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What’s Really Warming the World? New Study

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Methodology
NASA’s Model
Researchers who study the Earth’s climate create models to test their assumptions about the causes and trajectory of global warming. Around the world there are 28 or so research groups in more than a dozen countries who have written 61 climate models. Each takes a slightly different approach to the elements of the climate system, such as ice, oceans, or atmospheric chemistry.
The computer model that generated the results for this graphic is called “ModelE2,” and was created by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which has been a leader in climate projections for a generation. ModelE2 contains something on the order of 500,000 lines of code, and is run on a supercomputer at the NASA Center for Climate Simulation in Greenbelt, Maryland.
A Global Research Project
GISS produced the results shown here in 2012, as part of its contribution to an international climate-science research initiative called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase Five. Let’s just call it “Phase-5.”
Phase-5 is designed both to see how well models replicate known climate history and to make projections about where the world’s temperature is headed. Initial results from Phase-5 were used in the 2013 scientific tome published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
There are more than 30 different kinds of experiments included in Phase-5 research. These tests address questions like, what would happen to the Earth’s temperature if atmospheric carbon dioxide suddenly quadrupled? Or, what would the world’s climate be like through 2300 if we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate?
Phase-5 calls for a suite of “historical” experiments. Research groups were asked to see how well they could reproduce what’s known about the climate from 1850-2005. They were also asked to estimate how the various climate factors—or “forcings”—contribute to those temperatures. That’s why this graphic stops in 2005, even though the GISS observed temperature data is up-to-date. The years 2005-2012 were not a part of the Phase-5 “historical” experiment.
A Word About Temperatures
Climate scientists tend not to report climate results in whole temperatures. Instead, they talk about how the annual temperature departs from an average, or baseline. They call these departures “anomalies.” They do this because temperature anomalies are more consistent in an area than absolute temperatures are. For example, the absolute temperature atop the Empire State Building may be different by several degrees than the absolute temperature at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. But the differences from their own averages are likely to be about the same. It means that scientists can get a better idea about temperature with fewer monitoring stations. That’s particularly useful in places where measurement is very difficult (ie, deserts).
The simulation results are aligned to the observations using the 1880-1910 average. What’s most important about these temperatures are the trends—the shape and trajectory of the line, and not any single year’s temperature.
What the Lines Show
The black “observed” line is the GISS global land and ocean temperature record, which can be found here. It starts in 1880.
The colored temperature lines are the modeled estimates that each climate factor contributes to the overall temperature. Each factor was simulated five times, with different initial conditions; each slide here shows the average of five runs. GISS researchers laid out their historical simulations in detail last year in this article. The modeled years 1850-1879 from the Phase-5 “historical” experiment are not shown because the observed data begins in 1880.
Confidence Ranges
Researchers do not expect their models to reproduce weather events or El Niño phases exactly when they happened in real life. They do expect the models to capture how the whole system behaves over long periods of time. For example, in 1998 there was a powerful El Niño, when the equatorial Pacific Ocean warms ( we’re in another one of that scale now). A simulation wouldn’t necessarily reproduce an El Niño in 1998, but it should produce a realistic number of them over the course of many years.
The temperature lines represent the average of the model’s estimates. The uncertainty bands illustrate the outer range of reasonable estimates.
In short, the temperature lines in the modeled results might not line up exactly with observations. For any year, 95% of the simulations with that forcing will lie inside the band.
Data
Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Kate Marvel and Gavin Schmidt of NASA-GISS.

Credit: Bloomberg Business

Will fiscal policy help move us towards a green economy?

The Green Growth Knowledge Platform recently held a conference in Venice that brought the importance of implementing properly designed green fiscal reforms to the attention of academics and policy-makers. The primary objective is environmental protection and climate change control, but also the setting of fairly uniform regulatory and taxation frameworks to avoid competitiveness concerns in those countries adopting more stringent environmental policies. Or to avoid excessive social problems in developing countries, because social impacts of green fiscal reforms are of often as important as the environmental ones.

