Climate Tipping Point Near Warn UN, World Bank

WASHINGTON, DC, February 23, 2009 (ENS) – 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) rise in 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, 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.”

Wetlands at the base of a melting glacier in the Peruvian Andes January 2007. (Photo by Huantopa)

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 World Bank report “Low Carbon, High Growth: Latin American Responses to Climate Change,” is being presented during regional visit by bank experts who were in Central America earlier this month and are now touring Andean countries. The visit will finish with a visit to Argentina, Chile and Brazil by mid-March.

Damage from hurricanes and tropical storms will increase, the World Bank 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.”

Click here [] to view the UN Environment Programme’s 2009 Year Book.

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