By Javier Farje, LAB
This year, the South African city of Durban, in Kwa Zulu Natal, will be the place where the world will almost certainly fail again to produce an agreement to stop climate change. And, once again, the developing world will suffer the consequences of the lack of political will by the main greenhouse gas emitters, mainly the industrialised economies and China, to reduce their CO2 emissions to prevent the temperature of the planet increasing to unmanageable levels.
While the big emitters play the blame game for the failure, the Kyoto Protocol, where the world (with the exception of the USA) committed itself to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, is coming to a bumpy end without another legally-binding agreement to replace it in 2012.
The omens for Durban are not good. Canada has announced that it wants to opt out of the Kyoto Protocol, with the excuse that further reductions in greenhouse emissions could jeopardise its economic recovery. Japan and Russia have already said that they do not intend to make further reductions in their emissions, and the United Kingdom is not only going back on its decision to cut down greenhouse emissions but is also trying to overturn European Union rules on the extraction of oil from tar sand, an energy-intensive method that uses a great amount of water and generates two to four times more greenhouse gases than conventional drilling of oil. Canada is currently the main producer.
Latin America is one of the regions that is already suffering most severely from the effects of climate change. The Amazon has been through two bad droughts, of the ‘once in a 100 years’ severity, in only five years, and Colombian tropical and subtropical areas have experienced both extensive flooding and drought. The glaciers in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru are retreating fast, creating serious problems for people and ecosystems. For further details of severe weather affecting the region, consult the map at the end of this article.
Predictions for the future are worse, much worse.
A report, published by the UN Environment Programme and the Economic Commission for Latin America and The Caribbean on the eve of Cop16 held in Cancun last year, says that, unless there is a drastic reduction in emissions very soon, temperatures in the region will increase between 2°C and 6°C. by the end of the century. This is a frightening scenario.
Pablo Solón, a former Bolivian top climate change negotiator, who is always careful to base his predictions on reputable scientific studies, says in a statement published here in LAB’s website : “Even with an increase of 2°C, the toll of deaths from natural disasters caused by climate change would rise from the 2009 figure of 350,000 per annum to millions; between 20% and 30% of the animal and plant species would become extinct; many coastal areas and island states would be submerged; and the Andean glaciers, which have already lost one third of their snow cover with the present temperature increase of 0.8° C, could disappear entirely.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is similarly gloomy. It predicts that, by the year 2050, half of the arable land in Latin America will be desert and that many of the low-altitude glaciers in the region will disappear within the next decade. This will cause serious shortages of water, something that Bolivia is already experiencing in its Andean region.
Climate change will also lead to an increase of sea levels. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 31 Latin American and Caribbean countries will suffer sea level rises of up to half a metre by the year 2050, with a tendency to increase to a metre.
“A rise of one metre will irreversibly change the geography of coastal areas in Latin America,” says Walter Vergara, a climate change engineer at the World Bank. “For example, a one-metre rise would flood an area in coastal Guyana where 70% of the population and 40% of agricultural land is located.”
Argentina, Ecuador, Jamaica and Mexico are in the list of the top ten countries whose agricultural lands will most likely be affected by sea level rises, according to the UN Habitat Programme. Indeed, all coastal cities in Latin America will be affected, in one way or another.
Awareness and action
The good news in this bleak scenario is that Latin American people are becoming more environmentally aware. A Gallup World Poll data suggests that 76% of the population are aware of the problem of climate change, 72% believe climate change is a serious risk, and 64% accept that human activity causes the problem.
In this context, what is the position of Latin American countries in relation to climate change and the negotiations to achieve a comprehensive and legally-binding commitment to prevent more damage?
In Copenhagen two years ago Brazil refused to accept a compulsory reduction in the levels of deforestation in the Amazon and favours carbon trading. In contrast, the member countries of ALBA, mainly Bolivia and Venezuela, believe that carbon trading is an excuse by the big industrialised countries to avoid their commitment to reduce their emissions of CO2.
Moreover, South America lacks mechanisms for adapting to climate change and to tackling extreme weather changes in vulnerable regions. Nelson Cuéllar, from the Salvadoran Research Programme on Development and Environment, says that countries in the region deal with the issue on a sector-by-sector basis. “Climate change cannot be confronted this way”, he told Inter Press Service.
But efforts are being made to find some kind of joint approach to the problem. Last August, Central America plus Colombia and Mexico created the Intergovernmental Programme for Climate Change Cooperation – Opportunities and Challenges in Agriculture (Programa Intergubernamental Cambio Climático – Oportunidades y Desafíos en la Agricultura). It is an unwieldy name but its objectives are clear and important — to set up a scientific network of consultation and to create common policies on the issue of adaptation.
South America appears to lack the political will to follow suit. Brazil seems to want the best of both worlds: on one hand, it wants to be considered a big player in the global economy but seems unwilling to take on the responsibilities that such position entails, that is, to make a binding commitment to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions; and on the other, it wants be considered a developing economy and benefit from the financial provisions made in the international agreements to help poor countries to adapt to the effects of climate change.
However, other countries are taking a common position to the shores of Durban. The member-countries of ALBA, plus Cuba, met earlier this year to decide a joint approach to COP17. Orlando Rey, head of the environment department of the Cuban Science, Technology and Environment Minister, told IPS that ALBA will join other developing countries in Durban in demanding action to prevent the final burial of the Kyoto Protocol.
Cuba has good reasons to worry. A series of studies carried out by a group of scientists concluded that 2.23% of Cuban territory could end up under water by the middle of the century when sea levels could have risen by half a metre. Cuba will be prepared: it has one of the most advanced programmes of adaptation in Latin America as well as policies for protecting vulnerable regions.