Green tax reforms, designed to tax activities that result in environmental damage and excessive natural resource use, to redirect public and private investments from fossil fuel based activities to low carbon alternatives, to fuel green economy development, and to provide markets with the right signals for sustainable long-term investments, may indeed raise production costs in countries adopting them, thus reducing firms’ international competitiveness. Or may imply revenue reductions in important sectors of society.

The 3rd Annual Green Growth Knowledge Platform Conference held in Venice, Italy on the 29-30 January 2015 (you can find all papers presented at the conference here) gathered experts and policy-makers from several countries, particularly developing countries, as well as experts from international organizations, who shared knowledge and forged pathways towards better future implementation of green fiscal instruments.

The conference provided both theoretical analyses and best practices of concrete implementations of fiscal instruments designed to control climate change, natural resource excessive exploitation and local pollution. It also provided a useful exchange of views and suggestions between two communities (scientists and economists on the one hand, policy leaders on the other) that hardly interact. Let us summarize some of the main findings.

A variety of instruments, often country specific

Often the full range of fiscal reforms remains unexplored. As suggested by Franks et. al, this is partly due to governments’ preference for a taxation approach, which enables the scarcity rents to be reinvested in infrastructure. Revenue recycling of environmental taxes also facilitates a reduction in distortionary taxes and can be used to support green R&D.

However, despite the benefits of green taxes, other approaches can often facilitate green economic growth. Governments need to capitalize on the full range of fiscal policy options. For example, some governments have implemented feed-in tariffs to kickstart investments in renewable energy from sources such as solar, geothermal and wind. This is achieved by guaranteeing a tariff for a set period of time (up to 20 years in some cases) and thenphasing out this support over time as the share of renewable energy increases and becomes competitive with conventional fuels. This initial support is essential for redirecting capital flows from carbon based energy because, as Vona and Verdolini show, long-term investments have already been placed in existing fossil fuel infrastructure, which implies that changes in energy production will be slow and nearly impossible to achieve without a trigger.

In addition to feed-in tariff options, governments are also developing targeted financial programs that support the purchase of energy efficient appliances. These schemes, while important, require understanding and working with behavioral norms. For instance, Nadia Ameli shows that the application of these programs to households is more effective if the residents are landlords or are from high-income backgrounds.

These more innovative schemes are not confined to the more financially-secure developed countries. Indeed, the Tunisian government used US$24 million of public funds to promote the use of solar water heaters. In Mauritius, one of the pioneers of traditional fiscal reform through environmental taxation, we see the development of a number of green fiscal measures, including an excise duty on petroleum products and a charge on energy inefficient products. These policies have been able to elicit changes in both consumption and production behavior. As a positive side effect, the revenue generated as a result of these fiscal policies is equivalent to 2.6% of the country’s 2013 GDP.  This capital can be used to further support green economic growth.

The adoption of green fiscal instruments is not limited to the energy sector. Another crucial area is water. Here fiscal measures can play a critical role in ensuring sustainable water supplies through incentivizing water efficiency, stimulating investment in water supply infrastructure, ensuring affordability of water services and countering the unchecked pollution and abstraction of water sources. In fact, the use of taxing (along with tariffs and transfers) can ensure that the cost of the environmental externalities associated with water use is internalized and that water is therefore appropriately priced. On this note,encouraging news comes from Philippines where a wastewater effluent fee was introduced in Manila in 1997. This fee aimed to counter the extreme degradation of the Laguna de Bay watershed that was being used as a dumping ground by nearby industries. As a consequence of the fee, industries changed their production processes to reduce the volume of effluent that was discharged into the watershed.

 

3rd Annual Green Growth Knowledge Platform Conference held in Venice, Italy on the 29-30 January 2015

Removing subsidies

There is a growing realization that the transition to a green economy will not be achieved if countries continue to hide the true cost of current consumption patternsby subsidizing fossil fuels. This withdrawal of support has freed up capital that can now be spent in more efficient and beneficial ways. Often these savings can be redirected to fund social development, such as improved health, education and living standards. In Kenya, for instance, as Alice Kaudia convincingly explained, the government improved the country’s electricity network through the funds made available by removing fossil fuel subsidies.

