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LATIN AMERICA / THE CARIBBEAN
The many threats of climate change
Ramiro Escobar*
2/22/2007
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Deforestation just the tip of the iceberg of climate change’s threats to the region.

Glaciers from the Andes to Patagonia are melting quickly. Droughts and floods threaten South America in nearly equal measure. Hurricanes increasing in size and strength assault Caribbean islands.

These are effects of global warming, a result of the excessive amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Under normal conditions these gases are beneficial because they stabilize the climate and allow for greater human development. But they have concentrated in a manner never seen before.

Nitric oxide, which is emitted from some vehicles using diesel fuel and by coal and natural gas plants; methane, which is present in livestock manure and rice field bacteria; and carbon dioxide, emitted by internal combustion motors and used in refrigeration and air conditioning, are also added to the mix.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), carbon dioxide surpassed 280 parts per million (ppm) during the 18th century, at the beginning of the Industrial Age. It now measures 380 ppm, an unprecedented concentration in the last 400,000 years, UNEP said.

The excess of greenhouse gases has caused severe climate changes, and if these changes continue, it can mean flooded coasts. Waters from the South Atlantic Ocean would move through cities such as Uruguay’s coastal capital, Montevideo, which would end up under water.

Big effects, little responsibility
But the very region that may suffer from climate change may not be to blame. UNEP’s report “Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean 2006” states that Latin America and the Caribbean are responsible for just 5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 70 percent of the regional total comes from the region’s largest countries, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina. Colombia and Peru also contribute, though on a less significant level. Caribbean and Central American countries contribute almost negligible amounts.
While the region’s greenhouse gas emissions are low, the impacts will be “costly” to the region, UNEP warns in its report.

Deforestation makes climate change effects more severe. Peruvian ecologist Antonio Brack Egg says that in the last ten years, Latin America and the Caribbean lost 47 million hectares (116 million acres) of forest land.

In a June report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that Latin America and the Caribbean have lost an average of 4.5 million hectares (more than 11 million acres) per year in the last five years, making the region the world’s greatest victim of deforestation.
Forest land has particular importance because plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which helps to alleviate global warming.
 

While on global scale, the region plays a small role in the climate change phenomenon, it does contribute.

The region’s greatest contribution comes from transportation; vehicles with internal motors produce 38 percent of the region’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to a 2004 UNEP report. The use of ethanol fuel is encouraged to cut down on emissions. Brazil, for example, has been using a mix of ethanol and gasoline for more than 30 years. But even the alternative has its drawbacks.

Dubious motives
A 2006 law in Argentina that gives tax benefits to biofuel producers, and states that by 2010 fuel must have 5 percent biocomponents, has been questioned by environmental groups, such as Greenpeace. As a result of these benefits, the expansion of crops such as soy — a commonly used crop in biofuel production — can lead to monoculture, which can damage soil.

Signatory nations to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5 percent of their 1990 levels by 2012. Twenty-seven Latin American and Caribbean countries ratified the protocol, but as developing nations, none are obligated to fulfill the requirement because they are developing nations.

Nevertheless, Latin American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador have implemented the protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism that allows industrialized countries to invest in reforestation and other projects to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The industrialized country can “claim credit” for any reductions and “use these credits to meet its own target.”

Ricardo Carrere, of the World Rainforest Movement, says this system allows industrialized countries avoid having to make significant changes in greenhouse gas emission reductions. Another problem he notes is that new trees may be planted, but this forest land could later be burned or cut (LP, March 23, 2005).

“They are making equal two things that aren’t comparable,” Carrere said. Peru’s Brack says, however, that the Clean Development Mechanisms do work for reforestation, but such projects should be planned in areas where soil is already exhausted for farming purposes, cutting down the threat that the new forest will be burned down for agriculture.

“Those who oppose these projects don’t understand that the soil can’t wait for crops that take 40 years to grow,” he said, referring to native trees. “Forests and water are intimately related with climate change,” Brack said. “And if they are not managed, our vulnerability will only increase.”

Brazil proposes the United Nations create a fund to help countries fighting deforestation, like Brazil itself, which in 2006 reduced Amazon logging by 30 percent, according to Imazon, a Brazilian non-profit research institution.
 


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