Brazil, on the other hand, has turned its back to the continent and prefers to coordinate its actions and demands with the so-called BASIC countries (China, India and South Africa). Furthermore, Brazil is on its way to become a major oil producer due to its recently-discovered reserves in the Atlantic Ocean and it may become reluctant to fulfil its commitment to reduce the production of fossil fuels.
Latin America does not go to Durban with one voice, and another chance to pressurise the main emitters of greenhouse gases to stop putting the future of the planet in danger will be missed. It is a chance that Latin America can ill afford to lose.
What the 4th IPCC Assessment Report says about Latin America
The impact of global warming in South America*
The people of South America are heavily dependent on the continent’s natural resources—from the rangelands at the foothills of the Andes, to the plants and animals of the Amazon rainforest, to the fisheries off the coast of Peru. The region’s ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the changes in water availability expected with a changing climate. Higher global temperatures along with more frequent El Niño may bring increased drought, and melting glaciers in the Andes threaten the future water supply of mountain communities. Signs of a warming climate have already appeared both at high elevations—in glacial retreat and shifting ranges of disease-carrying mosquitoes—and along the coast—in rising sea level and coral bleaching.
45. Recife, Brazil — Sea-level rise. Shoreline receded more than 6 feet (1.8 m) per year from 1915 to 1950 and more than 8 feet (2.4 m) per year from 1985 to 1995. The dramatic land loss was due to a combination of sea-level rise and loss of sediment supply following dam construction, harbor dredging, and other coastal engineering projects.
64. Andes Mountains, Peru — Glacial retreat accelerates seven-fold. The edge of the Qori Kalis glacier was retreating 13 feet (4.0 m) annually between 1963 and 1978. By 1995, the rate had stepped up to 99 feet (30.1 m) per year.
92. Chiclayo, Peru – Large increase in average minimum temperatures. Average minimum temperatures along Peru’s north coast increased 3.5°F (2°C) from the 1960s to 2000. The temperature in the high plateau region in extreme southeastern Peru has also risen 3.5°F (2°C), from an average of 48°F (9°C) in the 1960s to 52°F (11°C) in 2001. Northwestern South America has warmed by 0.8-1.4°F (0.5-0.8°C) in the last decade of the 20th century.
101. Tropical Andes (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and northernmost Chile) – Increase in average annual temperature. Average annual temperature has increased by about 0.18°F (0.1°C) per decade since 1939. The rate of warming has doubled in the last 40 years, and more than tripled in the last 25 years, to about 0.6°F (0.33°C) per decade.
128. Argentina – Receding glaciers. Glaciers in Patagonia have receded by an average of almost a mile (1.5 km) over the last 13 years. There has been an increase in maximum, minimum, and average daily temperatures of more than 1.8°F (1°C) over the past century in southern Patagonia, east of the Andes.
132. Venezuela – Disappearing glaciers. Of six glaciers in the Venezuelan Andes in 1972, only 2 remain, and scientists predict that these will be gone within the next 10 years. Glaciers in the mountains of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru show similar rapid rates of retreat. Temperature records in other regions of the Andes show a significant warming of about 0.6°F (0.33°C) per decade since the mid-1970s.
15. Andes Mountains, Columbia — Disease-carrying mosquitoes spreading. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that can carry dengue and yellow fever viruses were previously limited to 3,300 feet (1,006 m) but recently appeared at 7,200 feet (2,195 m).
36. Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica — Disappearing frogs and toads. A reduction in dry-seson mists due to warmer Pacific ocean temperatures has beenlinked to disappearances of 20 species of frogs and toads, upward shifts in the ranges of mountain birds, and declines in lizard populations.
47. Pacific Ocean, Panama — Coral reef bleaching.
53. Caribbean — Coral reeef bleaching.
58. Galapagos — Coral reef bleaching..
86. Nicaragua — 2.2 million acres (890,308 hectares) burned, 1998. Over 15,000 fires burned in 1998, and the blazing acreage included protected lands in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.
117. Argentine Islands – Antarctic flowering plants changes. The populations of two native Antarctic flowering plants increased rapidly between 1964 and 1990, coincident with the strong regional warming over the Antarctic Peninsula. The Antarctic pearlwort population increased 5-fold while the Antarctic hairgrass increased 25-fold. The unusually rapid increases are attributed to warmer summer temperatures and/or a longer growing season, which enhance the plant’s ability to reproduce.
125. Galapagos, Ecuador – Coral reef bleaching, March/April 2002. Sea-surface temperatures rose above 81.5 degree F (27.5 degree C) several times, causing repeated coral bleaching events. Repeated and prolonged bleaching episodes – expected as tropical water temperatures warm with climate change – eventually kill corals and cause a decline in associated marine species.
143. Pampas region, Argentina/Uruguay – Worst flooding on record, August to October 2001. Nearly 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of land in the Pampas region were flooded after 3 months of high rainfall. Mean annual precipiation in the humid Pampa increased by 35% in the last half of the 20th century.
145. Buenos Aires, Argentina – Heaviest rains in 100 years, May 2000. 13.5 inches (34.2 cm) of rain, more than 4 times the average monthly rainfall, fell in just 5 days. Northeastern Argentina is exhibiting a long-term trend of increasing precipitation.
146. Venezuela – Heaviest rainfall in 100 years, December 1999. The heaviest rainfall in 100 years caused massive landslides and flooding that killed approximately 30,000 people. Total December rainfall in Maiquetia, near Caracas, was almost 4 feet (1.2 m), more than 5 times the previous December record. The high death toll was attributed to population growth in vulnerable areas and forest clearing on steep hill slopes.
153. Argentina – Fire outbreak. 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares) burned in La Pampa province, sustained by record temperatures and persistent drought. Annual average temperature in Argentina has increased by nearly 1.8°F (1°C) over the last century.