Divesting from fossil fuel sources, particularly in cities and transport-intensive areas, not only encourages movement towards a green economy, but has direct positive impacts on health. This, in turn, means that governments will have to spend less on national health care. So even more public savings can be made. Shifting from these fossil fuel investments is especially important in developing countries. This is because, even though climate finance mechanisms are attempting to make development and climate mitigation compatible, fossil fuel subsidies are so vast that the climate finance given is almost insignificant.

As well as removing environmentally damaging subsidies, government can also encourage renewable energy subsidies in terms of technology innovation, adoption and manufacturing incentives. Though the enacting of these subsidies must be carefully designed because they are starting to be touted for their ability to distort international trade. At the conference, Carolyn Fisher analysed how the EU and US have both tabled complaints against China’s subsidization of solar photovoltaic production on the grounds that this support constitutes illegal aid to the companies.

Moreover, while there is some enthusiasm around the subsidization of clean energy, this may not in fact be the solution people are seeking. This is because some subsidies, especially upstream subsidies, tend to pick technology winners. This prevents the take-up of clean energy technology in the most cost-effective and efficient manner since picking the renewable energy options you want to subsidize withholds the funding other renewable energies that could, with the technological development, deliver energy in a cost-effective way.

Barriers to redirecting investments

The fact that developing green fiscal policies not only weans us off our fossil fuel dependency, but also can ensure savings and social benefits leaves you wondering why these measures have not been enacted with greater enthusiasm. Four main barriers have been highlighted at the conference. First, policymakers feel that they are damaging their economic competitiveness if they enact environmentally related policies when other countries do not do it. Second, green fiscal instruments would perhaps be more readily accepted were they to be introduced as part of a broader fiscal reform. Third, it’s often hard to effectively communicate the economic, social and environmental benefits that these reforms would bring.

A final important drawback is that, as with any reform, there will be winners and losers. One of the roles of government is to guarantee support for the affected groups. This is achievable. Indonesia, for instance, subsidized health care, rice production, village infrastructure and provided scholarships to economically-vulnerable groups to prevent against the worse impacts of inflation due to fossil fuel subsidy reform. As Renner et al. discussed in Venice, in Indonesia, and other places facing similar reforms, such protection schemes are essential since fossil fuel energy subsidies incur higher public spending than health, education and social protection combined, suggesting that the removal of subsidies will catalyze political and economic upset.

Green fiscal reforms need to be carefully designed and implemented in line with strong and sustainable governance to ensure that the reforms are effective and able to be maintained. Their design, especially of tax measures, needs to focus on activities that are inelastic in order to reduce welfare loss. Equally, this must be achieved while minimizing the aggregate deadweight loss for any given revenue or government expenditure.

3rd Annual Green Growth Knowledge Platform Conference held in Venice, Italy on the 29-30 January 2015

The way forward

Green fiscal policy clearly has a strong role to play in the transition towards a green economy. Even the limitations it presents are not insurmountable. Governments need, however, to start thinking more creatively, moving beyond using just environmental taxation, in particular in developing countries. See, for instance, Chaturvedi et al. on how India is developing alternative fiscal strategies, including deregulating petrol prices, introducing a coal cess and subsidizing the establishing of common effluent treatment plants.

Even so, more than moving into using a range of environmental fiscal reform methods, we need to stop seeing such reforms in solely an environment sector capacity. The transport sector, for instance, has much to offer in environmental improvements without necessarily terming them as such.

Further, we can explore ways of making such reforms more appealing to the people they will affect. Other approaches need to be used in combination with fiscal reform, such as communication and engagement with the parties concerned as well as improved monitoring. Sirini Withana suggested the use of complementary policies to increase the effectiveness of such reforms. Potential complementary policies might include behavioral change approaches that can incentivize the adoption of energy-efficient and low-carbon energy options.

