Climate Change: a priority issue for the Commonwealth
Author: By Dr Mark Collins
Article Date: 6 Mar 2008
“If the Millennium Development Goals were being written today, tackling climate change would be top of the list” – Dr Mark Collins
We are now past the halfway stage towards the 2015 target for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) but performance is falling behind, at least partly because environmental sustainability is not being addressed adequately. Unless we can control deforestation, protect biodiversity, ensure water supplies and address the pollution that causes climate change, poverty will always stalk the world.
These should not be seen as narrowly-defined environmental problems. Climate change in particular is an economic and humanitarian problem. Whether we succeed or not in controlling it, climate change will affect sustainable development trajectories in the coming years. This is of central importance to the Commonwealth, whose 1.8 billion people include some of the most vulnerable on the planet.
Recent reports, including the ‘Review of the Economics of Climate Change’ by Sir Nicholas Stern and the ‘Fourth Assessment Report’ from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have established that climate change is caused principally by carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuel-based human development patterns, destruction of forests and wetlands, and the spread of agriculture. Energy production and consumption is the biggest source of pollution (over 60 per cent), but land use changes, including deforestation and agriculture, make up almost a third of the total.
Controlling carbon dioxide
This year, the Commonwealth Day theme is ‘Our Environment: Our Future’. The balance of atmospheric conditions that support life is surprisingly fine. Small amounts of greenhouse gases are vital to life on Earth; without them, temperatures would be about 30°C lower. But human activities are now causing increases in greenhouse gas emissions well above pre-industrial levels. Because they remain in the atmosphere for a hundred years, we have gradually been adding more and more insulation to the Earth.
Experts tell us that the earth’s surface warmed by about 0.6°C over the 20th century. The most recent predictions from the IPCC are that the average global surface temperature will continue to rise and could potentially go as high as 6.4°C above 1990 levels by 2100 unless immediate action is taken. At that temperature human society as we understand it would no longer exist.
From concentrations of just 0.028 per cent carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in pre-industrial 1750, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen to 0.043 per cent today. Until recently it was believed that stabilisation at levels around 0.055 per cent by 2035 could limit warming by 2°C, but now 3°C is more likely, causing major impacts on human settlements, coral reefs, rain forests and the polar ice-caps. We must limit temperature rises to 2°C, and that means controlling carbon dioxide levels to 0.045 per cent, a level that could be a reality in a dozen years or less.
In the short-term the most obvious impacts arising from climate change concern the global redistribution of water resources. Severe reduction in rainfall is expected in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Southern Africa and Australia. Increases in rainfall are expected across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and the Indian sub-continent.
In addition, the IPCC predicts that melting of ice, combined with expansion of seawater due to warming, will raise sea levels by between 0.1 and 0.9 metres by 2100. But it would be a lot worse if warming is greater. If the planet was to become completely ice-free, sea levels would rise by 70 metres; conditions not seen on Earth for 100 million years.
Until now these statistics have not had the impact on Commonwealth government policies that society is looking for. Some leaders still believe that we can continue to use up fossil fuels and resolve the emissions problem through technological and engineering innovations. Their governments, far from moving towards a low carbon future, are cashing in on high oil prices and expanding exploration and production of oil and coal in both the developing and industrialised parts of the Commonwealth.
What has now caught leaders’ attention, however, is the likely economic impact of climate change. The Stern Review says that climate change threatens to be the “greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. It says this can be avoided by investing just 1 per cent of global GDP per year in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, but warns that failure to do so could risk catastrophic impacts equivalent to global GDP being up to 20 per cent lower than it otherwise could be.
Sir Nicholas makes a strong call for greater international cooperation and collective action and, importantly, confirms that while the developed world must reduce its emissions, the developing countries also have to play their part in the solution, particularly in controlling deforestation. The Commonwealth is well-placed to respond to these calls if our nations work together.
Public demonstrations reveal growing public unrest at lack of progress. Many developed country governments are failing to achieve the Kyoto Protocol targets, which aim to cut participating nations’ carbon emissions. The developing countries are exempt, even though some, like China and India, are big emitters. Too many governments do not accept that they must not only provide their people with opportunity for growth and transformation, but also ensure the climate security within which this can be achieved.
