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Latin America Regional Strategy

Multiple Authors

This short overview of climate change issues in Latin America was written by Ben Smith and Tahia Devisscher as input to an Environment and Climate Change policy brief to inform the development of Sida’s regional development assistance strategy for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The approach taken in this section is not to provide a list of all the potential impacts of anthropogenic climate change on the region, but rather to focus on 4 major issues that will require regional cooperation to solve and where SIDA could consider focussing its regional cooperation. We have chosen one issue for each of the sub-regions[1]. As there is a companion document that aims to map the institutional landscape for climate change there is little discussion of regional institutions in this section.

Andean sub-region: glacier retreat

Despite contributing little to the global production of GHG, the Andean sub-region is at high risk from climate change, given the fragility and high vulnerability of its population and ecosystems[2]. Average temperature rise in the Andean region is 0,34°C/decade, about 70% more than the global average. Climate-related disasters in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru cost over 10% of GDP, while the rest of the region presents ratios from 0.1 to 6%. The high vulnerability of these countries is related to the fragile ecosystems, but also to the high poverty (above 50%), and extreme poverty (between 15 and 30%) incidence levels. The Andean Community estimates that additional economic damage caused by climate change will reach US$ 30 millions by 2025, equivalent to 4.5% of the sub-region’s GDP and similar to the investment currently allocated to the health sector. Such an impact can jeopardize the potential development of all Andean countries[3].

Besides exacerbating the occurrence and intensity of natural disasters (see Annex 1), climate change is accelerating the withdrawal of glaciers in the sub-region. In the past 25 years, all glaciers in the Andean region have reduced in mass. Almost 95% of the tropical glaciers are found in this sub-region, and some of them have already lost 80% of their glacier areas. The Peruvian White Mountain Range, for instance, has already lost 26% of glacier mass and this loss is accelerating[4]. It is estimated that by 2050 glaciers in the sub-region will only exist above 6,000 meters of altitude, and it is probable that small glaciers would have completely disappeared by 2025[5].

The withdrawal of glaciers in the sub-region has an enormous impact on water availability and electricity generation. More than 70% of electricity in the Andean countries is generated by hydropower plants, some of which depend upon the glacial basins for water supply. It is estimated that by 2025 climate change could contribute to a 70% increase in the number of people with difficulties to access drinking water in the Andes. The populations in the cities of La Paz, Quito, and Lima are expected to be the most affected. By 2020 around 40 million people could be affected by water deficit for hydro energy, water consumption and water use in agriculture due to glacier withdrawal[6].

The commonalities in terms of vulnerability, potential risks and impacts, as well as institutional frameworks in the area of climate change, set up the need to draw up an Andean Strategy on Climate Change that would make it possible to agree upon a common aim for the sub-region to cope with and mitigate climate change related effects. The Presidents of the Andean Countries recognized this need at the Andean Presidential Council in 2004[7]. The Andean Environmental Agenda for 2006-2010 provides for the formulation and organization of the Andean Strategy on Climate Change (EACC) and its corresponding Action Plan, as a basis for coordination on priority issues for the sub-region. Several strategies and programs to build capacity to adapt to glacial ablation have already been initiated in the sub-region. Annex 2 provides a brief description of these initiatives.

Amazonian sub-region: Forest to Savannah?

The Amazonian sub-region is highly vulnerable to temperature rise and changes in precipitation pattern. Records of average monthly temperature in the north-eastern part of the Amazonian sub-region show a warming trend of 0.63°C over a period of 100 years[8]. Precipitation trends in Amazonia are not as clear. Variations in rainfall in different decades show opposite trends in the northern and southern parts of the Amazon basin. While the north of the Amazonia showed a rainy period from 1950 to 1976, the region has been rather dry since 1977[9], suggesting climate variability but not a defined rainfall trend[10]. There has been no overall trend in region-wide annual mean precipitation in recent decades, but evidence of increasing frequency of dry events in southern Amazonia over the period 1970-1999 has been found[11]. Moreover, water volume in Amazonian rivers has reduced compared to average, showing trends in higher drought levels in the sub-region over the past decades[12].

Rising temperatures and transpiration rates, widespread deforestation, and climate-change induced forest retreat may further contribute to dry periods and degradation of the ecosystems. A study conducted by Malhi et al. (2009) exploring the likelihood of a climate-change-induced dieback of the Amazonia concluded that under mid-high GHG emissions scenarios, there is a high probability of intensified dry seasons in the Amazonia, and a medium probability that the rainfall regime will change sufficiently to a climate state where rainforest will shift to seasonal forest similar to tropical forest in South-east Asia. As a result, it is almost certain that the species composition will change to favour plants that can survive for months without water. Additionally, longer and more severe dry seasons create ideal conditions for starting and spreading of fires. If severe fires were to expand in eastern Amazon, huge amounts of carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere (The Amazon rainforest stores 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon), rainfall patterns would change worldwide, and local air pollution would be greatly affected. Forests may have some resilience to intensification of the dry season, however potential fires would increase their vulnerability, as seasonal tropical forest become flammable. In Brazil, 28% of the Amazonia is facing incipient fire risk with extensive fires leaking from agricultural areas into flammable forest during the droughts of 1997, 1998, 2005, and 2007.