A session moderated by Elke Weber emphasized the importance of combining behavioral, social and technological changes to stimulate the acceptance of the policy reforms that will lead us towards a low carbon future.

Before all these developments, we must overcome the notion that these decisions will come at a political and economic cost. If anything, this conference has shown that we can no longer use economic disadvantages as a reason for inaction. Solutions are being sought to address this concern and we need to listen to them to effectively start on the path to global green growth.

Credit: International Center for Climate Governance

5 Things to Know About Climate Change in the Caribbean!

Natural events and human activities contribute to an increase in average temperatures around the world. Increases in greenhouse gases such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the main cause. Our planet and our region are warming. This leads to a change in climate.

  1. The Caribbean is a minute contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, but will be among the most severely impacted.
  2. We are already experiencing its impacts. More frequent extreme weather events, such as the 2013 rain event in the Eastern Caribbean; the extreme droughts being experienced across the region, with severe consequences in places like Jamaica; the 2005 flooding in Guyana and Belize in 2010. And further Climate Change is inevitable in the coming decades.
  3. Inaction is VERY costly! An economic analysis focused on just three areas - increased hurricane damages, loss of tourism revenue and infrastructure damages - could cost the region US$10.7 billion by 2025. That is more than the combined GDP of OECS Member States.
  4. These risks can be managed by taking 'no regrets' actions - development actions we must take in any event. So we must build our infrastructure to withstand more intense weather events, select crops that can withstand extreme conditions and climate-influenced opportunistic pests, and transform our planning frameworks to improve our resilience.
  5. Climate Change is a fossil-energy related problem. Fossil fuel consumption is a major driver of Climate Change. It also costs the Region US$37 Billion of its foreign exchange earnings and further reduces the potential for economic growth. Employing renewable forms of energy will allow us to tackle two big problems: climate change and economic competitiveness.

Download the 5 Things to Know About Climate Change in the Caribbean brochure.

Caribbean Needs $30 Billion of Investment to Cut Fossil-Fuel Use

Banner for Climate Resilient Islands Partnership

Credit: Climate Resilient Islands Partnership Promo

The Caribbean needs to lure as much as $30 billion of investment to cut reliance on fossil fuel and expand renewable energy, partly by securing attractive payments for generators of clean power, a regional development bank said.

“Most of our countries are highly dependent on fossil fuels for power generation,” Caribbean Development Bank President Warren Smith said in an interview in London. “This vulnerability to volatile oil prices has contributed hugely to the competitiveness challenges of Caribbean industries.”

About $20 billion is needed in the next five to 10 years to replace power plants and upgrade distribution and transmission, he said. Another $10 billion is required to improve roads and airports and “climate-proof” current infrastructure. There is potential to replace 4,750 megawatts of fossil-fuel generation with renewables through 2019, Smith said.

The bank is talking with regional utilities interested in building clean-energy plants to feed power into the grid.

Nations need to attract investors by amending their laws to ensure generators are paid “equitable” fees for electricity. Barbados and Jamaica already have legislation in place and other countries should follow their lead, Smith said.

Barbados plans to get 29 percent of its power from clean sources by 2029 and Jamaica 30 percent by 2030. Barbados Light & Power Co. said June 12 it planned to build an 8-megawatt solar park. The bank is working with other islands to draft laws and draw investors to projects. Cutting fossil-fuel dependence would also help cut trade and debt imbalances in the region.

The islands should coordinate legislation to help counter the small size of their individual markets, according to Smith.

Eastern Caribbean islands including St Lucia and Grenada are working together on the Eastern Caribbean Energy Regulatory Authority to oversee utilities and advise governments on green energy development and cross-border interconnection, according to the website of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

“Our role is to catalyse investments,” Smith said. “We’ll work with other financial institutions, including the other multilateral banks, to provide a percentage of the debt financing required at relatively low rates of interest.”

