It will be a while before we see any energy partnership in the Americas

The Symposium on Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas closed yesterday, without much definition on what the steps ahead would be, to no one’s surprise. Vagueness defined the Obama administration’s proposal at the Summit. There, the motto “we are here to listen” justified the thinness of the ideas. Here, the mantra “this is a new era” where the US will not drive but be an equal partner in a world where everyone will offer ideas, provided the smokescreen for the administration’s lack of focus and ambition towards the region.

Secretary of Energy Chu’s announcement of a Low Carbon Communities Program as the US contribution to the partnership illustrates the difficulties of putting into practice the new ideas espoused by the White House. In a pre-recorded video message, Steve Chu explained that his department would “…partner with countries in the region to provide technical assistance and limited funding to develop building standards and adopt modern urban planning strategies including transit-oriented development to achieve low-carbon communities.” Funding and other details were not offered, leaving everyone to guess what’s next. It is one thing to talk about consultation and partnership and another to first announce a program and then talk about partnership.

It is even more curious when you consider that this program is remarkably similar to the Clean Cities Program launched by the same department in 1997.  Then, the US partnered with Chile to deliver clean fuel public transportation to improve Santiago’s air quality. In fact, the backgrounder on that program could have been written today. It reads “In 1995, a Hemispheric Energy Symposium was held in Washington, D.C., as a follow up to the Summit of the Americas that took place in Miami, Florida, in December 1994. Both the symposium and the summit addressed the energy-related environmental and economic concerns that face our hemisphere. The symposium was held to begin the implementation process for the agenda items that had resulted from the Summit. Energy cooperation and sustainable development ranked high on the list of agenda items, and Hemispheric Clean Cities, now known as Clean Cities International, was one of 40 initiatives established.”

Granted, there are some improvements. At least this time around instead of the 40 initiatives proposed in the 1990s, only a few were proposed here. Peru suggested hosting a new Regional Energy Efficiency Centre and Chile mentioned having seed money for a Regional Renewable Energy Centre. Mexico talked about the establishment of a Green Fund that would be used to finance the creation and expansion of efficiency programs such as the one it is currently designing which will replace old refrigerators and air conditioners with state of the art efficient models, and Brazil suggested a program for building energy efficiency in low income housing following experiences from Curitiba, Chile, Colombia, and New Orleans. The good will was general and many from the business and NGO communities offered to contribute in any way they could.

 These are early days so it is unfair to criticize these proposals’ lack of funding and implementation details. Still, some notion of budget and availability of funds – particularly over the long term – is crucial to the decision of what initiatives can be adopted. If this administration took the time to investigate why the Clean Cities partnership with Chile faded away they would find out that in spite of the fanfare of the initial announcement and the commitment of a few dedicated officials, after a few years, the lack of long-term funding sealed the fate of that program.

 Burdensome as the research into and study of history might appear to many of the young bureaucrats charged with doing the nitty gritty work behind the Energy and Climate Partnership for the Americas, taking the extra time to uncover the lessons of the past is sure to help deliver  success to the future.

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