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Climate Change: A Key Priority for the IDB

“We face great challenges,” says Walter Vergara, Chief of the IDB Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Unit.

When leading climate change expert Walter Vergara joined the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in July to become Chief of the Bank’s Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Unit, the world’s scientific community took note. Vergara, the author or co-author of 13 books and dozens of scientific articles, left the World Bank after a 24-year career there, attracted by the IDB’s commitment to devote 25 percent of its lending to projects related to climate change, renewable energy and the environment in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“I’m dedicated to this issue, and the Bank’s commitment to climate change is very solid,” says Vergara, whose interest in science and the environment first emerged in his native Bogotá, Colombia. After studying chemical engineering at the University of Bogotá and Cornell University, he worked briefly in the private sector in Colombia and Brazil and then went to the World Bank, where he assembled a portfolio of climate projects in Latin America, including a large number focused on climate change adaptation. Now based at the IDB’s Washington, D.C., headquarters and backed by a team of forty professionals, many of whom hold Ph.D.s, Vergara aims to put the Bank at the vanguard of the climate adaptation field.

Climate change is a priority for the IDB because the Latin America and Caribbean region is expected to be among the hardest hit by the phenomenon. Vergara explains that there are four key criteria that scientists use to gauge the dangers of climate change: the actual physical impact; whether the impact is irreversible; if the impact is already happening or is likely in the future; and what the expected economic consequences are.

As an example, and based on these criteria, Vergara says, scientists have concluded that coral reefs in the Caribbean will be one of the first casualties of climate change and therefore should be a priority for adaptation efforts. With water temperatures in the Caribbean up 0.5 degrees centigrade since the 1950s, the algae that live inside many coral structures cannot survive, and that leads to coral bleaching. Continued increases in ocean temperatures will eventually lead to the coral reefs’ demise. “This may seem like a small increase in temperature, but it represents a substantial anomaly in historical terms,” Vergara says.

“Corals are the center of the marine ecosystem, serving as the nursery for 65 percent of fish species in the ocean, and they play a pivotal role in protecting coastal areas by dissipating the energy of storm surges,” Vergara says. “We like to think we’re more important than other species, but we’re not. All species on the planet have an intrinsic value and they have the right to live, just as much as we do. We have a moral obligation to keep them alive.”

Scientific evidence also indicates that high altitude areas will have warmed twice as much as lowlands by the end of the century. This will cause glaciers in the Andes mountain range to retreat even faster than they are now, leading to water shortages in major population areas and a host of related economic disruptions, Vergara notes.

One of the most serious potential effects of climate change in Latin America is “Amazon dieback.” Rising temperatures in the Amazon rainforest could cause upper layers of the forest’s soil to dry out, sustaining fewer species and eventually turning the Amazon into a seasonal forest or even a savannah.

“If that happens, all bets are off,” Vergara warns. “The Amazon rainforest produces the rain for the agricultural heartland of South America and stores large quantities of carbon dioxide that will otherwise go to the atmosphere.”

Vergara says coastal areas of Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and to the expected intensification of hurricanes and rainstorms, while other areas are likely to suffer from longer and more extreme droughts.

The challenges are daunting, but Vergara says the IDB’s Climate Change Action Plan, currently under development, will enable the Bank to expand its current portfolio of technical and financial resources to help countries in Latin America and the Caribbean reduce their carbon footprint and adapt to effects that cannot be avoided.

Mitigation efforts will be an important part of the Bank’s activities. The Action Plan targets three sectors in particular, which account for 77 percent of carbon emissions from the region: land use (including the conversion of forest for other uses), transportation and the power sector. “Personally, I think we should pursue opportunities to achieve zero deforestation in all our activities involving land use, zero carbon additions to the power matrix, and zero carbon transport systems,” Vergara says.

The IDB’s strategy includes building awareness and strengthening the capacity of the region’s governments and the private sector to deal with the challenges of climate change. The problem is so big, Vergara says, that it is essential to engage the private sector in public-private partnerships that will draw additional capital from outside the bank. Despite the seriousness of the threats posed by climate change, Vergara sees a great potential for Latin America to set an example for the rest of the world in areas such as renewable energy. Solar radiation in Chile’s Atacama Desert, for example, could provide an estimated 240 gigawatts of energy, an amount that is 20 times the country’s current power needs. Wind power in Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina, along with electricity generated by ocean waves or tides, could add hundreds more megawatts of power.

“Latin America could be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy resources,” Vergara says. “Oil fields in the Middle East have an expiration date, but our renewable resources do not.”

Renewable energy projects may not be financially attractive for private sector investors today. This, however, is where the IDB can bridge the gap with financing to help countries internalize the benefits of renewable energies and reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. “There are substantial opportunities for large-scale deployment of renewable energy in our region,” Vergara says.

Lean more about the ways the IDB is working with governments on the full range of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.