The bank will offer loans to the energy industry that are subject to generators meeting goals.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louise Downing in London at ldowning4@bloomberg.net
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net Tony Barrett, Alex Devine

Credit: Louise Downing, Bloomberg

From the IPCC Report: will we be able to reduce GHG emissions?

5th IPCC Report Credit : Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC

5th Assessment IPCC Report
Credit : Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC

The Fifth IPCC Assessment Report has at last been completed and made ​​public. Since April 15th  the (third) volume Mitigation of Climate Change has been made available, concluding the triad of the most awaited publication from the world of climate change science and policy at the international level. The only piece missing to complete the work of the Fifth IPCC Assessment Report on Climate Change is the Synthesis Report, the document summarizing the three volumes published in recent months, which will be approved and published in late October 2014 in Copenhagen.

The first volume confirmed human responsibility for climate change, the second outlined the impacts and risks that have and will come of it. IPCC’s third working group, of which I am one of the Vice Presidents, is trying to find solutions to the problem of future climate change through appropriate mitigation policies, namely the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Prepared by 235 authors from 57 countries, the third volume of the report integrates more than 38,000 comments received by more than 800 expert reviewers in the various stages of writing and revision, to answer this question: what can and should we do to limit climate change as much as possible in the coming decades?

The Point We Are At

One of the main messages emerging from the work is that, despite the new awareness and mitigation efforts put in place over the past decades, the emissions of greenhouse gases have increased more rapidly between 2000 and 2010 than in any other decade: the rate of emission growth of the past decade has been 2.2% per year, while in the period between 1970 and 2000 it averaged 1.3% per year. 78% of emissions derive from the use of fossil fuels and industrial processes. The forestry sector is the only one experiencing a decline in emissions, due to the reduction of deforestation and hence an increased capacity by forests to absorb carbon dioxide.

What We Can Expect 

In the absence of more mitigation efforts than at present, the emissions increase (driven by population and economic growth in developing countries and insufficiently offset by significant improvements in energy efficiency in developed countries) will lead to an increase in average global temperature in 2100 of between 3.7 and 4.8 degrees centigrade in comparison with pre-industrial levels.

It is clear that if we continue on this path we will get adrift inexorably from the so-called “2-degree” target formalized in the COP 16 negotiations in Cancun (2010): the two-degree rise in temperature over preindustrial levels is recognized internationally as the threshold not to be exceeded if we are to comply with Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which stabilizes global emissions to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” But the Fifth IPCC Report also points out that this objective has become very difficult if not almost impossible to achieve by now, in the light of the levels of concentration of greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere and expected in the coming years.

What Must Be Done And When

To close the 2-degree target gap, emissions must peak off as soon as possible and then decline by 40-70% within mid-century, reaching a total of zero in 2100. We need to act now, because any delay takes us adrift of any chance of a green transition that allows the decoupling of economic growth from the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, and significantly increases the mitigation costs. Mitigation options include actions for energy efficiency and decarbonization (renewable energy sources, nuclear power, carbon capture and storage of CO2 (CCS), bio-energy, reduction of deforestation and forest management, reduction and management of waste, carbon market, carbon taxation, reduction or removal of subsidies for fossil fuels, and overall changes in lifestyle). The IPCC report gives no recommendation for the most appropriate measures to be taken but limits itself to analyzing them all accurately, in order to provide policymakers with the tools to make informed, effective decisions.

The Ideal World

The optimal situation for dealing successfully and efficiently with the climate challenge is one in which all the countries of the world implement immediate mitigation actions, in which there is a single carbon price in a worldwide emissions market, and in which a combination of all the technological solutions and policies listed above is available and usable in all sectors (production and use of energy, industry, transport, agriculture, forestry, urban development). In this ideal world the costs of mitigation might be limited. But unfortunately this ideal world doesn’t exist….

