Latin American experts’ perspectives on adaptation and climate change

December 11th, 2015.
By Guy Edwards, Tory Hoffmeister, Kari Malkki and Kara Roanhorse
Climate & Development Lab
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Adaptation to climate change is a top priority for Latin America. The region is highly vulnerable to climate-related impacts, including coastal erosion with the rise of sea levels, and the intensification and frequency of hurricanes. These impacts are already imposing huge economic costs meaning adaptation measures are essential for countries, cities, the private sector, and citizens, to better manage climate risk, and build resilience.
As the negotiations in Paris to reach a new climate agreement enter the final stage, we share the following four commentaries by Latin American experts on adaptation in response to the follwoing questions:

1. Why is adaptation a key issue for Latin American countries? 2. How do Latin American countries want to see adaptation included in a new agreement in Paris?  3. How might the inclusion of adaptation in the new agreement interact with Latin American countries’ current national adaptation plans and strategies, and what is holding adaptation back in Latin America? Natalie Unterstell, Louis Bacon Environmental Leadership Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
"There is opportunity and urgency in dealing with climate risks in Latin America. Right now, roads, ports, and power grids that will determine countries’ use of carbon, water, and energy for decades to come are being built. Much of the planning and the decisions on these projects ignore the evidence of climate change. The risks are piling up, such as in the case of investments in hydropower plants, in areas that are highly exposed to climate impacts. Brazilian citizens are already paying more for their electricity as the government backs up the power grid with fossil fuels. This tackles short-term supply but does not provide an adaptation solution to power generation dependent on hydro. The public and private sectors have to learn how to adapt their decisions, otherwise assets may be compromised and taxpayers will have to foot the bill as climate risk mounts.

A global climate deal has to live up to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, but we must bear in mind the important link between mitigation and adaptation: the less mitigation, the more adaptation will be needed, while more mitigation means less adaptation. AILAC has been vocal in making this connection. A global adaptation goal could help countries use the long-term mitigation goal to increase resiliency to climate impacts. It should be dynamic, taking into account increasing warming, and scaling up the disaster risk reduction needed to minimize impacts and loss and damage.

Some actors are proposing cycles of national adaptation contributions synchronized with cycles of mitigation and finance. But treating adaptation through a pledge-and-review approach would be a mistake, distracting countries from building resilient economies through transforming powerful sectors that often oppose climate action. Investors must be convinced that global warming means potentially stranded assets if risks are ignored. It is encouraging to see that Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru communicated adaptation components in their INDCs. Yet, few spoke about the link between decarbonization and resilience of infrastructure or the need to climate-proof their mitigation efforts. This is a must, especially in the energy sector.

Brazil had been involved in a rich dialogue about how to adapt the country’s economy since 2013. Unfortunately, this dialogue was interrupted by the replacement of the Presidency’s team responsible for working on these efforts, just when decision makers were starting to understand their adaptative learning challenges. The good news is that such efforts produced valuable data that Brazil can now use."

Paola Vasconi R., Coordinator of Political Affairs, Adapt-Chile
"Climate change impacts are already being felt across Latin America, causing daunting economic, social and environmental losses. Adaptation is a vital issue for the region and one which requires significant resources. Several countries have drawn up plans and taken action on adaptation; however, due to lack of funding, they are not developing with the speed and force required. The social problems that beset the continent, such as poverty and inequality, increase the economic, technical and institutional difficulties, thereby slowing projects and hindering the development of studies that would create systems and actions to adapt to climate change.

The Paris Agreement should include adaptation and mitigation at the same level, favoring these measures and actions that generate synergies between both. Because it has been so difficult to establish a global adaptation goal, the new agreement should establish those instruments including mechanisms allowing access to knowledge, technologies, and funding to countries in the region to ensure its development and prosperity in a world that is more than 1.5°C warmer.

The inclusion of adaptation in the Paris Agreement should strengthen plans and actions that countries in the region are already driving, and accelerate the development of plans in countries that do not yet have them, as well as enable continuous updating. It should also ensure access to financial, scientific, and technological support, and promote cooperation between countries that share the same realities and challenges of adaptation."

