"What are you going to do about the crying mountains?"- In Rio+20 Latin America must take action on climate change

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The final Rio+20 negotiated text is out and it’s underwhelming to say the least, but there’s still time for world leaders to act and inspire us and themselves. The urgency could not be greater and so it is fitting that this Earth Summit is held in Latin America – a region where climate change is already apparent: melting – or “crying” – glaciers, rising sea levels, increasing droughts and other extreme weather disruptions that are costing the region billions of dollars.  According to a new report by the Inter-American Development Bank on low-carbon and resilient development, the impacts of climate change in Latin America may be not only unavoidable, but also irreversible. The good news is that while Latin America is highly vulnerable to climate change and faces many challenges, there are concrete mitigation and adaptation actions that countries in the region can – and must – take to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In these final days of the Rio+20 Earth Summit it will be important for Latin American leaders – joined by other world leaders – to put action before rhetoric. This time around it is not enough to discuss good intentions and long-term goals; instead we need our leaders to take the concrete steps and adopt the solutions that we already know can prevent ever-increasing emissions and environmental degradation from the power and transportation sectors.

 According to the new report, The Climate and Development Challenges for Latin America and the Caribbean: Options for Resilient Low Carbon Development

discussed today at a Rio+20 side event, climate change could cost Latin America at least $100 billion by 2050. In contrast, rapid and firm action on adaptation and mitigation could reduce this economic damage at a fraction of the cost – adaptation measures would have one tenth of the cost of climate impacts. It is clear, then, that Latin American governments need to start making the decisions today that will secure a low-carbon, resilient and inclusive development for the region tomorrow. The report notes that while most emissions in the region currently come from agriculture and land-use change, emissions from the transportation and power sectors could increase by 50% by 2050. The good news is while national negotiators have spent the last few months debating the meaning of the “green economy,” in practice we already know what types of changes are necessary: shifting to cleaner energy, boosting energy efficiency and moving toward more sustainable and low-carbon modes of transportation. Yet we need to see more than just stated commitments. During the next few days nations need to be ambitious in proposing how they will specifically address the power and transportation sectors.

Countries must implement appropriate policies to transition toward cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. Latin America is fortunate to have abundant renewable energy resources and nations must start investing in these sectors over dirty coal, large dams and other environmentally unsustainable energy options. Chile is just one example where appropriate policies could help tap in to these resources. At Rio+20 and beyond Chile must make it a priority to pass legislation and meet the goal of producing 20 percent of its electricity needs with non-conventional renewable energies by 2020. The country must also boost the private sector’s ability to purchase renewables and implement a net metering law that will help spur renewable energy projects. Finally, Chile must help increase energy efficiency by putting into place demand side management, establishing clear and quantitative goals for efficiency, and decoupling energy sales from electric company income

Comprehensive and inclusive transformations are needed in the transportation sector. In many countries in Latin America the transportations sector is quickly becoming a leading source of emissions. Vehicle ownership in the region is also growing faster than anywhere else making it an absolutely critical priority for nations to move toward low-carbon transportation solutions. In many respects, Costa Rica has led the way on low-carbon development in the region by aiming for carbon neutrality by 2021. However, progress on addressing emissions from the transportation sector – the country’s primary source of greenhouse gas emissions – has been slow.  The country’s discourse on transportation has frequently focused on increasing clean fuels and vehicle technologies. Meanwhile, discussion of broader transformations in the sector– such as reducing vehicle miles travelled through smart urban planning and improving its public transportation system – is more limited. A more comprehensive approach to transportation would be more inclusive and have the co-benefit of reducing congestion as well as improving air quality, public health and quality of life. At Rio+20 Costa Rica should start demonstrating that it is willing to address transportation comprehensively. This could help it enter into new partnerships with other forward-thinking countries and join new sustainable transportation initiatives that are beginning to emerge.

After the big announcements we’ll expect to see words turn into actions. The Rio+20 Earth Summit has given voice to citizens around the world who are calling for concrete action on climate change and other pressing environmental issues. During the Rio+20 Earth Summit they expect and should see their leaders commit to specific actions needed to transition to a more sustainable future. In Latin America, Mexico has shown environmental leadership prior to Rio+20 by becoming one of two developing nations with climate legislation. It also recently showed leadership in marine protection by announcing the cancellation of the Cabo Cortés mega tourism project which threatened the internationally important coral reef system in Cabo Pulmo National Park. When President Calderón announced the Cabo Cortés cancellation he tied it directly to green growth, one of Rio+20’s main themes, noting: “it’s possible to have growth and economic development, and one can and one should preserve the environment at the same time….this is precisely what Green Growth is, and it is an issue we will take up at…Rio+20”. Mexico must now uphold its commitment to ensuring sustainable development in Cabo Pulmo. Similarly, now that Mexico has passed climate legislation, it must follow up with implementation of new policies and incentives to meet the emissions and renewable targets in the new law.

Latin America is a region that is growing rapidly, and its governments are grappling with how to meet the citizens’ development needs and goals while still protecting its natural resources. One of the presenters at the IDB report’s launch recalled how an Andean farmer once asked him what he was going to do about the crying mountains – the melting glaciers that are so important for the region’s water, agriculture and communities. Latin America needs to find answers to this and similar questions quickly. At Rio+20 the region can start by taking action to prevent growing energy and transportation emissions.