Costs, Benefits And Investments

In an ideal world scenario of mitigation as described above, one that meets the two-degree target, the costs are estimated at between 1 and 4% of worldwide GDP in 2030 and between 2 and 6% in 2050. These are only the direct costs, which do not take into account the benefits that would result from maintaining a climate more similar to today’s, from having reduced air pollution, lower impacts on ecosystems, water and land use, as well as greater energy security. But the costs will increase rapidly if the mitigation measures are applied late, or if some of the currently available technologies (nuclear or CCS for example) were not fully applicable, or if the resources for necessary investments were not forthcoming….

For the first time, the IPCC Report also assesses the investments needed to achieve the two-degree target: in the next two decades (2010-2029) investments in clean energy production technologies will have to increase by 100%, that is redouble, while investments in fossil fuels decrease by 20%.

Also An Ethical Question

From the data presented in the report, which will be used as a scientific basis in international negotiations under the UNFCCC in the coming years, there are striking inequalities in per capita emissions of greenhouse gases: high-income countries have per capita emissions even nine times higher than those of the poorer countries. The issue of climate change is not, therefore, just an environmental issue but also a matter of economic and social equity that forces us to face the impacts that the climate challenge poses, which are more severe in the developing (and hence more vulnerable) countries. Most of the growth in emissions that has taken place since 1970 is the responsibility of the industrialized countries, associated with their economic development. The recent rise in emissions, and that foreseen for the future, is instead linked largely to the regions in the developing world, which are growing at a very rapid pace. Hence it is necessary to establish a cooperation between countries that implies an ethical, responsible commitment on the part of those that have so far contributed most to the problem, i.e. the developed countries, and a likewise ethical, responsible commitment on the part of those that in the future are destined to exceed the tolerable limit of human interference with the climate system.

Credit: International Centre for Climate Governance

Caribbean Green Tech Incubator Launched

CCIC Image

Credit: World Bank/infoDev

The Caribbean Climate Innovation Centre (CCIC) was launched today (Monday, January 27, 2014) at the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI) in Trinidad and Tobago. The World Bank/infoDev initiative, which is being administered by the Jamaica-based Scientific Research Council and Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI), will function as an incubator for businesses solving climate change problems and promote investment in green technology in the region. The Centre is one of eight globally, as others are located in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Vietnam.

The Centre will provide grant funding of up to US$50,000.00 to MSMEs/ entities to assist them in developing prototypes for commercialization.

The Centre’s five focus areas are:
  • Solar Energy – e.g. Residential and commercial self generation, residential and commercial water heating, solar powered air conditioning
  • Resource Use Efficiency – e.g. waste-to energy, materials recovery, reuse and recycling
  • Sustainable Agribusiness – e.g. water/ energy efficient irrigation systems; waste management; high value agribusiness; sustainable land use practices; waste to energy; wind and solar energy for farms
  • Energy Efficiency – e.g. Lighting, household appliances, air conditioning, commercial cooling and ventilation systems, consumer behavior, building and energy management systems, building design and materials
  • Water Management – e.g. Potable water, rain water harvesting, efficient irrigation, wastewater treatment and recycling, water use efficiency, desalination
CCIC Image 2

Credit: World Bank/infoDev/Caribbean Climate Innovation Centre

Dr Ulric Trotz, Chairperson of the CCIC, and Deputy Director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, says the CCIC  comes to fruition at a point when unsustainable and inefficient energy consumption exacerbates the enormous socio-economic constraints faced by Member States of the Caribbean Community.

The region, which is among the most vulnerable places to climate change and climate variability, imports in excess of 170 million barrels of petroleum products annually, with 30 million barrels used in the electric sector alone, at a cost of up to 40% of  already scarce foreign exchange earnings.  This dependence on ever more expensive imported fossil fuels increases our economic vulnerability and reduces our ability to invest in climate compatible development. Therefore, it’s crucial that we support initiatives that can make the region’s energy sector more efficient through increased use of renewable energy, which will in turn reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

This comes at a time when economies around the world are re-orientating towards low-carbon, green growth pathways, which have the potential to make some of our established industries, including tourism, more attractive to discerning travellers who are willing to spend more for environmentally sensitive travel packages.