Gian Carlo Delgado Ramos, researcher at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) and lead author of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report
"In Mexico, it has been acknowledged that it is highly vulnerable as 15% of its territory, 68% of the population and 71% of the GDP are exposed to adverse climate events. There is limited research on climate change, mainly on the basic science, which restricts planning capabilities, particularly at the local level. Planning, monitoring, and sometimes early warning and reaction capabilities to confront disasters are mostly incipient. The efficacy of these efforts are all hindered by gender inequalities that usually are not yet fully taken into account. Due to Latin America’s great cultural diversity, additional efforts are needed to generate a successful multicultural and multilingual education on such topics. This is even more important because such a significant share of Latin America’s land and the natural resources are under common or collective management. This feature could be seen as an advantage for implementing hybrid schemes. There is potential for an effective integration of top-down and bottom-up approaches for sustainable and climate-ready land-use planning and resource management.

Mexico wants to see adaptation included in a new agreement as a key aspect that demands both active and comprehensive cooperation from developed countries, and South-South cooperation. This includes international support for the development of technologies, as well as for technology transfer and innovation to increase adaptive capacities. Access to information systems to monitor hydro-meteorological events, the availability of methods and tools to assess climate impacts and vulnerabilities of specific regions or economic sectors, are among the areas identified in which technology transfer could benefit Mexico’s adaptation capacity. Funding is without doubt a bottleneck for Mexico and most developing countries on adaptation."

Javier Gonzales Iwanciw, Research Professor at the Nur University, Bolivia, and head of the Southern Node Climate Capacity Network 
"Some Latin American countries have consolidated adaptation frameworks to respond to climate impacts. Adaptation priorities for the region include the water and agricultural sectors and food security. Many countries in arid and semiarid regions are already facing difficulties with water provision systems, and there is widespread concern about industrial and food security crops suffering changes in rainfall patterns as a result of increased temperatures. Fears of the impacts of climate change on water provision, roads and coastal infrastructure are also pushing countries to make investments connected with adaptation and resilience.

A new agreement should ensure that countries receive adequate technical assistance, capacity building and transfer of technology, if requested. International public funding made available should be wisely used to reduce the technological gap between the North and South and to put global science to work for the most vulnerable. 

The vast majority of Latin American countries have not received support from the UNFCCC and its financial mechanisms to prepare National Adaptation Plans and ensure sound and transparent funding for their implementation. Many Latin American countries have organized the preparation of their National Adaptation Plans with their own resources, and some are lacking any kind of instrument or regulatory framework to advance this agenda. These countries do need technical support and funding from the UNFCCC and international organizations to ensure they put the right institutions in place."

A strong climate deal is crucial for Latin American countries to protect their economies and citizens from dangerous climate impacts. The global temperature goal of 1.5ºC must be included in the new agreement and backed up by a long-term mitigation goal that gives it teeth. The 1.5˚C trajectory will incur greater mitigation costs, but there will be important savings from reductions in adaptation costs.

Adaptation measures must be seen as constituting an opportunity for smart and more sustainable development. As the AILAC and Mexico adaptation submission suggests, adaptation can help raise mitigation ambition through the connections between the two. For instance, reforestation can decrease the risk of landslides while also increasing carbon dioxide sequestration. Mitigation actions can also help reduce vulnerability and strengthen adaptive capacity.

By adopting a long-term adaptation goal, the Paris agreement can help ensure that governments and the private sector address climate impacts and build resilience. This goal is central to a new agreement to demonstrate that mitigation and adaptation will be treated equally. This can serve as a key signal to planners and investors, especially for energy and infrastructure investments in Latin America, and can increase resilience and adaptive capacity to protect citizens and economies.

The adaptation agenda in Latin America is gaining momentum as the evidence of climate-related dangers grows and options for reducing climate-related impacts are identified and tested. Estimates for the region’s high adaptation costs provide policymakers with a sobering reminder that work on adaptation needs to be accelerated to reduce the expected costs of climate impacts.