Millions of vulnerable people in the developing world have never even heard of climate change, far less of its impacts. Those in poverty have not been able to grasp that they are about to be visited by changes that will affect their health, their livelihoods, their communities and their economies. The poor, above all, will suffer and pay for a problem that they have played no part in causing.
The most vulnerable parts of the world are small states, particularly small islands, African countries, large deltas, lakes and river regions, and the Arctic regions of Canada. With 32 small states, including 25 which are island nations, many countries in Africa, and delta systems such as those in Bangladesh and elsewhere, the 53-nation Commonwealth will suffer disproportionately high impacts of climate change, and is most in need of adaptive measures, as well as leadership in reducing emissions.
This analysis is not new. The vulnerability of most Commonwealth countries to climate change was identified almost 20 years ago when a report ‘Climate Change: Meeting the Challenge’ came to similar conclusions, and said: “It may well be that by analysis of these issues on a Commonwealth basis, needs will be assessed more precisely, and practical cooperation more exactly targeted, than in the complexities of the wider world.”
Unfortunately that excellent 1989 report was shelved and no serious action taken beyond agreeing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. The optimism surrounding the UNFCCC has proved to be unjustified and far too much time has been lost. Commonwealth governments, the private sector and civil society organisations must demonstrate leadership and determination in reducing emissions and helping small economies and vulnerable communities to adapt to the changes.
Consequences of inaction
What are the consequences of inaction on climate change in the Commonwealth? The Sahel region, which experienced catastrophic drought for decades until rains returned in the 1990s, could now experience wetter weather for decades to come. We saw this recently in the Horn of Africa and northern East Africa where very dry areas, for example in Ethiopia, Northern Kenya and Northern Uganda, experienced floods.
In Southern Africa drought, having plagued the region since the 1970s, is projected to intensify further. Part of the reason is that the Indian Ocean has warmed more than 1°C since 1950. As showers and thunderstorms develop in the rising air above the warming ocean, they lead to sinking dry air and ensuing drought in a surrounding ring that includes Southern Africa.
In mountainous areas the picture is mixed. Warming is gradually causing the melting of the glaciers on Mt Kilimanjaro, adversely affecting the water security of communities in the lowlands below. Meanwhile, mountainous areas like Lesotho are experiencing more extreme and sudden weather events, including heavy snowfall.
Malnutrition will be the main scourge of drought-prone areas. The traditional abilities of subsistence agriculturalists to judge planting and harvesting times will become increasingly unreliable as climate change kicks in. There will be veterinary problems too, affecting pastoralists and their livestock. Of particular concern is the rise of zoonotic diseases which, like bird flu and HIV, arise in wild birds and animals but are capable of making the switch to human beings.
What is the picture in South Asia? In Bangladesh a permanent one metre rise in sea level (predicted by 2100) would inundate 17.5 per cent of the country and result in between ten and 30 million environmental refugees. A rise of just half a metre would put six million people at risk of flooding. Storm surges can have similar temporary impact much sooner.
One outcome of climate change is a decline in health standards. Climate change is allowing mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever to extend their range, and water-borne diseases like cholera inevitably follow floods, especially where these occur in areas of poor sanitation.
In the Caribbean (and the Indian Ocean) coral bleaching, caused by a combination of El Nino and warming seas, will have a serious impact on biodiversity and subsequently tourism. But extreme weather events are the main cause of anxiety. Hurricane Ivan practically destroyed Grenada’s economy in September 2004, and Hurricanes Ivan and Dean have seriously impacted Jamaica too.
In Guyana, a system of dykes theoretically protects the most productive lands along the coast, which are in fact below sea level. But with rising seas the coastal agriculture is very vulnerable to flooding, storm surges and sea level rise. Over the past year there have been extensive floods in Guyana, and more are likely, leading to severe economic impacts.
Climate change is most likely to be the cause of already serious changes in Australia and the Pacific. Australia is in the grip of nearly a decade of drought and breeding stock are being moved to pastures in Tasmania. Bushfires are a constant hazard. Some farmlands are at risk of being permanently abandoned. Suicide rates amongst farmers have risen.
