Civil Society, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CLIMATE CHANGE-URUGUAY: Adaptation Is the Name of the Game

MONTEVIDEO, Nov 19 2009 (IPS) - Uruguay must start focusing on efforts against global warming, and work in a coordinated manner with its South American neighbours, said one of the scientists consulted for the First Regional Report on Climate Change produced by Tierramérica, which was released Thursday.

Cattle and birds on Uruguayan prairie.  Credit: GEO report

Cattle and birds on Uruguayan prairie. Credit: GEO report

The rise in sea level and the possible salinisation of drinking water sources are the biggest challenges facing this small South American country, which must design adaptation policies for agriculture and the livestock industry, Professor Mario Bidegain with the atmospheric sciences unit at the Faculty Sciences of Uruguay’s public University of the Republic, told a news briefing.

Bidegain said that while landlocked countries in this region like Bolivia and Paraguay would especially suffer the rise in temperatures, coastal countries like Argentina and Uruguay would be hit harder by the effects of the rising sea level.

In the meantime, Brazil is investing millions of dollars in efforts to study and adapt to impacts like the gradual transformation of the Amazon jungle into savannah, and has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36.1 or 38.9 percent – depending on GDP growth levels – by 2020.

The expert said Uruguay – which is sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil – will not escape the impacts. The last five-yearly report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, said that in the best-case scenario, the average global temperature would rise between two and 2.5 degrees by 2050.

The report by Tierramérica, a specialised news service on the environment and development produced by the IPS (Inter Press Service) news agency with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that is published by 20 newspapers in the region, is based on the responses of 23 climate change experts who were sent an extensive questionnaire by email, which was then supplemented by telephone contacts.

Several of the experts are members of the IPCC, like Bidegain, who was a reviewer of the Climate Change 2007 – The Physical Science Basis Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC and of the IPCC Technical Paper on Climate Change and Water (2008).

The aim of the special 40-page Tierramérica report, “Latin America and the Irreversible Effects of a Warmer Planet”, which is available on-line in Spanish, is to analyse the state of global warming in the region, by consulting with experts, scientists and authorities, and representatives of civil society and international bodies. Updated reports will be produced periodically.

The report was presented Thursday in Montevideo by its author, Cristina Canoura, and IPS regional editor for Latin America, Diana Cariboni, ahead of the Dec. 7-18 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

In the Danish capital, delegates from around the world will try to reach agreement on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

“A worrisome aspect for Uruguay is the rise in the average sea level. There is even greater uncertainty in that respect from a scientific point of view, because there is enormous debate, and even today the models used to project this kind of variable are not entirely reliable at a global level,” said Bidegain.

The IPCC projected a 60 cm rise in sea level by the end of the century, although other researchers believe that is an overly conservative estimate and warn that it could rise by over a metre.

This is especially alarming for Uruguay, said the scientist, given that this country has only seen a 10-cm rise in sea level in the past 60 years. “This would be at least six times that, which is overwhelming,” he remarked.

“This, naturally, has all kinds of effects on daily life that you can’t even imagine. The rise in sea level won’t only cause coastal flooding, but a process of salinisation of lakes, like at the mouth of the Santa Lucía river, where Montevideo gets its water,” he said.

The scientist said adaptation efforts should be prioritised over mitigation initiatives. “The change is going to happen. The greenhouse gases that we have already emitted will remain in the atmosphere. What we are seeing now is not because of what we’re emitting today, but what we have released into the atmosphere in past decades,” he explained.

“Global warming is inevitable in the next 50 years. That must be understood. It’s inevitable, no matter what we do. What will be negotiated in Copenhagen is an agreement to achieve an at-least voluntary reduction in greenhouse gases to try to curb the warming, but unfortunately it is going to continue for several decades.”

Bidegain explained the concept of irreversibility discussed in the Tierramérica report.

“There are scientists in the world pointing out that with a more than two degree rise in the average global temperature, the climate system could stabilise at a certain level, which no one knows what that would be, but at which we would all suffer. But later, even with voluntary or coordinated greenhouse gas cuts, there would be no return, even to current levels,” he said.

“Our society is based on the consumption of fossil fuels which, whether coal or oil, emit greenhouse gases when we burn them. We have to think of a new kind of society, a new way of life,” said Bidegain.

The researcher underlined that Uruguay has made progress, especially with the creation this year of the National System of Response to Climate Change, although he also stressed the need to design concrete long-term plans for agriculture and livestock, chief economic sectors in this country that will be affected.

Winter crops like wheat and barley will be hit hardest, according to experts. “It’s necessary to think about that with respect to the future, how Uruguay is going to cover that shortage. We will have practically no flour to make bread. Are we going to replace it with another crop? Climate change presents us with opportunities as well as challenges,” he said.

One of the experts surveyed for the Tierramérica report, Agustín Giménez, said “the most evident and negative effects of climate change in Uruguay and in the region (southern Brazil and the pampas in Argentina) are the increase in climate variability and more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events.”

Giménez is national coordinator of the National Institute of Agricultural Research unit on research and development on agro-climate and information systems.

The Tierramérica report says that Latin America and the Caribbean could suffer a loss of agricultural revenue of up to 12 percent, in a scenario of mild climate change, and of up to 50 percent in a more severe scenario.

Bidegain also underscored the need for these problems to be given priority in the plans of the future government of Uruguay, which will be elected in the Nov. 29 presidential runoff election.

Tierramérica is a multimedia platform that offers news reports, interviews and columns on the environment and development in Spanish, English and Portuguese in print, audio and images. It is sponsored by UNEP, the UNDP and the World Bank.

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