Central American Countries Commit to Regional Cooperation to Combat Climate Change and Air Pollution

With the support of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), countries plan to integrate action on climate, clean air, and health to realise the multiplying benefits of combined action.

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Photo by Esteban Benites on Unsplash

Air pollution does not respect national boundaries, which makes regional cooperation in response to a crisis that kills over 7 million people every year critical. The limited resources in the countries most affected by the overlapping crises of climate change and air pollution means that sharing resources and knowledge is a vital strategy to save lives immediately, while also ensuring the planet stays habitable for generations to come. 

For this reason, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) is excited to announce the approval of the Regional Strategy for Climate Change (2021-2025) for the Integration System for Central America and Dominican Republic (SICA), an important agreement between eight SICA countries to fight air pollution and climate change collectively. The combined countries (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and the Dominican Republic) represent a population of over 45 million people and a Gross Domestic Product of $108 million. This strategy was endorsed by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Health in every country at a high-level ministerial forum and its implementation will be supported by the CCAC.

“Air quality is a longstanding issue in the region and with climate change the adverse effects have become more evident, such as the more permanent presence of smog layers in major cities. In the dry season, the increase in fires caused by climate change deteriorates air quality,” said Carlos González, a project coordinator at CCAD-SICA. “Integrating both issues allows us to have a greater scope of action to improve environmental quality and reduce health risks. One of the co-benefits is that it allows us to prepare comprehensive and far-reaching policies.”

In the dry season, the increase in fires caused by climate change deteriorates air quality.”
Carlos González
Project Coordinator, CCAD-SICA

The strategy’s targets include developing a plan and steps for implementation, to integrate action on climate and clean air regionally. Its goals also calls for every country to include air quality in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and have consistent and ambitious air quality legislation across the region, including laws that help stop open burning in agriculture. The strategy also aims to implement low-cost air monitoring systems in every country.

This work builds on the history of regional integration that SICA has worked to advance and draws on the expertise and existing cooperation of regional bodies such as the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (CCAD) and Executive Secretary of the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (SE COMISCA). Having CCAD as the lead partner on this project means this work can take advantage of the fact that countries can articulate their individual problems and priorities, while also encouraging regional dialogue and collective action where possible.

It builds off the success of the CCAC’s long-standing efforts in the region to support the integration of climate and clean air into national planning. This program works with countries by giving them financial and technical support to assess their greenhouse gas and short-lived climate pollution (SLCP) emissions, the super-pollutants that contribute to air pollution while also dramatically warming the planet. These assessments are then used as a baseline for identifying and prioritising the most effective mitigation opportunities for each local context, and then integrating those strategies into NDCs and national development plans. 

In 2019, the CCAC supported the first meeting of the Working Group of Focal Points of the CCAD. During the meeting, representatives discussed the importance of reducing SLCPs along with carbon dioxide and the importance of joining forces to spur action. During the meeting, the Working Group defined their priorities for a road map to integrate action on climate and clean air in SICA countries.

This work also fits with the CCAC’s ongoing work to encourage regional approaches, which helps enhance the capacity of decision-makers to take up planning and mitigation and identify organisations like SICA that can support regional processes.

The fact that so much national capacity has already been built means that countries can now combine their efforts, learning from and supporting each other’s actions. A regional approach means that neighbouring countries can share knowledge and rely on peer-to-peer exchanges to overcome similar challenges and hurdles. 

“The Central American region is one of the most vulnerable when it comes to the health effects of climate change and air pollution, making the risks to the inhabitants of this region high,” said Luis Francisco Sánchez Otero, Regional Advisor, Climate Change, Environment and Health at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). “Cost-effective use of funds and resources to address those risks is a regional priority. Since the countries of the region share common challenges, the need for integrated and well-articulated efforts are a top priority.”

The Central American region is one of the most vulnerable when it comes to the health effects of climate change and air pollution, making the risks to the inhabitants of this region high ... the need for integrated and well-articulated efforts are a top priority.”
Luis Francisco Sánchez Otero
Regional Advisor, Climate Change, Environment and Health, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)

Without regional integration, ministries are working in silos, unable to share resources and knowledge which can lead to a duplication of each other’s efforts. The fact that many of these countries are small and lack sufficient resources to implement this expensive and extensive work means that a regional approach can catalyse more ambitious action.

The first major goal of this project is drawing a road map for integrating action on climate change, air quality, and health at a regional level. Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama all received CCAC support for national planning, meaning that they have existing resources and capacity that they can leverage for regional success. This project will help map the existing action and infrastructure when it comes to climate and clean air in each country — what policies already exist that combine action? How solid is the monitoring and evaluation of those policies? What kind of capacity already exists and what still needs to be built?

Developing a more comprehensive assessment of what has already been done means that a clearer and more effective action plan can be made for what still needs to be done. It further means that countries can have a regional sense of strengths and weaknesses: given that all countries are at various stages of national planning, each has different areas of expertise and room for growth that can be addressed collectively. Having a baseline further means that the success or failure of subsequent action can be better measured, increasing efficacy.

The next step will be drafting an implementation plan, which will identify the existing government mechanisms needed to take action and the potential sources of funding to bolster this action. This document aims to be an actionable working plan, outlining clear steps bolstered by support at the national and regional level. This will also involve the establishment of an air quality and climate change working group that will hold regular meetings, obtain political endorsements, and help secure finance to take action. 

The project will also focus on regional capacity building work for three different categories of people: First, the policy makers who are able to make and influence high-level political commitments; second, technical officers who work in health or the environment; and third, healthcare professionals.

This capacity building will include engaging high-level political leaders and it will also involve organising a virtual sub-regional workshop to foster high-level political support while also increasing the knowledge amongst various ministries of health and the environment as well as practitioners to ensure the success of this work long term.

“The project’s sustainability relies on country and regional ownership and on strengthening the capacities of the key stakeholders,” said Otero.

This project will help build the capacity of politicians and other stakeholders and help them better assess the many benefits of integrating health planning into climate change planning, including in the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions and national plans.

The project also plans to use the BreatheLife Campaign, a CCAC, UNEP, World Bank, and World Health Organization initiative, to spread awareness of and lessons about their efforts.

“The participation of strategic partners that can bring technical capacities, donors, and most importantly, country leadership will be key to implement the roadmap,” said Otero. “Achieving the full benefits of this project will not just have an impact for the participant countries, it will contribute to global climate change mitigation goals and inspire action around the globe.”

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