In the Carteret Islands off Papua New Guinea, a combination of sea level rise and storm surge has made the islands uninhabitable and they have now been abandoned. Similarly in the Indian Ocean many Maldivian islands are likely to be uninhabitable under current scenarios of sea level rise, although the government is trying to create sea defences around the main islands.
Many Pacific island nations depend heavily upon tuna fisheries as their biggest earner. But the behaviour of these migratory fish will certainly change as undersea currents shift. This could be disastrous for the economies of islands like the Seychelles and the Maldives where fisheries and tourism are the biggest earners. For many years now, the response to fewer fish has been bigger trawlers and bigger fleets, but this cannot last.
Recommendations and purposes
The Stern Review recommends a range of measures, including fiscal measures, to act as disincentives to polluters. Higher environmental taxes and carbon trading schemes, such as those piloted in Europe, have been established to tackle the problem. Richly forested developing countries like Guyana and the Iwokrama reserve might, in the new post-2012 Kyoto Protocol that was discussed in Bali in 2007, benefit from a carbon credit scheme that would reward avoidance of deforestation and forest degradation.
But unless these ideas lead to measurable reductions in world carbon emissions, the problem will not be resolved. The European Union has agreed cuts of 20 per cent against 1990 levels by 2020, and to source 20 per cent of energy from renewables by the same year. Friends of the Earth and many other civil society organisations say the emissions target should be set higher, 30 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent or even 90 per cent by 2050.
The Stern Review also calls for much more attention to adaptation, particularly in developing countries, which need greater support through international development assistance and transfers from north to south. Progress has been slow, especially in the Commonwealth. In 2001 the UNFCCC invited the world’s 50 poorest countries to develop National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPAs), but less than 20 per cent have responded. There is a lack of confidence amongst the developing countries that finance will ever be forthcoming for these plans. Donors are not living up to their promises for development finance through the Monterrey consensus and the Gleneagles Agreement. It is understandable that there are doubts as to whether these adaptation plans would fare any better in acquiring the necessary funds.
Adaptation in practice will mean scientific and technological innovation. We need to plan for forest conservation and reafforestation; diversification of agriculture; research in fisheries and water management; and much more application of local, low-carbon technologies for energy production.
In Malta in 2005 the Commonwealth People’s Forum pressed for a Commonwealth plan of action on climate change, and two years later civil society has given a warm reception to the ‘Lake Victoria Commonwealth Plan of Action on Climate Change’ adopted by Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kampala. The plan falls short of agreeing emissions targets but is nevertheless strong in recognising responsibilities and urgency, and commits positively to the UNFCCC process. It calls for Commonwealth countries to work together to overcome barriers to low-carbon technologies and renewable energy, enhance awareness and education using the full breadth of Commonwealth institutions, search for market-based mechanisms to prevent further deforestation, and strengthen work on disaster management and adaptation.
These are worthy targets, but will wealthy Commonwealth countries agree challenging emission reduction targets, set aside their oil and coal reserves and give a lead to emerging industrial nations like Nigeria, India and South Africa to do likewise? In future, can the carbon-fed prosperity of any country be reconciled with the knowledge that the debt will be paid by environmental refugees from island states and low-lying deltas? Can we move quickly enough to develop renewable energy sources like wind and solar power?
The Commonwealth family has special strengths in diplomacy, good offices, technical exchange, professional networks and capacity building. These need to be deployed in a cross-cutting and balanced programme of international cooperation. It should include dialogue to forge new leadership for acceptance of emission targets and use of renewable energy by all our larger economies; assistance with risk assessment and adaptation plans for small states; and an over-arching campaign to promote a culture of scientific innovation and technology transfer.
There can be no more important priority for the incoming Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, than to promote sustainable low- or zero-carbon futures, and to transfer adaptation technologies to vulnerable communities. If the Millennium Development Goals were being written today, tackling climate change would be top of the list.
Dr Mark Collins is Director of the Commonwealth Foundation. This article draws on a speech he gave at the opening plenary of the Commonwealth Youth Forum in Kampala, 15 November 2007. Climate change figured prominently in the Kampala communiqués from Commonwealth civil society, youth and business forums.