San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Region to pay hefty price of climate change

For climate scientists, Central America’s future will bring higher temperatures, dangerous changes in rainfall patterns, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, and stress on hydrologic resources.

Central American countries currently emit only about 0.3 percent of the world’s net global carbon emissions, but the region will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

“This is a critical moment in the history of humanity,” said Julie Lennox, of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, speaking at a recent seminar on corporate social responsibility and climate change organized by the British Embassy in San José.

“The benefits of taking quick, firm action [to prepare for the effects of climate change] right now will outweigh the long-term costs involved, but will we be wise enough to manage risk and instability?” Lennox asked.

Lennox presented a report, “The Economics of Climate Change in Central America,” generated by the finance and environment ministries of Central American countries and nongovernmental organizations. The report, as Lennox explained it, sought to quantify the economic costs of climate change in Central America through the year 2100.

The projections in the report are startling, but can be boiled down to key points: Temperatures in Central America will rise, rainfall patterns will change in problematic ways – inundating some areas while others wither and dry – and major economic disruptions will happen, especially toward the end of the century.

This is grim stuff, but Lennox’s presentation wasn’t all doom and gloom, and other presenters at the seminar discussed solutions to help businesses reduce their carbon footprints while driving up profits.

Silvana Centty, of Carbon Trust, a nonprofit that certifies companies and products that have demonstrated a commitment to reducing carbon emissions, spoke about low-carbon certification.

“Once a client achieves certification,” Centty said, “they will have the ability to understand exactly where their emissions are coming from, and they will be able to develop a strategy to reduce emissions as well as cost.”

Carbon Trust audits a company’s emissions and production data and then certifies that the company develops a plan and implements it to reduce carbon emissions. The benefits of certification, Centty said, include improvements in cost-efficiency by pinpointing areas of wasteful emissions as well as growing consumer preference for products from companies with a demonstrated commitment to reducing their environmental impact. A Carbon Trust “Carbon Reduction Label,” said Centty, is an immediate visual cue that the company offering the product or service is working to reduce its carbon footprint.


“The Economics of Climate Change in Central America” focused on quantifying the costs of climate change in the region in four areas: agricultural production, hydrologic resources, extreme weather events and biodiversity. Using population-growth projections and climatic modeling, the report makes projections based on a low-end estimate that assumes immediate steps taken to prepare for the effects of climate change and high-end estimates that assume little or no action taken now.

By 2100, Costa Rica will have added an additional 2 million people to its population. This has implications for all four of the impact areas analyzed in the report. Predictions for an average temperature increase for the year 2100 in Costa Rica range from 2.4 to 4 degrees Celsius. An average global temperature increase of 2 degrees by 2050 is the threshold temperature rise agreed upon by climate scientists, beyond which the effects of climate change could become catastrophic and irreversible.

Costa Rica can also expect, by 2100, to see average annual reductions in rainfall of between 10.4 and 26.5 percent, the report said – numbers that are sure to change the face of agriculture in the country.

And that isn’t even counting on disruption to production from increased flooding and damage from stronger hurricanes, which are predicted to increase in intensity 5 to 10 percent by the end of the century. In 2009 alone, more than 700,000 inhabitants of Central America were affected by flooding.

Ironically, despite more floods, water security is an issue for the region.

“Probably one of the most important things is efficient use and management of the water,” Lennox said. “We’re going to have too much and we’re going to have too little.”

Lennox added that parts of Costa Rica, particularly in the northwest province of Guanacaste, can expect a century of increasing dryness interspersed, perhaps, by violent flooding from torrential downpours. The Caribbean coast, she said, can expect a lot more rain.

In 2005, Costa Rica had an average of 16,859 cubic meters of water per inhabitant, per year. By 2100 that number becomes 4,572 cubic meters per person, per year – a 73 percent reduction in per-capita water availability in the country. That’s the best-case scenario. In the scenario where no one lifts a finger to get out in front of the effects of climate change, we can expect 2,730 cubic meters of water per person, per year – a reduction of 84 percent.

Even with that reduction in water availability, Costa Rica is in better shape than other countries. A per-capita rate of water availability lower than 1,700 cubic meters annually is considered dangerous. El Salvador relies on a single river that passes through two other countries before reaching its borders for most of its drinking water. In 2005, the country had only 1,752 cubic meters per person, per year. 

Harvest projections for coffee, rice, corn and beans all show a steady downward trend toward the end of the century, and biodiversity in Costa Rica is expected to decline between 25 and 43 percent.

So what does all this mean? Thirstier, hungrier and more vulnerable populations across the region, for starters.

“There could be dengue in San José,” Lennox noted during her presentation. “San José has been protected by the altitude, but when temperatures rise, the mosquitoes [that carry the disease] could start to move into the Central Valley. And of course, the poor are more exposed to the effects of climate change.”

In hard numbers what this means is that by 2100, Costa Rica can expect costs in just these four areas to run between 4.78 and 7.17 percent of the country’s 2008 gross domestic product – between $1.4 billion and $2.1 billion.

“The best bet for adapting to climate change is that it has got to be sustainable, in the ecological and environmental sense,” Lennox said. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is part of a package that has to do with other things as well.”

Because Central America contributes such a minuscule amount to global carbon emissions, even if the region reduced its net emissions to zero today, it wouldn’t head off the long-term adverse effects of climate change on the region. The rest of the world simply emits too large a quantity of greenhouse gases to stop the ball rolling downhill. Lennox said sustainable strategies for improving quality of life for residents in the area will reduce inhabitants’ vulnerability to the impacts of climate chaos, and quick, decisive action now can help keep the overall long-term costs to countries in the region at the lower end of the impact spectrum.

“I’m very concerned about how the global situation with the goals of reducing emissions is going to affect this region,” Lennox said. 

Regional cooperation is going to be key, especially in the case of water.

A key dilemma is “how we’re going to share between countries when 40 percent of the land area is shared watersheds,” she said. “How to share and not fight over it is going to be really important. Watershed management will be critical.”

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