You can't separate climate from economy

This summer’s fires in Russia and floods in China and Pakistan fit right into patterns of climate change predicted by scientists’ reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

While scientists may shy away from linking these natural disasters directly to climate change, what is absolutely certain is that heatwaves and high water hurt developing countries and poor people more as they are less able to pay to protect themselves.

For instance, Pakistan’s flood-plains and dry riverbeds were occupied by poor squatters, who were the first to be swept away by the raging torrents.

Poorer quarters in developed countries are also the worst hit when disaster strikes, such as when heatwaves hit Tokyo or American cities. The urban poor in Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, tend to live in more built-up areas which trap heat, while the rich live in cooler areas with more greenery.

The disasters are sparking a shift in the perception of climate change.

Instead of seeing climate change as a purely environmental issue, governments and international organisations are increasingly viewing it as an environmental and development issue.

At a talk here recently, Boston University public policy professor Adil Najam explained why development versus environment is a false dichotomy.

Climate issues, Professor Najam said, are often viewed as natural phenomena one cannot do anything about, ‘whereas economic growth is something you can’ act on.

In fact, the two are really inextricable, contends Prof Najam, who was born in Pakistan and is an expert on South Asian development and politics. Growth that destroys the environment and changes the climate is unsustainable, he said.

But given that fast and unsustainable growth now could make countries more liable to pay for climate change adaptation later, does it make sense to develop in an unsustainable way?

‘No country ever says, ‘We’re going to choose between children’s health and economic growth’,’ Prof Najam said. ‘It’s not a choice.’

Countries like China and India are beginning to recognise this and responding.

For instance, China’s four trillion yuan (S$795 billion) stimulus package in 2008 funded railroads, power grids, ecological restoration and other projects, and has been lauded for its ‘greenness’.

In February this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao, addressing a Communist Party meeting, said: ‘We must make tackling climate change an important strategy for our socio-economic development.’

Mr Wilfred Walsh, managing director of carbon trading and advisory firm Biosphere Capital, pointed out that sustainable energy is actually cheaper than fossil fuels - over the right time scale and when the damage caused by fossil fuel pollution is factored in.

‘The developing world might as well develop itself using appropriate, sustainable energy technologies,’ he said, rather than face problems when the time comes to switch from established coal, oil and gas infrastructure.

But even when policymakers understand the issues involved, Prof Najam said, the short-term pressures they face to win elections and stay in power work on a different time scale from climate change, which works over decades.

However, some nations are realising that environmental issues have political mileage - sometimes for the whole nation.

Last year, for example, the Maldives made headlines by staging a Cabinet meeting underwater to underscore the urgency of climate change for small island states.

Indeed, said policy coordinator Sandeep Rai of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Global Climate Initiative, climate change for these states is a direct threat to their very survival.

With climate change presenting a tremendous threat to developing countries, these nations are taking a leadership role and offering the greatest opportunities to turn it around.

A WWF Global Climate Initiative report last year examined new renewable energy legislation by China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. And the International Energy Agency this year reckoned that over the next four decades, the developing world will need US$27 trillion (S$36.4 trillion) worth of clean-technology investments.

Energy use does not always have to increase in proportion to a country’s economic growth, Prof Najam pointed out.

‘The decoupling on economic growth and energy consumption is already happening, mostly through efficiency. Part of the technological race today is over who will be able to decouple the two the most, because in the decoupling are not only energy savings but also cost savings.’

Countries like Singapore, he added, have a ‘great opportunity’ to lead in such decoupling, both through increased energy efficiency and through adopting and developing efficient technologies.

The United Nations’ climate talks in Mexico in November will probably not amount to much in terms of binding international agreements, Prof Najam believes.

But having successful climate negotiations will matter less and less because of the size of developing-country populations - China and India alone house two billion of the world’s 6.9 billion people - and because governments and businesses will go ahead with green development on their own.

‘On numbers alone, if the world is going to be saved, China and India are going to save it,’ he said.

Others like Biosphere Capital’s Mr Walsh are less bullish.

‘We don’t know yet if this will happen,’ he said. ‘Right now what is most obvious is a glaring lack of international leadership on climate change mitigation.’

Source: The Straits Times

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