The Centre offers this region a unique opportunity to leverage technological innovation in its bid to adapt and mitigate challenges brought forth by climate change, with particular focus on energy efficiency, resource use, agriculture and water management, as the regional technology space is rapidly evolving and seems poised to take-off with the advent of events and groups like DigiJam 3.0, Caribbean Startup Week, Slashroots, among others. This is encouraging as the development, deployment and diffusion of technology are key factors in any effort to mitigate and adapt to the current and future impacts of climate change.  So the Centre is uniquely positioned to capitalize on these developments and focus them to achieve essential technological advancement.

~Dr Ulric Trotz, Chairperson of the CCIC, and Deputy Director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre

Please view the CCIC website at www.caribbeancic.org for further information.

Tackling the Caribbean’s Climate-driven Water Resource Problems…

Dr. Jason PolkAssociate Director of Science at the Hoffman Environmental Research Institute, says climate-driven water resource problems in the Caribbean could give rise to another intractable problem, community resistance to increased costs and regulations, if a concerted effort to educate the public  about the challenges and possible solutions is delayed. Read  his exclusive contribution to Caribbean Climate.

Dr. Jason Polk (centre), along with fellow WKU faculty members Dr. Xingang Fan (left) and Dr. Josh Durkee (right) following a meeting at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belmopan, Belize.

Dr. Jason Polk (centre), along with fellow WKU faculty members Dr. Xingang Fan (left) and Dr. Josh Durkee (right) following a meeting at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belmopan, Belize.

The Caribbean is changing every day. The people are changing, as is the geography. Perhaps most importantly, the Caribbean’s climate is changing, like it always has for thousands of years, yet never under the scrutiny with which it is examined today. Geographically, the Caribbean is diverse in its makeup. Isolated islands and small coastal nations that seem lonely and individually reliant upon their ability to persevere against the onset of environmental challenges. These countries comprise a group that shares a long and rich history, and are collectively facing challenges in addressing the risks and impacts from global climate change. Of these, one of the most pressing is the potential impact on the region’s water resources.

Water. Simple, natural, and plentiful. Mention the Caribbean and one immediately thinks of the sea, warm beaches, hurricanes, and shipwrecks. While these images certainly are a reality, behind them exists a region in trouble due to a changing global climate and the demand for fresh water. So, a question to be answered is from where does one obtain water on a Caribbean island? From the rivers? From the ground? Maybe from the ocean? These are all questions needing both to be asked and answered by people of the Caribbean and those looking in from outside. In answering these questions, one may be better able to understand the complex and pressing challenges that climate change has on water resources in the region.

Over the past few decades, new information and events have spurned a closer examination of the future temperature and rainfall patterns of the Caribbean. Results from the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and other regional climate studies indicate the Caribbean region will undergo significant changes, including the following:

  • variability in seasonal rainfall distribution, including decreasing average rainfall amounts of up to 20% or more and subsequent droughts in some areas, while increased seasonal rainfall and flooding events may occur elsewhere
  • changes in hurricane intensity and unpredictability, with the likelihood of more severe storms, including higher winds
  • an increase in average temperatures across the region
  • sea level rise of several millimeters or more, causing coastal inundation and changes in geography and topography
Credit: CGIAR

Credit: CGIAR

With these changes, there will be impacts on the fresh water resources of every nation in the region. Water stress will be one of the greatest challenges, as reduced precipitation and increasing temperatures will cause a lack of water availability in countries like the Bahamas, Grenada, and Jamaica, who already suffer from water scarcity. Several countries, such as Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, are among the most water-stressed nations in the world, meaning that they require more water than is available to the population on an annual basis. Part of this is due to the seasonal availability of rainfall, which is slowly changing due to climate variability.

