Monday, March 2, 2009

Times They are a Changing.... Way Faster Than We Thought

About 3 years ago, my blog began posting all climate change research I could find in hopes of convincing my peers and readers that climate change was real and needed to be placed at the top of our collective political/social agenda.  It was leading edge research, even though the message had been blaring at us for more than a decade. 

In the past year or two, the focus of my efforts has shifted a bit.  As American society seemed to appreciate the reality of climate change, I shifted to blogging about research on climate change impacts, the emissions reductions necessary to minimize those impacts, and the policy tools available to reduce emissions --  in hopes of highlighting the dramatic environmental impacts already occurring due to climate change and the danger that we are reaching climate tipping points.

What has become apparent is the potentially devastating inadequacy of global emission reduction goals currently being discussed in Congress and in international treaty discussions. We don't just need to reduce our 1990 emissions by 80% (the most radical goal that has been part of the political discussion), we don't just need to go carbon neutral (the most radical goal that individuals and institutions have set), we need to become carbon negative -- we need to reverse the impact of human activity on the global climate....and fast.

Let's be clear....we need to act immediately, we need to make dramatic changes, and we can ill afford to allow the smoke and mirrors of commentators in the pocket of the energy business to sidetrack the discussion.  What the industry claims is an adequate response, or the most we can afford, or the most supported by the current science, or the most that the technology can achieve now should be viewed with well-founded skepticism. 

Since 1970, industry has repeatedly claimed with respect to a wide variety of environmental problems that we didn't yet have the technology, that the costs outweighed the benefits, that we couldn't afford the price tag, that jobs were being lost, and other hogwash about environmental protection.  They did so with knowledge of technologies in their pocket, awareness they were inflating costs and minimizing benefits, attributing job losses caused by changing technology to the environment, and placing more emphasis on profits and  maintaining the size of their bonuses than on creating a sustainable society.

I make this claim as one who has always been reluctant to classify myself as an environmentalist because my experience with industry and government was broader and deeper than my involvement with any environmental group.  That remains the case even today.  But enough is enough! We have a true crisis.  We need great courage to deal with that crisis, particularly with the shape of the global economy left to us by our neoliberal friends. 

This article from ENS and the reports I have linked to below underscore the problem:

Climate Tipping Point Near Warn UN, World Bank  ENS link

Link to World  Bank report referenced in ENS story

Link to UNEP Annual Report referenced in ENS story

The planet is quickly approaching the tipping point for abrupt climate changes, perhaps within a few years, according to the UN Environmental Programme's newly released 2009 Year Book and a separate World Bank report now being presented throughout Latin America.

The UN agency warns that urgent action is needed to avoid catastrophic climate events such as major food and water shortages, shifts in weather patterns, and destabilization of "major ice sheets that could introduce unanticipated rates of sea level rise within the 21st century."

The report warns that climate changes are occurring much faster than anticipated by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, issued in 2007.

While earlier estimates forecast up to half a meter (19.5 inches) risein sea level in the coming century, updated calculations suggest that the rise may be as high as two meters (78 inches). 

Melting ice sheets and glaciers in the northern and southern hemispheres will not only contribute to sea level rise, but will also leave many regions around the world without basic water resources for human consumption and industrial production.

In its new report[entitled "Low Carbon, High Growth: Latin American Responses to Climate Change,"] the World Bank focuses on four climate impacts of special concern: "the warming and eventual disabling of mountain ecosystems in the Andes; the bleaching of coral reefs leading to an anticipated total collapse of the coral biome in the Caribbean basin; the damage to vast stretches of wetlands and associated coastal systems in the Gulf of Mexico; and the risk of forest dieback in the Amazon basin."

Last week, World Bank climate experts presented devastating news to an audience in Lima, Peru - glaciers in the Andes mountain range may disappear within the next 20 years unless immediate action is taken to mitigate climate change.  In the past 35 years, Peruvian glaciers have shrunk by 22 percent, resulting in a 12 percent reduction in freshwater for the coastal area, the home of about 60 percent of the country's population. Bolivia and Ecuador, which depend on nearby glaciers for water, also are facing serious shortages....

The damage from hurricanes and tropical storms will increase, the WorldBank reports. Estimates suggest that losses from hurricane damage along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico "could increase tenfold from 2020 to 2025.  In Central America and the Caribbean, losses will triple or quadruple, respectively, in the same period," said World Bank economist John Nash, who presented the report in El Salvador.

"Climate change can have extremely severe consequences for Colombian
agriculture," said Walter Vergara, a bank climate change expert who
spoke during the presentation held in Bogota on February 16.

Vergara warned that in the worst-case scenario Colombian farm
production could suffer an almost total loss of 94 percent as a result
of temperature rises from 2.5 to five degrees Celsius and a 10 percent
variation in annual rainfalls.

The bank's report acknowledges the efforts Colombia is making in its
fight against climate change, especially in the area of public
transportation. The bank experts foresee potential benefits for the
country as a result of new global agreements and aid programs.
Augusto de la Torre, a national of Ecuador, is the chief economist for
Latin America and the Caribbean. (Photo courtesy World Bank)

"Current negotiations seek to include programs for reducing emissions
from deforestation and degradation in developing countries, commonly
known as REDD, in a future post-Kyoto agreement," explained Augusto de
la Torre, World Bank lead economist for the region and one of the
authors of the report.

This post-Kyoto agreement is being shaped by talks among governments
throughout this year that will culminate in the annual UN climate
conference in December in Copenhagen, where an agreement is expected
to be finalized.

Combating rising temperatures and slowing the rate that ice and snow
are melting requires quick action.

One near-term solution is to focus on black carbon, or soot, an
aerosol that scientists assert may be the second largest contributor
to climate change after the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and that has
an enhanced impact on snow and ice melt.

Black carbon is emitted from incomplete combustion of burning fossil
fuels and biomass, and contributes to climate change in two ways.
First, while in the atmosphere, the dark particles absorb heat and
warm the air.

Then, when black carbon falls on ice and snow, it absorbs more solar
radiation, leading to more rapid melting, which then leads to less
reflective ice, in a dangerous accelerating feedback cycle.
Sooty sky obscures a double rainbow over the town of Greenock in
western Scotland. (Photo by Bilco8)

Unlike carbon dioxide, CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for over a
thousand years, black carbon lingers only for a few days, so reducing
black carbon emissions would have an immediate effect on global
warming and also would have health benefits for millions of people
risk disease and death from breathing polluted air.

"In contrast to reductions in black carbon soot, cuts in CO2
emissions, while essential, do not produce significant cooling for at
least a thousand years," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the
Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.

Zaelke attended UNEP's Governing Council meeting in Nairobi last week
to urge fast action on black carbon and other strategies that can
produce quick climate mitigation.

He urges that the Montreal Protocol ozone treaty be used to rapidly
phase out hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, which are used as refrigerants and
foam blowing agents. They also are used in manufacturing and emitted
as by-products of industrial processes.

HFCs are a class of replacements for ozone-depleting
chlorofluorocarbons phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Because
HFCs do not contain chlorine or bromine, they do not deplete the ozone
layer, but they do have global warming potential that is much higher
than CO2.

Another carbon negative strategy is the production of biochar, which
scientists say can significantly reduce current CO2 concentrations
within decades.

Zaelke warns, "The UNEP and World Bank reports are clear - the world
is facing serious danger, and we have to take urgent and aggressive
action now - starting with black carbon reductions - to avoid
devastating consequences of passing tipping points.

World Bank Press Release on Low Carbon, High Growth:

World Bank
Latin America and the Caribbean Region

News Release No. 2009/161/LAC     Contacts:
Sergio Jellinek (202) 294-6232
Gabriela Aguilar (202) 473-6768

New Report Urges Fresh Look at Latin American Solutions

WASHINGTON, DC, December 10, 2008 – In the midst of the most severe global financial crisis in decades, the World Bank today urged the international community to look to Latin America for innovative solutions to avert a climate crisis. The region is in a position to lead middle income countries in reducing emissions from deforestation, breaking the impasse on hydropower development, improving energy efficiency, and transforming urban transport, a new Word Bank study concludes.

