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Climate Change

Climate variation is caused by natural and human factors, and may persist for extended periods, ranging from decades to millennia. This variation can have great impact on life systems on Earth. At present, human activity is the main culprit in the alteration of the earth’s atmospheric composition, resulting in considerable changes in the climatic characteristics of the planet. Today, the majority of scientists and experts on the issue consider that this anthropogenic warming has already run for at least three decades and is exerting a significant influence on many physical and biological systems in the world. It is acknowledged that climatic balance is being altered, especially by the variation in concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols in the atmosphere.

According to the summary report on climate change published in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate warming is unequivocal, as is now evident from observed increases in the global average of air and ocean temperatures, the widespread melting of snow and ice, and the rising of the global average in sea levels. According to the IPCC, global emissions of GHG as a result of human activity have increased by 70% since the pre-industrial era (between 1970 and 2004). Among the GHGs, carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important anthropogenic gas, followed by methane (CH4).

Annual emissions of carbon dioxide in the world increased by about 80% between 1970 and 2004. As for the Dominican Republic, GHG emissions also increased alarmingly in the period between 1990 and 2000. In 1990 it reached about 15 million tons of CO2 and in 2000 it reached levels above 25 million tons. Meanwhile, in 2004 it was estimated that an amount higher than 2 tons of CO2 was issued per capita in the country.

Climate change impact
Conventions and protocols
Mitigation and adaptation strategies
Climate change: the country's greatest environmental challenge

Climate change impact

Some of the major global impacts caused by the warming of the atmosphere and oceans are: increased bleaching and mortality among tropical coral reefs; geographical displacement of species, both terrestrial and marine; a growing number of extinctions among biological species; an increased risk of uncontrolled fires; the impoverishment of crops in drier areas; increased soil erosion and subsequent downstream sedimentation; more frequent and severe floods in plains and coastal areas; more insect pests and other invasive species; and increased salinization of irrigation water, estuaries, and freshwater systems.

For Latin America and the Caribbean, the IPCC projects a series of regional impacts resulting from climate changes, including: loss of biodiversity due to extinction of species; reduction in the productivity of important crops, with adverse consequences for food safety; and a reduction in the availability of water for human, agriculture and hydroelectric consumption, as a result of changes in rainfall.

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Conventions and protocols

Following the first alarming results exposed by various scientific studies published in the eighties on climate change and its devastating impact, the international community mobilized and created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted in New York in 1992 and signed that same year at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro by more than 150 countries (called "Parties"). Their ultimate goal is the "stabilization of concentrations of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system." The agreement contains clauses that are binding for all parties. Under the Convention, the parties included in Annex I (i.e., all members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD in 1990, as well as countries with developing economies) proposed to return, by the year 2000, to levels of GHGs emissions not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, present in 1990. The Convention went into effect in March of 1994.

In 1997, the signatory members of the UNFCCC adopted, in Kyoto (Japan), a series of legally binding commitments known as the Kyoto Protocol. There, the OECD countries and the countries with developing economies - known as Annex B countries of the Protocol- agreed to reduce their emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons, among others) to at least 5% below the levels in existence in the year 1990, during the commitment period from 2008 to 2012. The Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005. As part of the Protocol, a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was proposed, which seeks to achieve two objectives: 1) assist Parties not included in Annex I of the Convention in achieving sustainable development and contribute to the ultimate objective of the Convention, and 2) to assist Annex I Parties in complying with their commitments to limit and reduce quantified emissions. Now, in response to the Convention (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and the CDM, national governments have developed a wide variety of policies as well as legal and institutional instruments to create incentives for mitigation measures. However, their applicability depends on national circumstances and each country’s context by sectors, which complicates the implementation and, therefore, the success of the commitments acquired through mechanisms such as the Kyoto Protocol.

Experts agree that current policies to mitigate the effects of climate change -for example, those contained in the Convention and Protocols- along with the sustainable development practices that these entail, will unfortunately result in a continued increase of global GHG emissions in coming decades. In the XV Conference of the Parties (COP 15) of the UNFCCC, held in December 2009 in Copenhagen (Denmark), the leaders of the signatory countries of the Framework Convention of the United Nations on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol met in order to agree on a new approach to combat the environmental threat represented by the rising temperatures on the planet. The COP15 promoted a discussion between the parties which led to the Copenhagen agreement. This agreement focuses on three important aspects. The first is keeping the increase in global temperatures below 2ºC; the second aspect is the non-binding emission reduction figures set individually by developed and developing countries; and, the third is the creation of a Trust Fund (the Green Fund) between the United States, France, Australia, Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom, to fund projects and strategies for the reduction of the emissions resulting from deforestation and forest degradation. This is considered an important step for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The Green Fund will provide US$30 billion for the period between the years 2010 to 2012 ($10 billion per year) and a total of $100 billion a year through 2020. Although a total of 110 countries adhered to the Copenhagen agreement, it was regarded as lacking a plan of action and formal documents endorsed by the United Nations.

The Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 16) was held in December 2010 in Cancun (Mexico) and resulted in the Cancun Agreement. Its main objective was to follow up on what was discussed at COP 15 and therefore, through the processes required by the United Nations, two of the most important commitments agreed upon at COP 15 were formalized. The first was the reduction of emissions, with specific figures, from 80 countries - among which are China, United States, India, Brazil and the members of the European Union- considered the world's largest emitters of GHGs. The second formalized commitment was to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 2ºC. Another important item in the COP 16 was the confirmation of the Green Fund for the mitigation and adaptation to climate change through the reduction of CO2 emissions resulting from deforestation and forest degradation. In the XVII Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to be held in Durban, South Africa in December of 2011, it is expected that the necessary guidelines for the fight against climate change starting in 2012 will be established.

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Mitigation and adaptation strategies

Mitigation of climate change employs technologies and practices that are currently commercially available, which include forestry, reforestation, forest management, reduction of deforestation, management of harvested wood products (plantations), the use of forest products for the production of biofuels to replace fossil fuels, the improvement of tree species to increase biomass productivity, and carbon sequestration. Some policies, measures and effective instruments are: financial incentives (national and international) to increase forest areas, to reduce deforestation and to maintain and manage forests; and regulations on land use and their compliance.

Recently, a specific mitigation strategy is emerging in the global political arena: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). This strategy can contribute greatly in achieving the goal of substantially reducing global emissions of GHGs, provided it is supported by sustainable forest management and integrated into wider strategies for emissions reduction. Knowing that deforestation and forest degradation account for up to 20% to global anthropogenic emissions of GHG, mitigation mechanisms that use REDD seem very promising and beneficial for both the biodiversity of forests and its forest ecosystem services, as well as for human health and the welfare of society.

In turn, the adaptation strategy also includes several mechanisms: preventive adaptation and reactive adaptation, which can both be used at the private or public levels, either autonomously or as part of a plan. An example of adaptation is the construction of river or coastal embankments, as is the case of the Dutch coast in the area the Rhine River flows into. A particular type of adaptation is the one based on ecosystems (EBA), which is a lot more nature-friendly and can be a lot less expensive. The restoration of mangrove strips to cushion the impacts of storms on tropical shores is a good example of how to implement the adaptation strategy in an environmentally harmonious way. Another example is the planting of trees on degraded slopes to reduce downstream flooding in areas affected by hurricanes and higher rainfall.

Climate change: the country's greatest environmental challenge

In 2007, the Dominican Republic, through the SEMARENA, acknowledged that climate change is the country’s greatest environmental challenge. Changes in rainfall patterns on the island would have harmful effects on agricultural crops and river flows. Rising sea levels due to melting ice caps, plus a greater intensity of hurricanes would threaten large areas of the island territories. In fact, the high vulnerability of island nations such as the Dominican Republic, implies a high probability of an increase in the erosion of its coastlines and the bleaching of coral reefs. At the same time, the limited resources available to such nations, threaten the success of adaptation strategies to climate change.

In this context, SEMARENA considers of utmost importance a national public awareness on climate change, in order for society to pay more attention to this serious threat affecting the health of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems, both natural and (agri)cultural, with all its negative implications. It is essential that the Dominican population and all its sectors understand that the consequences of climate change such as loss of biodiversity, the continuous drying of semi-arid territories, and the impact of severe cyclones on the coasts, are increasingly imminent.

In recent years, the Dominican Republic has been able to make great progress on the issues of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Recent improvements in the Dominican legislation in the area of the environment have greatly helped to create awareness at a national level and to promote environmental preservation projects. The large recovery of forest cover in the last two decades is a clear example of the country's ability to reverse damaging processes and restore forest areas that sequester carbon and provide a variety of additional environmental services, including prevention of soil erosion, stabilization of the hydrological regime, and the reduction of downstream flooding.

A project of great interest began in late 2005. It enabled the Dominican Republic to prepare and file its Second National Communication (SCN) before the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC. It was funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by SEMARENA. It greatly contributed to strengthening institutional capacity for climate change management in the country.

Some of the results of the project are the creation of knowledge regarding the vulnerabilities and impact, as consequences of the effects of climate change, the development of adaptation measures to address adverse impacts, and the formulation of a report submitted to the Convention of the UNFCCC, the GEF, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This report showed how susceptible the country is and will be, to the effects of climate change in the present and in the future. In this context, Los Haitises National Park has served as a pilot area within the system of protected areas for carrying out several studies on forest cover change, vulnerability to climate change, mitigation and adaptation. In addition, research has been conducted on the effect of climate change in the tourist areas of Bavaro and Punta Cana, and there have been studies on measures of adaptation in the Haina River Basin.

All these activities contribute significantly to the development of a national awareness plan on vulnerability, mitigation and adaptation to climate change for the Dominican Republic. This plan will help the country prepare to successfully face the challenge of climate change, and is necessary in helping ensure the conservation of biodiversity in the long term, the continuity of environmental services, and the health of Dominican citizens. Some of the essential components for such a plan to be successful are: strategic planning, capability building, scientific and technological transfer, the formulation of multi-sectoral policies, the establishment of legal instruments, the development of financial mechanisms, and the participation of the public and private sectors.

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