The cause and effect relationship between precipitation and water scarcity is one of the simpler connections to be made from predicted climate change patterns; however, many others will arise and vary with regional geography, and potential water resource impacts include:

  • challenges to access due to changing conditions in surface streams, springs, and groundwater supplies during drought conditions
  • water quality issues that arise from flooding and population growth as communities and city centers grow in the face of declining agriculture
  • increased flooding from severe storms and hurricanes
  • salt water intrusion into coastal groundwater aquifers
  • increasing water scarcity due to infrastructural challenges and limited capacity to adapt quickly enough to changing climatic conditions

For example, take Barbados, which relies primarily on groundwater from a karst aquifer. Karst is a landscape typified by caves and springs, wherein the rock dissolves away and water is stored in the remaining voids. This type of landscape is commonly found throughout the Caribbean region, and its water resources are highly vulnerable to impacts like pollution, drought, and sea-level rise. Inundation by salt-water can permanently ruin a karst aquifer’s freshwater supply, as the saline water will displace the freshwater, decreasing both its quantity and quality. In places like Barbados and Curacao, desalination plants are necessary to make up the difference in water demand and supply. However, these can be expensive to build and maintain, creating additional environmental consequences in the form of briny discharge and fossil fuel consumption. Curacao is among the region’s oldest user of desalination, having utilized the technology for many decades in the region; yet, today the demands for fresh water still exceed the supply capacity and larger plants are necessary to meet the island’s needs.

Cave KarstThere will continue to be an increasing demand on water resources throughout the region from tourism growth as countries look toward economic gain to finance the mitigation of changing environmental conditions. Water utilities will need to be expanded, coastal development will require additional engineering solutions, and the cost of addressing the human health aspects of waterborne diseases may increase. Without a concerted effort to inform the public of the issues and possible solutions related to climate-driven water resource problems, a bigger challenge may be community resistance to increased costs and regulations. Even those people who opt for cheaper solutions, such as rainwater collection or local wells, may be forced to rely less on these as viable options if rainfall amounts decrease or salt water intrudes, and may demand access to public utilities as an alternative.

Water resource management policies and mitigation plans are often driven by political, economic, and developmental priorities, rather than science- or education- driven solutions, including technological and sustainable ways to adapt to climate change. In the Caribbean region, there exist several possible solutions already in use to varying degrees, including:

  • rainwater collection from roofs using barrels and cisterns
  • desalination plants that are solar powered and able to produce minimal byproducts
  • purchasing and shipping in water from nearby locations (like the water barges used between Andros and Nassau, Bahamas)
  • public education and outreach about conservation efforts

Tap waterA comprehensive assessment of water resource demands, infrastructure, and policies across the region is needed in order to address the critical areas requiring attention. Leaders have resources available to them to assist in information gathering and decision-making, such as those provided by the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre and other groups. Several courses of action are possible to mitigate water resource challenges caused by climate change. Yet, the first step is to become educated about climate change science and both local and regional water resource issues. Community members can play a role at all levels, from individual conservation efforts to leading regional programs for entire communities. Most importantly, call for action to help build resiliency through education and training. To effect large-scale changes, nations must develop sustainable policies at a regional level to work together to address climate change impacts on water resources.

The reality is climate change impacts do not discriminate among nations, people, governments, economic levels, or geographies, nor do they wait for communities to prepare before occurring. Addressing climate change in the region requires that leaders and community members think locally and act globally. Get to know about climate change science. Get to know a neighbor. Get to know the geography of the Caribbean. Become a part of the conversation in your communities and in the region.

** Dr. Polk is an Assistant Professor of Geography and Geology at the University of Western Kentucky.

Peruse our vault of works (internal and external) on climate change and the Caribbean’s water sector here, by entering the keywords ‘water and climate change’. You’ll find guides on adaptation measures to address the absence of freshwater and coastal vulnerability, pilots, including the Reverse Osmosis Water Treatment System in Bequia, and  national water sector strategies for Jamaica and Belize, and much more.

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