Moreover, the rainforest’s future is dependent on climate and soil nutrient feedbacks associated with land use trends in the sub-region. Recent studies show how the interaction between the different factors affecting forests may lead in some instances to tipping-points. Senna et al. (2009) conducted a study using a coupled climate-biosphere model to investigate a threshold of deforestation that could cause a tipping-point in certain parts of the Amazon forest. Results show that the reduction in rainfall is proportional to the amount of deforestation and is more drastic when the deforested area is higher than 40% of the original forest extent. This simulated precipitation reduction alone is not sufficient to prevent the rainforest recover. When integrating soil nutrient stress into their models, the change was much more profound, showing that a tipping-point may be reached and a savannization process may start over southern Amazonia (northern Mato Grosso state), no matter how much is deforested. At present, already 17% of the Mato Grosso region has been cleared. Senna found that with 20% deforestation the northern Mato Grosso would not be able to recover its forested state even after 50 years, and instead it would became a bare savannah. According to Nobre and Oyama (2003), the trend of increasing drought and heat in Amazonia could eventually convert 60% of the territory into a savannah in this century.

Recognizing that Amazonian countries share a variety of ecosystems, it is important to have a common and closely coordinated strategy for the integrated management of these ecosystems. UNEP and ACTO (2009) suggest concentrating efforts along three lines of action: forest conservation and climate change; integrated water resources management; and sustainable management of biodiversity and environmental services. Moreover, an important consideration to reduce the growing vulnerability of forests to climate change is to incorporate adaptation and risk management measures into the Amazonian development strategies (UNEP and ACTO 2009). Just as land use and human activity may be critical in triggering a degradation of forest, direct intervention to maintain forest area and limit the spread of agriculture and fire offers the potential to maintain forest resilience and avoid any tipping points. To pursue this end, different processed have been initiated in the sub-region. Some of these initiatives are described in Annex 3.

Central America: Water Availability[13]

The sub-region is expected to warm on average by 1.8-5.0°C for the period 2081-2100 and there is significant model agreement that there will be a decrease in precipitation and an increase in the frequency of extremely dry seasons, which is consistent with observed drying trends for most of Central America since 1950. The models produce a large range for the severity of decrease, and given the geography of the region there are likely to be significant local to national variations. El Niño causes drought in Central America, and any increase in the frequency and intensity of these events could have severe effects on the sub-region.[14]

As a result both surface and groundwater availability in Central America are expected to decrease significantly, through a combination of decreased precipitation and run-off, increased evapo-transpiration due to higher temperatures, decreased soil moisture and an increase in the intensity of rainfall meaning that rainfall is less evenly distributed. Other issues such as deforestation, soil erosion, population growth and increased demand will compound the effects of climate change on water availability and water quality.[15]

Water is a vital cross-cutting sector with linkages to almost all aspects of environment, economy and society, so the effects of reduced water availability go far beyond a reduction in availability for human consumption; some (but by no means all) of these are shown below.[16] Increased water stress and its effects across different sectors is likely to hamper poverty reduction and development efforts.

Agriculture Probable decrease in productivity, increased risk of crop failure and livestock mortality from droughts, knock-on effects on food security.
Health Decrease in water availability and quality leads to increase in gastro-intestinal and respiratory disease, amongst others.
Energy Decreased run-off, increased drought will reduce hydro-electric generation
Ecosystems Risk of desertification, fire, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.
Livelihoods Decreased food security, drought increases rural-urban migration.

Table 1: Some effects of reduced water availability on other sectors[17]

Adaptation to decreased water availability will require an integrated cross-sectoral approach and will require both demand and supply-side solutions. There is no shortage of regional activity and planning to manage water resources, for example the Central American Plan for Water Resources (PACADIRH) was established in 1999 and a new regional strategy for water management is currently being elaborated, however the challenge is the capacity and institutional framework to implement these plans.[18] There is a need for much greater investment and capacity to manage water resources in order to ensure adequate supply as availability decreases. The protection and restoration where possible of natural ecosystems will help regulate water supply and protect biodiversity. Effective early-warning systems for drought and economic diversification will reduce the exposure of small-holder agriculture to climatic risks.[19]

The Caribbean: Sea-Level Rise

The Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise due to the island nature of the sub-region, the concentration of important infrastructure and population centres in coastal zones and its reliance on sectors such as tourism that will be adversely affected by sea-level rise[20].

