Where is the country now in relation to the objectives of the Paris Agreement?
Juan Cabandié [JC]: We are slightly below the global goal of limiting a temperature increase to 1.5ºC. We were seventh in terms of ambition among other countries’ new submissions. It is a more ambitious and spontaneous presentation, since we were not yet obliged to present an update. But it seemed to us the right moment to generate movement in the public arena. We worked on the new commitment with civil society, academics and different government agencies in the Climate Change Cabinet.
DC: However, the United Nations warned in a recent report that the world is still very far from the necessary level of global ambition to meet Paris Agreement goals. How can that higher level of global ambition be achieved?
JC: The new NDC is something important, but there are still issues to be resolved in the international community. What is missing is a discussion of the implementation mechanisms. Without that, we will be stuck with promises of action. We want to go for concrete climate action, but for that, we need to discuss implementation. We have to demand that developed countries provide the climate finance to which they have committed. We want to build the region’s will to have common positions on this.
DC: The NDC proposes a roadmap to 2030 for an energy transition in Argentina, specifically mentioning renewable energies. Specifically, what is the national government’s plan in this regard?
JC: The NDC calls us to work on a national mitigation and adaptation plan. We have to design specific objectives and in this respect renewables are essential. The percentage of clean energy in the country is still low. But without the help of developed countries, we cannot do it. We have great debt problems. How do we stop issuing debt repeatedly if the income that we obtain is used for debt maturities? This has to lead us to reflection. Without the debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) we could have increased the percentage of renewables in the energy matrix much more.
DC: In a recent speech to Congress, President Fernández highlighted the role of natural gas as a transition fuel. What role do fossil fuels have for Argentina?
JC: Natural gas is cleaner than oil. We have had Vaca Muerta for 10 years now, which is not much considering developed countries have degraded ecosystems for decades to obtain hydrocarbons. What needs to be done as part of a just transition is to make fossil fuel extraction less polluting than it is now. Waste from the activity must be treated correctly and we have to use transition fuels such as natural gas. People are also part of the environment and we have to have a good quality of life. We have a 40% poverty rate in Argentina and at the same time very high debt. A comprehensive analysis must be made, otherwise, we will have an incoherent discourse.
DC: The NDC also refers to the efficient management of native forests. You’ve mentioned in the past the need to change Argentina’s Forest Law to ban deforestation in areas where it’s currently permitted. Is that a part of it?
JC: Preserving native forests has social, environmental and climatic impacts. It means caring for ecosystems, avoiding the transmission of zoonotic diseases and reducing emissions. The  Forest Law lowered the rate of deforestation, but it is still very high. More than 13 years have passed since the law was sanctioned and it’s now time to improve it. For that, we’ve talked extensively with rural smallholder movements, academics and NGOs and we agreed on technical aspects to modify it in a good way. We hope that this year it can be approved. If we don't lower deforestation, in 70 years we won't have native forests anymore. Last year we lost 400,000 hectares of native forests, 300,000 from fires and 100,000 from deforestation.
I am very shocked every time I see the photo of all the vessels stationed on the line of the Exclusive Economic Zone
DC: Fires are still raging this year, with widespread flames in the El Bolsón area of Patagonia. What were the lessons learned after the 2020 fires?
JC: The drought and increase in temperature created a situation for high combustion and for the expansion of the sources of fires, which are produced by people’s irresponsibility and by acts of nature such as lightning. The burning of the grasslands last year was also caused by the lowering of the Paraná River, which occurred as a result of Amazon deforestation. We lack legal instruments as a country to control all this. The deforestation of native forests is currently not a crime according to the Penal Code.
DC: The president also announced the creation of new national parks in six Argentine provinces. What are the plans exactly?
JC: We are going to expand existing national parks and also create new ones. Mendoza is the only province that does not have a national park, it would be interesting to work there. We are also thinking about something for San Juan province and for the Faro Querandí nature reserve in Buenos Aires. Marine protected areas are also important and they must be equipped with technological elements. We have recently introduced a ship for the National Parks Administration, which will soon be available after repairs
DC: Are further measures to protect fishing resources planned, considering the repeated cases of illegal fishing in Argentina?
JC: In the last 20 years, fish fauna in Argentina have increased significantly, something that has not happened in almost any part of the world. Thanks to a policy of continuity, hake increased its population, for example. Nonetheless, I am very shocked every time I see the photo of all the vessels stationed on the line of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Argentina. But inside our EEZ, many actions are carried out. In 2020, three vessels were seized, while only one had been seized in the previous four years. But it is also necessary to improve infrastructure.
DC: The national government announced a plan to produce lithium batteries and increase extraction of the mineral. Wouldn't this generate more social conflict than already exists in provinces such as Jujuy and Catamarca?
JC: We all know that we have to change our energy matrix. To stop using fossil fuels we need renewable energy and to develop new projects we need lithium. Someone has to extract it, it doesn't come out of thin air.
DC: The government hopes to advance an agreement with China to increase pork production in the country. What is the ministry’s view on the agreement and its potential environmental impacts?
JC: Last year we had several meetings on the subject. So far this year we haven’t been called to meetings. Argentina already produces pork and now we are aiming at increasing production with this agreement with China. We have to make sure health and environmental impacts will be considered. The best we can do is to establish a maximum number of pigs per farm.