Scientists have concluded that global warming is “unequivocally occurring” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2015) and that human activities have exacerbated the effects primarily through emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2). The IPCC stated that global temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising and polar ice is melting. The IPCC warns that if emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated the effects of climate change jeopardize sustainability of social, economic and ecological systems throughout the world. Tropical islands and coastal areas face acute risks of flooding, coastal erosion, drought and loss of ecosystems.
Like many other low-lying coastal nations, Belize is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Its geographical location leaves the country exposed to the risk of rising sea levels and increasing frequency and intensity of tropical storms. In 2013, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued an assessment based on a consensus of international researchers that stated global sea levels would likely rise from 1 to 3 feet by the end of the century. New research available since this report suggests the higher end of that range is more likely, and the question remains how that range might shift upward. The data reveal the height of the sea surface is not rising uniformly everywhere. Regional differences in sea level rise are dominated by the effects of ocean currents and natural cycles such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). But, as these natural cycles wax and wane, they can have major impacts on local coastlines.
As a small country with relatively minor contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, Belize has a limited capacity to contribute to the mitigation of the effects of global climate change. Certainly Belize has a responsibility to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases in line with international objectives and targets. However, numerous studies throughout the world have illustrated that there are disproportionate distributions of climate change impacts where the greatest responsibility for the increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases is attributed to industrialized countries, mostly in the northern hemisphere, while the worse social and economic impacts of climate change will be borne by developing countries especially those in tropical regions (and many in the southern hemisphere). As an example, Belize’s economic dependence on natural resources heightens its vulnerability to rising temperatures and the resulting impacts on agricultural productivity, fisheries ecosystems and other economic sectors.
Because Belize will have minimal impacts on global greenhouse gas emissions from new social and economic policy actions, the focus here is on what it might cost for Belize to enact strategies of adaptation to climate change from greenhouse gas increases in the future. To minimize the worst impacts of climate change policymakers must design national policies that consider adaptation measures in order to enhance economic sustainability and strengthen national development initiatives. By implementing a comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy many of the costs of inaction can be avoided. Studies of the cost of inaction on climate change generally have concluded that while necessary actions to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions or protect against climate-related impacts will most certainly have significant costs, doing nothing about climate change will have potentially greater costs.
The expected impacts of climate change pose a range of risks to human beings including water stress, loss of important ecosystems, changes in agricultural productivity, physical damage from flooding and storms, increased burdens from malnutrition and infectious diseases, increased morbidity and mortality from heat stress, flooding and drought. In estimating the costs of inaction with regards to adaptation to climate change three sectors of the Belize economy are focused upon here: agriculture and fisheries, energy and tourism. While the economic costs of climate change in Belize are not limited to these three sectors their relative economic importance and overall vulnerability to environmental change provide a useful context in which to discuss the costs of climate change for the country.
The future of climate for Belize and the Central American and Caribbean regions will likely be characterized by increasing temperatures, declining levels of precipitation and rising sea levels. These projections have been confirmed through several analyses of climate models. One study projected a median temperature increase of 2°C for the Caribbean region and 3.2°C for the Central American region and a projected median decrease in annual precipitation of 12% for the Caribbean region and 9% for the Central American region. The models also projected 39% increase in extremely dry seasons for the Caribbean and a 33% increase for Central America. Climate data for Belize were used to estimate trends in average rainfall and temperature from 1960 through 2005. Of the 10 warmest years in the record, five of those occurred in the 1990s four occurred since 2000. The trend analysis was combined with climate projections for a regional climate model to project average temperatures and rainfall in Belize for the 2010 – 2100 period. Average annual temperatures are expected to increase 3.5°C over the 90 year period while average rainfall is expected to decrease by 100 mm.
The first economic sector discussed here is agriculture and fisheries which are both vulnerable to the effects of climate change by virtue of their dependence on natural resources such as air, water, soil and a range of favorable climate conditions. The vulnerability of agriculture is systematically greater for developing countries particularly those in tropical zones, since many such countries are already at or near their temperature threshold for many crops. Furthermore, agriculture constitutes a relatively greater portion of national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in developing countries and most developing countries have less capacity to adapt to climate change. Cereal grain yields in particular are projected to decline with increasing temperatures and moisture stress. Extended periods of high temperatures, intense storms and droughts can disrupt crop production or reduce yields. Some crops in Belize such as maize, which are already grown near their limits of temperature tolerance, may be increasingly vulnerable to warming and drought.
A vulnerability assessment for agriculture and food security in Belize projected yield effects for three staple crops rice, maize and beans. The model projected shorter growing seasons for all three cops as well as decreasing yields of 10 to 20% across the various scenarios. Projected reduced yields were 14 to 19% for beans 10 to 14% for rice and 17 to 22% for maize. These three staple crops are important to Belize’s food security as well as for export income, and reductions in these crops alone would represent $13-$18 million Belize dollars of lost revenue. Sugar and banana production are likely to face risk from encroachment of salt water in nearby river streams.
The fisheries sector is vulnerable to the effects of climate change particularly the impacts of warmer sea surface temperatures, sea level rise, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide, and extreme weather events. Healthy coral reefs protect habitat and nutrients for numerous species and provide many economic benefits, generating income for both fishing and tourism. Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to changes in sea surface temperatures and the reefs of the Caribbean Sea already live near their thresholds of temperature tolerance. Marine products have traditionally played an important role in the economy of Belize. In recent years exports have ranged between $80 and $100 million Belize dollars.
The second economic sector considered here is energy, and climate change is expected to affect electricity demand through warmer days and nights, more frequent heat waves, more intense storms, and changes in water availability. Future electricity demand depends in part on population growth and economic development, but electricity sales are projected to grow at an average rate of 6.52% for high scenario and 3.76% for low scenario situations. The estimated economic impact of climate change for the electricity sector in Belize is approximately $58 million Belize by 2080. Increased use of renewable resources for energy production and diversification of energy sources have been identified as potentially effective adaptation strategies.
The third and final economics sector considered here is tourism which for Belize is vulnerable because of its dependence on natural resources such as coastal beaches, coral reefs, wildlife and forests. Coastal tourism faces particular risks from erosion and flooding, sea level increases, salinization and the threats to physical property. Warmer seawater threatens the coral reefs which attract thousands of tourists for snorkeling and scuba diving activities. Also warmer sea surface temperatures are associated with increasing frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones or hurricanes, which threaten coastal settlements and infrastructure. Tourism researchers have projected that climate change may reduce the appeal of tropical destinations because of heat stress, beach erosion, decline in reef quality and increased health risks. The economic impact of climate change for the tourism sector in Belize is estimated $48.3 million Belize and includes the effects of reduced tourism demand, lost facilities from sea level rise, loss of beaches from coastal erosion and loss of reef-based ecotourism.
Additional threats to coastal community’s infrastructure, public health, water availability, and forests are not discussed here but also represent sizeable costs for adaptability policies to mitigate changes caused by global climate change. The vulnerability from those climate change effects listed here, and many other projected impacts of climate change, highlight the importance of incorporating adaptation strategies into national development planning. The threat of climate change requires multilateral action from policymakers and the private sector throughout the world to seek solutions to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. In addition the effects already taking place require that some nations find ways to adapt to imminent climate change in order to minimize vulnerability and enhance resilience to future risks. Sustainability Now