Friday, 14 August 2009 19:53

Latin America, climate change and the countdown to Copenhagen: Interview 2* Featured

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For Latino Cambio’s second interview in the run up to the Copenhagen negotiations, we talked with the World Bank’s Lead Engineer for the Latin America Environment Department, Walter Vergara. 1. In 2004 you said ‘the political will for a strong support of adaptation efforts is still weak, and there is considerable confusion.’ In 2009 would you stick by this statement and if so why? Or if not what has changed? The political context has changed for the better and this is reflected in a renewed commitment by the international community. Yet, there is still a lingering lack of information and of course trying financial conditions that continue to impede further progress. On top of this, the challenge has only grown worse with time. 2. Various multilateral organizations including the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and CEPAL are working to increase Latin American capacity on climate change. Numerous organizations are also funding work programmes and projects such as the UK’s Department for International Development and the European Union’s EUrocLIMA Initiative. In your opinion how well coordinated are these efforts between the organizations themselves but also with national governments in Latin America? I think folks at all of these institutions want to do it right and are aiming at the best coordination possible; but, let's not underestimate the turf syndrome. We all need to fight for the best possible efficiency in delivery of the limited resources available under the best allocation criteria possible and this requires seamless coordination between institutions. 3. In the World Bank report, ‘Low Carbon, High Growth: Latin American Responses to Climate Change’ there is very little mention of the role of Latin American civil society. The bibliography also includes few if any references to research conducted by Latin American research institutes or think thanks. Why might this be the case? There is substantial work being undertaken by research institutions and some of these is reflected in the report and also in the recently released "Assessing the Potential Consequences of Climate Destabilization in Latin America". Some of the institutes providing first rate analytical and field work are indeed mentioned in these publications and a very limited list includes: IDEAM, the meteorological institute of Colombia, CAN, the Andean Community of Nations, EIA, the School of Engineering of Antioquia, EMAAP-Q, the water supply and treatment company of Quito, INE, the Institute of Ecology of Mexico, UNAM, the Autonomous University of Mexico, SMA, the Secretary of Environment of Mexico City, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize, INPE/CPTEC in Brazil and many others that I fail to list. 4. Much of your recent work at the Bank has investigated the impacts of climate change in the region such as water availability and the loss of biodiversity. Which impact is most likely to affect the greatest number of countries in the region and what is being done collectively to address it? In a recent article, we have tried to answer this question. There are very clear climate hot-spots in Latin America, that tower against other consequences of climate change due to its magnitude, irreversibility and economic and environmental impacts. A short list includes: the risk of climate induced dieback of the Amazon rainforest, the accelerated warming of the Andes cordillera, the collapse of the coral biome in the Caribbean and the subsidence of the coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico. While there are other significant impacts in the region, these are in a category by themselves. 5. Latin America arguably has sufficient experience of low carbon development to lead the developing world in tackling climate change. In your experience how much dialogue is their between Latin America and other developing regions on climate change and low carbon growth? I am afraid not as much as there should be, in part because of the transaction costs involved in disseminating lessons and sharing experiences amongst a large number of mostly small to medium size projects. There should be concerted efforts to disseminate experiences. In the Latin America region of the World Bank, there is growing appreciation of the benefits of what you propose and in the field of adaptation; resources have been allocated to ensure that successful experiences with investments in adaptation are widely shared within our region. 6. As the region is the most urbanized in the world and a number of the impacts of climate change will hit these settlements the hardest, would you agree that the battle to fight global warming will either by won or lost by these urban settlements? The impacts in urban settlements are very serious and have the potential to affect a large population. But, I do not agree with the premise. It is akin to us thinking that the problem with the food system needs to be solved at the supermarket, while the food is actually produced and transported from elsewhere. I am convinced that the key to adaptation lies in an ecosystem-based approach and that success to adapt will be based on our ability to shield and protect the ecosystems that provide the economic and environmental services upon which we rely. But, of course, there can not be a successful adaptation strategy if that does not include a major drive to reduce emissions by the most energy intensive societies such as the United States and China. 7. The mismanagement of natural resources in Latin America has been a constant theme for hundreds of years. Given the region’s reliance on tapping into these resources for their development, do you think the sound and sustainable management of these resources is possible? And if yes how does climate change fit into this resource-development nexus? It is not only possible but absolutely necessary. I am gratified by the growing number of examples, where regional and local governments but also private companies have chosen to invest in the future, through, amongst other examples, avoided deforestation, conservation and restoration efforts, investments in long term basin management and improved efficiency in the use of environmental services. Much needs yet to happen and there are still a large number of battles to fight and eventually win, but progress is being made. 8. Taking into account Latin America is home to the Amazon rainforest and also abundant other forested areas, do you think there is a risk that national governments in the region resent these resources being framed as sources of cheap and easy abatement opportunities as opposed to real options for poverty reduction, reducing emissions and development? As recent assessments and data indicate, this key element of the global water and carbon cycles is being endangered by climate consequences. There is much at stake in the conservation of the Amazon rain-forest and there is a growing awareness that this is an asset on which the global community, the region and the local inhabitants, equally depend. Maintaining the rainforest ecosystem is probably one of the single actions that the global community can undertake to prevent the impoverishment of future generations. Conserving this ecosystem is a requirement for maintaining our biosphere. 9. In your recent publication, ‘Assessing the Potential Consequences of Climate Destabilization in Latin America’, you edit a number of papers which paint a rather depressing picture of how costly and spectacular the impacts of climate change could be in Latin America. For those actors in the region responsible for government planning and policy, what is the report’s key message and how was the report received in the region? The publication does paint a dire situation that is the reality we face today. The key message is that the region has much to lose from runaway GHG emission trajectories, such as we are experiencing today. This calls for political activism to induce energy intensive nations, such as the United States and China to aggressively reduce their emissions, for all countries in the region to improve the management of their natural resources and move to lower carbon development paths and for urgent support of strategies, that centre on ecosystem based adaptation. 10. Finally, let’s consider a scenario. If we jumped to 2100 and take a look at a Latin American region which has lead and participated in a number of international treaties to curb global GHG emissions and adopt a low carbon economy, what would be the key features of the Latin American economies? A zero carbon power grid, low carbon mass transport, built on the basis of cost effective Transit Systems and very efficient vehicle technologies, a massive effort at avoided deforestation and ecosystem restoration, all activities whose management and maintenance engage and employ our next generations.
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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.