Saturday, 30 May 2009 08:08

Latin America and climate change: crisis or opportunity? Featured

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The World Bank's 2009 flagship report on Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), investigates the exposure of the region to climate change and what it can do to meets those risks and opportunities head on, both by itself and internationally, through a climate agreement being negotiated in December this year.

Crucially, emphasis is placed on the need for good adaptation policies to climate change which are complementary to the region’s development. LAC is well placed to move ‘ahead of the pack’ and take advantage of international cost-sharing mechanisms for deploying low-carbon technologies and build new comparative advantages. Interest in acting decisively now could ensure a faster recovery from the current economic slowdown and improve competitiveness.

The report entitled, Low Carbon, High Growth: Latin American Responses to Climate Change, urges the international community to look to Latin America for innovative solutions and leadership to avoid a climate crisis. The region is not the main source of emissions driving global warming, due to its clean energy matrix and its innovative policies to promote low carbon growth. Latin America produces only about six percent of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, or 12 percent of emissions from all sources, including deforestation and agriculture.

The region has piloted new technologies and approaches to reduce emissions:

• Mexico’s 2007 National Strategy on Climate Change adopts long-term, nonbinding targets. In the energy sector, the strategy identifies a total mitigation potential of 107 million tons of greenhouse gasses by 2014, a 21 percent reduction from business as usual over the next six years.

• Brazil is moving towards energy independence through the expansion of alternative energy sources such as hydroelectricity, ethanol, and biodiesel. Its sugar-based ethanol production is financially and environmentally sustainable without diverting land from food crops.

• Public and environmentally friendly public transport policies demonstrated by Curitiba (Brazil) and expanded in Bogota (Colombia) are now underway in dozens of cities in the region.

• Costa Rica has received worldwide recognition for its successful initiatives on payments for ecosystems services.

• Argentina is moving forward with renewable energy in rural areas, which provides affordable and reliable electricity to communities and has an impact on productivity and jobs.

Despite these innovations, LAC has been moving to a higher carbon growth path. Based on current trends, from 2005-2030 the projected growth of per capita CO2 energy emissions in the region is 33 percent (above the world average of 24 percent).

Therefore, a global climate agreement will be useless unless developing countries sign up to emission reductions, particularly the larger middle-income countries, such as Brazil and Mexico. Even if high-income countries acknowledge their historical responsibility for the majority of emissions and reduce them to zero, effectively becoming carbon neutral, this would still not be enough to keep the stock of greenhouse gases below “dangerous” thresholds. A strong Latin American presence at Copenhagen leading other developing countries is therefore imperative.

The report also documents some of the critical impacts of climate change in the region if the international community fails to act:

• By 2100, agricultural productivity in South America could fall by 12 percent to 50 percent.

• Climate-related natural disasters (storms, droughts and floods) cost, on average, 0.6 percent of GDP in affected countries.

• Hurricane damages will increase by 10 percent to 26 percent for each 1oF warming of the sea.

• The Amazon rainforest could shrink by 20 percent to 80 percent if temperatures increase by 2 to 3oC

• Many Andean glaciers will disappear within the next 20 years placing 77 million people under severe water stress by 2020.

• Caribbean corals will bleach and eventually die. Since the 1980s, 30 percent of corals already have died, and all could be dead by 2060.

• Increase in risk of dengue, malaria and other infectious diseases in some areas.

The study finds that keeping LAC on a high-growth and low-carbon path will require a coherent policy framework on three levels:

1. An international climate change architecture that creates enough momentum and is friendly to Latin America’s specific features, including: clear financial incentives to reduce deforestation; the expansion of carbon trading mechanisms to sectors; mobilization of financial flows to Latin America to facilitate deployment of “green technologies;” and the creation of a global market for sustainable bio-fuels, removing tariffs and other barriers.

2. Domestic policies to adapt to the inevitable climate change impacts on the region’s ecosystems and societies, incorporating climate-related threats into the design of long-term infrastructure investments, improving weather monitoring and forecasting, enhancing social safety nets so as to allow households to better cope with climate shocks, and improving the functioning of land, water and financial markets.

3. Domestic policies to exploit mitigation opportunities to make Latin America part of the global climate change solution. Many of the actions needed for mitigation are also good development policies. For example, reducing deforestation has social and environmental benefits; improving public transport can reduce congestion and local pollution with impacts on health, productivity and welfare; and expanding off-grid renewable energy can help reach rural populations without access to electricity.


The report reflects the difficulty of LAC countries embarking on a path to low carbon development. There may be a number of ‘low hanging fruit’ such as improving energy efficiency, which the region can utilize to reduce its emissions and adapt, but unless the region undergoes a fundamental shift across all sectors and government departments, these changes will be incremental at best. The report therefore fails to deliver a compelling narrative that challenges the current development paradigm.

Trade: the absence of any discussion on trade is notable given the commodities boom of recent years that has fueled the region’s economy, especially in the carbon intensive sectors of mining and hydrocarbons. As the region recovers from the economic crisis, a conversation on how climate change and a potential treaty will affect the region’s exports market is needed immediately. To stabilize greenhouse gas emissions concentrations to avoid dangerous climate change, over 50 percent of global mitigation potential would be located in developing countries. In the cases of industry, agriculture, and forestry, almost 70 percent of that mitigation potential is also in developing countries. This has the potential to hit Latin America’s export sectors hard.

Cities: LAC is the most urbanised region in the developing world with 77% of its people living in cities. According to the UN by 2030 the region’s urban population may surpass 600 million. The report focuses primarily on the advances and remaining potential in the transport sector in urban areas. However, it fails to link raising sea levels and the risk to urban areas located on the coast. This omission seems out of sync with the Bank’s World Development Report 2009, which argues that cities and towns will continue to act as dynamos in the global economy. As countries become richer, economic activity b ecomes more concentrated in urban areas. However, if we take into account the revisions for sea level raises this century, the longevity of Lima, Buenos Aires and others may be in doubt and questions the validity of this statement in LAC.

LAC civil society and think tanks: The report fails to mention civil society, which seems at odds with the avalanche of social movements and civil society groups that rocked the political status quo in the wake of the redemocratisation process. Any discussion of responses to climate change void of considering the role of civil society is too blinkered. Secondly, a quick skim of the report’s bibliography reveals no references to Latin American research institutes or other organizations. Rather it is dominated by World Bank literature and academic journals, the majority of which are only published in English.
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Guy Edwards

Guy Edwards is a Research Fellow at the Center for Environmental Studies, Brown University, where he manages a research project on the politics of climate change in Latin America. Along with co-author, Professor Timmons Roberts, he is currently writing a book on Latin American leadership on climate change for MIT Press. He has also written various academic papers, policy briefs and op-eds for a number of different publications. As co-founder of Intercambio Climático and formerly co-editor of the website, Guy has worked closely with the Latin American Platform on Climate and the Latin American office of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. He has also worked for the Overseas Development Institute, the consultancy River Path Associates and as the resident manager of the Huaorani Ecolodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon.