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ENVIRONMENT: Climate Action Could Escape Financial Crisis

Ramesh Jaura

BARCELONA, Oct 7 2008 (IPS) - Enter the global financial crisis – exit action on climate change? That lingering apprehension is not shared by Pamela Cox, the World Bank's vice-president for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"I'm an optimist," she said, adding that the global financial turmoil will not push climate change action into a corner. Money on the table will be used to invest in clean technologies for the countries in need, she said. Fox was at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona to launch a preview of a World Bank report on climate change in Latin America.

Leading industrialised countries pledged more than 6 billion dollars five weeks back to the two climate investment funds (CIFs) the board of executive directors of the World Bank endorsed in July.

The CIFs are international investment instruments designed to provide clean technologies to developing countries and to test innovative approaches to climate change.

Another reason for her optimism, she said, was the call by World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick for a fundamental overhaul of the multilateral system. Zoellick said Monday that the way the world tries to solve its economic problems needs to be rethought amidst today's global crisis.

TerraViva's Ramesh Jaura speaks with Pamela Cox

In a speech to the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, Zoellick said: "The G7 is not working (the G7 is the group of the leading industrialised nations, the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan). We need a better group for a different time. For financial and economic cooperation, we should consider a new steering group including Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the current G7."

Presenting a preview of the World Bank report, Fox said Latin America was neither responsible for the financial crisis nor was it a main source contributing to global climate change. But the effects of both were being felt by countries across the region.

"For those countries working together with the World Bank has become part of the solution in fighting climate change while fostering economic growth," Cox told IPS/TerraViva.

She said she shares the frustration of many of the region's leaders about the present financial mayhem, but emphasised that the region was better prepared to confront it due to diversified trade relations, an improved fiscal position, and steady economic growth in recent years.

Referring to climate change, she said: "The region is only producing about 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and just over 10 percent if we include deforestation. However, it already is suffering huge economic losses due to climate change.

"Countries in the region and its citizens – particularly the extreme poor – are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is cruel and ironic that those people who are the least responsible for causing the problem are also the most vulnerable and the ones with least resources to adapt."

Given the region's central role in the global ecosystem, repercussions from these effects will be felt worldwide unless significant action was taken soon to reduce global warming and mitigate its effects, she said.

Cox noted that the region includes five of the world's ten most bio-diverse countries – Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru – and the single most biologically diverse area in the world, the eastern slope of the Andes.

More than 50 percent of the world's tropical forests are in Latin America, along with 65 percent of tropical forest biomass. "Conserving these forests is critical not only for protecting biodiversity but also for sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change," Cox said.

The World Bank report paints some gloomy scenarios as a result of the effects of global climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean:

– Glacier retreat: Many Andean glaciers have been retreating, and some of them might completely disappear over the next 10-20 years if adequate action is not taken. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, glacier retreat could in fact seriously affect seasonal water flows.

– Rainforest 'die-off': The Amazon rainforest may shrink by 20-80 percent due to temperature increases in the basin of between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius. This could trigger desertification over vast areas of South America, and even affect North America.

– Increased disease: The number of cases of malaria in Colombia doubled from about 400 per 100,000 in the 1970s to about 800 per 100,000 in the 1990s. An increase in the population at risk from dengue is also feared in Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. There is also a danger of infectious diseases spreading in Bolivia and Panama.

– Coral reefs in decline: 'Bleaching' caused by warmer sea temperatures is devastating the economies of the Caribbean islands, impacting fisheries and tourism.

The report points out that declining precipitation levels and rising temperatures caused by climate change in the region have already been documented, and urgent action is needed to reduce further negative impacts on the economy, particularly the agricultural sector.

The report lauds the countries of the region for not sitting back but fighting global warming through 'green' economic development, and mitigation and adaptation strategies. "Latin America has a cleaner energy mix than other regions of the world, with abundant hydropower and a relatively low reliance on coal. The region is a world leader in 'sustainable transport'."

Brazil's sugarcane ethanol is the world's most competitive biofuel, she said. This is because sugarcane ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent when substituted for gasoline. And, it has a limited impact on food prices.

Latin America and the Caribbean also have several energy efficiency programmes that could be expanded, Cox said. She mentioned in particular the successful programmes in Mexico and Brazil that could be scaled up.

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