“Such an approach could simultaneously support economic recovery and encourage growth in areas that mitigate the impact of climate change. By promoting a shift towards low carbon economic activities, governments can not only help avoid dangerous climate change impacts but can also make the region more competitive, contributing to a faster recovery from the current economic slowdown,” says Pamela Cox, World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean.

With oil prices falling, World Bank Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean Augusto de la Torre acknowledges that “increased investments in green technologies are not going to be an easy sell.” However, he underlines that “there is growing support from businesses, government and civil society for the idea that the crisis itself provides an opportunity to create incentives for a low carbon development path.”

“Low Carbon, High Growth: Latin American Responses to Climate Change” released today, is the World Bank's flagship report on Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). It explores how the region is exposed to climate change impacts and what it can do to avert its effects, both unilaterally and with the incentives of a global climate agreement to be negotiated next year in Copenhagen by the United Nations.

According to the report, LAC, the most biodiverse region in the world, has the resources and the leadership to be part of the global solution needed to move the world towards a low carbon path.

“The region is suffering the impact of climate change; however, it is not a main source of emissions that are driving global warming, thanks 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,” says the report, written by World Bank economists de la Torre, Pablo Fajnzylber and John Nash.

This is the first time that the office of the Chief Economist for Latin America has selected climate change as the main theme of research for the annual flagship publication.

Of the world’s ten most biodiverse countries, five are in the Latin American region: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. These are also five of the 15 countries whose fauna is most threatened with extinction.

According to the report, Latin America’s countries and citizens —especially those living in extreme poverty— are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Developing country engagement must be based on the understanding that industrialized countries “carry an historical responsibility for the existing greenhouse gas concentrations causing climate change.” Therefore, a committed Latin American engagement should be based on the idea that improved environmental management can go hand-in-hand with economic growth. 

“Many of the actions needed to reduce the region’s emissions and adapt to climate change make sense from economic and social perspectives – and often from a financial perspective as well -- regardless of climate concerns,” the report emphasizes. Adopting a low-carbon development path will be beneficial for the region’s competitiveness, especially if the world’s technological frontier moves in the direction of low carbon technologies.

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 efforts to place a financial value on preserving ecosystems, through several 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, Latin America 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). The study finds that keeping LAC on a high-growth and low-carbon path will require a coherent policy framework on three levels:

Some critical impacts of climate change in  LAC

·3    By 2100, agricultural productivity in South America could fall by 12 percent to 50 percent.
·4    In Mexico, 30 percent to 85 percent of farms could face a total loss of economic productivity by 2100.
·5    Climate-related natural disasters (storms, droughts and floods) cost, on average, 0.6 percent of GDP in affected countries.
·6    Hurricane damages will increase by 10 percent to 26 percent for each 1oF warming of the sea.
·7    Many Andean glaciers will disappear within the next 20 years placing 77 million people under severe water stress by 2020.
·8    Caribbean corals will bleach and eventually die.  Since the 1980s, 30 percent of corals already have died, and all could be dead by 2060.
·9    Increase in risk of dengue, malaria and other infectious diseases in some areas.
·10    The Amazon rainforest could shrink by 20 percent to 80 percent if temperatures increase by 2 to 3oC
·11    Large biodiversity losses are expected in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Brazil.

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, increasing energy efficiency often can save money; 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.

“If the region moves ‘ahead of the pack’ it could take advantage of international cost-sharing mechanisms for deploying low-carbon technologies and build new comparative advantages,” says Pablo Fajnzylber.

The report emphasizes that good adaptation to climate change is an indispensable part of good development policies and that action is needed from all countries.   

“Latin America has demonstrated a consistent commitment to fight climate change beyond political cycles. Now is the time when the region can act as a leader within developing nations in articulating constructive global solutions. If governments make the right short-term decisions, it could mean significant progress towards a more sustainable market economy,” concludes John Nash.


For more information about the report and the World Bank’s work on climate change in Latin America, please visit:

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