Estimates for global sea-level rise from the IPCC are of 26-59cm for the end of the 21st century (2090-2099), however recent studies including the contribution from ice-sheet melt indicate that sea-level rise of 50-140cm for 2100 under the A2 emissions scenario is possible[21]. Observed sea-level rise in the Caribbean is close to the global observed figure, suggesting that global projections of sea-level rise should be a good indication of rise in the Caribbean, however there will be local differences due to tectonic activity; for example sea-level is rising four times as fast in the south of Trinidad than in the north[22]. Temperature and precipitation projections for the Caribbean are provided in Annex 5.

Sea-level rise will threaten key coastal infrastructure and cities, increase damage caused by hurricanes and storm surges, could exacerbate water shortages through salinization and will put pressure on coastal ecosystems[23]. Erosion of beaches, damage to natural resources on which tourism is based, such as coral reefs, and flooding of tourist sites and infrastructure could have a large negative effect on this important sector which was worth $28bn in 2004 and employs 15.5 % of the population, with concurrent effects on the wider economy.

A recent study on the cost of anthropogenic climate change to the Caribbean without any adaptation measures concluded that the cost to the region could be $5.7-27.6bn/year by 2050 (2.7-13% of current GDP) and reach $55.8bn/year by 2100 (26.3% of GDP). It is important to note that this study was aimed at showing the damages in the Caribbean that could be avoided through strong global mitigation measures, and does not include any costs (or avoided costs) from adaptation. A summary of the results of this study is provided in Annex 6. The cost of climate change could reach over 100% of current GDP in particularly vulnerable countries. Sea-level rise is responsible for the majority of this cost, which is consistent with a 2002 study indicating that it could account for 75% of the total cost of climate change for the Caribbean[24].

Adaptation is thus vital in order to reduce the negative impacts of sea-level rise. Many argue that adaptation in the Caribbean must take the approach of building the resilience of the wider island ecosystem, taking an integrated approach. Improved planning and building regulations to stop the construction/reconstruction of buildings and infrastructure in areas vulnerable to flooding is an important first step in adapting to sea-level rise. An Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) approach is a key part of any adaptation strategy and is already being implemented in several areas, however will need to take an explicitly long-term view in order to successfully adapt to future sea-level rise[25]

Recommendations to Sida

  • Support existing regional initiatives to manage the impacts of climate change, such as the Andean initiative on adapting to glacier melt, in Annex 2. Exploring avenues for the effective implementation of regional plans is particularly important.
  • Support research into, and pilots of, payment for ecosystem services schemes (for example REDD, water services) to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem integrity.
  • Promote the dissemination and use of climate change information for adaptation decision-making and development planning. This would involve training organisations to ‘translate’ the complexity and uncertainty in climate projections into policy-relevant outputs and language, and dialogue between the users and providers of this information.
  • Support the development of a region-wide programme on the downscaling of climate models (both through regional climate modelling and statistical downscaling) to provide climate projections at a more policy-relevant scale. Such a programme could be housed by regional centres such as the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) or CATHLAC, and supported by existing centres of excellence in downscaling, such as the University of Cape Town.

Annexes to Latin America Regional Strategy: ENSO, Adapting to glacial melt in the Andes, Climate Change initiatives in the Amazon, Hurricanes and Storms, Climate projections for the Caribbean, and the Cost of Inaction in the Caribbean.

Full list of references for Latin America Regional Strategy

  1. ↑ Annexes 1 and 4 provide additional information on El Niño and on Hurricanes and Storms.
  2. ↑ AEA 2008
  3. ↑ CAN 2008
  4. ↑ Alvarado 2006
  5. ↑ IPCC 2007
  6. ↑ CAN 2008
  7. ↑ AEA 2008
  8. ↑ Victoria et al 1998
  9. ↑ IPCC 2001
  10. ↑ UNEP and ACTO 2009
  11. ↑ Li et al 2008
  12. ↑ UNEP and ACTO 2009
  13. ↑ Hurricanes are a major issue for both Central America and the Caribbean but are not adressed in the main body of text. Please see Annex 4 for a discussion on climate change and hurricanes.
  14. ↑ Paragraph based on Christensen et al 2007, Aguilar 2007, Bates et al 2008
  15. ↑ Tearfund 2005, Up in Smoke 2006, Aguilar 2007, Bates et al 2008
  16. ↑ Bates et al 2008
  17. ↑ Compiled from: Aguilar 2007, Bates et al 2008, Magrin et al 2007, Ammour and Elizondo 2008
  18. ↑ For full discussion of initiatives on water and climate change please refer to Ammour and Elizondo 2008
  19. ↑ Magrin et al 2007, Ammour and Elizondo 2008
  20. ↑ Mimura et al 2007
  21. ↑ Rahmstorf 2007
  22. ↑ Mimura et al 2007
  23. ↑ Magrin et al 2007, Mimura et al 2007, UNEP 2008
  24. ↑ Bueno et al 2008, Haites et al 2002
  25. ↑ Mimura et al 2007, UNEP 2008

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