Heavy reliance on natural products means country is at acute risk from rising temperatures and water cycle changes
By Fabíola Ortiz in Rio de Janeiro
Brazil’s plans to adapt to a changing climate are well behind schedule, a leading scientist at the national Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has warned.
With 200 million people Brazil is the largest South American country, and is acutely vulnerable to the impacts of global warming, says Carlos Nobre, Secretary of Research and Development Policies and Programmes.
“Brazilian economy is vulnerable. Over 50% of our GDP is based on natural products. We have to adapt to this unavoidable change, we know it,” he told RTCC.
Nobre was a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 4th Assessment Report in 2007, where he looked at climate impacts and adaptation in South America.
“Climate change disproportionately affects the poor. We have to generate quickly new knowledge which will be instrumental to guide policy: science to policy and then policy to implementation,” he adds.
When asked if Brazil will be able to cope with global changes and prepare itself for the future impacts, the climatologist did not seem to be very optimistic.
Despite some Brazilian states working on legal frameworks to facilitate local adaptation, the country is “very far” from having adapted measures implemented when compared to other developing countries.
“What we have to do now is to quickly convert our policies into action,” he says.
In Nobre’s opinion, Brazil has shown some advances in planning future agriculture where research institutions are trying to create solutions for more resilience in extreme weather conditions.
However, other fields suffer from a lack of deep scientific knowledge.
A major concern is how Brazilian coastal areas will cope as sea levels rise. The coast is around 8500 kilometers long and 85% of the population live in cities near the ocean.
“This is one area where we have to learn much more about what the impact of sea level rise will be like, either storms or erosion,” says Nobre, warning that the damage caused by those global changes may reach $2 billion dollars by the end of this century.
This information comes from a Stockholm Environment Institute 2012 study, attesting real economic losses.
The country will also need to learn how to change patterns of water consumption as the effects are hitting big urban centres.
“We’ve had this year record breaking droughts in the Southeast affecting hydropower generation, water supply in São Paulo, which is a megacity under risk. This type of climate extreme will be more frequent,” he says.
On the other hand, huge floods have recently taken over the Amazon River basin. The most serious event happened in Madeira river, the largest tributary of the Amazon which receives its waters from rivers in Bolivia and Peru, leaving thousands of families homeless. “It was record breaking by a large margin,” says Nobre.
Water supply is certainly a “very critical element” concerning climate change, but the loss of biological diversity is also “hugely threatened”, he warns.
Brazil has catalogued 70% of its fauna and flora and owns 20% of the biological diversity on Earth.
The challenges now are to maximize preservation and potentially decrease biodiversity erosion.
Savannization in the Amazon region is a major risk as temperatures rise, says Nobre, adding that the vulnerability of Amazonian ecosystems increases exponentially after passing 3.5C.
Nobre also warns that there is a “substantial risk” of a decline of 50% in the Amazon forest, which is likely to be replaced by a degraded form of savannah.
“I would say the Amazon ecosystem is the most vulnerable one unless we can limit the global warming up to 2C on the continent. There will be some losses but considerably less if the temperatures gets higher than 3C. Then we’ll start to see mass extinction of species,” he projected.
On the other hand, the biologist Marcos Buckeridge softens the catastrophic projections of the Amazonian savannization but recognizes that it was a warning made in the IPCC report 2007, once the rainfall in the tropical forest is connected to the whole water system in the Southern part of the country.
Buckeridge was one of the six leading authors compiling the latest IPCC report, and joined the Working Group II scientific team for the chapter on Central and South America.
The constant coral bleaching in the Caribbean is associated with ocean warming and acidification. It poses threats not only to fish stocks but to the whole marine ecosystem.
Risk of water supply shortages could become reality and represents a significant trend in the region due to the changes in climate variability and in extreme events that are already severe.
“The thaw in the Andes and melting of the glaciers may accelerate floods and leave Andean cities without water in the future. We need to overlook all probabilities and create local strategies,” he tells RTCC.
Climate change may become even harder for poor people, says Buckeridge, which in the biggest concern considering the high and persistent level of poverty in the region.
“The weather events will always be harsh on the poor. They are more exposed and even more vulnerable.”
In his opinion, economic inequality translates into inequality over access to water, sanitation and adequate housing, which means a very low adaptive capacity to climate change.
He said that Brazil, like many other developing nations, is still “very slow” on the pathway towards a better understanding of climate adaptation.
“The cost to be paid might be very high. We are not used to strategic planning,” he adds.
Fabíola Ortiz is a Brazilian journalist based Rio de Janeiro. Follow her on Twitter @FabiolaOrtizRio