This has been a season of hope and renewed concern for the fate of our climate system. Five thousand delegates from government and civil society gathered at the Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP 10) to the Climate Convention in Buenos Aires shortly before Christmas, and only weeks after Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. That Protocol – long suspected of being moribund – will now enter into force in mid-February 2005. It is a small step to curb the increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, but a giant leap nevertheless.
Recent weeks also saw the publication of some very disturbing findings in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report, commissioned by the Arctic Council. The Arctic region has experienced dramatic warming over the past 50 years, with winter temperatures increasing by as much as 3-4°C. Over the past 30 years, it has lost almost a million square kilometres of sea ice, an area larger than Norway, Sweden and Denmark combined.
Complete loss of summer sea ice is projected before the end of this century, which would make it difficult for polar bears to survive as a species. But this problem is not just about polar bears. Indigenous peoples and livelihoods are already severely affected by rising temperatures and sea levels, as are human settlements and economic infrastructure from thawing permafrost. These serious impacts are not decades into the future – they are being felt now. And they are being felt not just in remote islands halfway across the world, but also in OECD countries.
The meeting in Buenos Aires marked a critical further step towards ensuring that adaptation to climate change is firmly on the agenda, and on an equal footing with measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that have occupied so much public attention. But no tangible agreement was reached on how and when to begin negotiations for commitments beyond the Kyoto Protocol, leading one disappointed negotiator to characterise COP 10 as “talks about talks about talks”.
Clearly, while we need to continue the complex and painstakingly slow process of negotiating international commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions, that alone will not be enough. We also need to place climate change and its impacts into the mainstream of our economic policies, development projects, and international aid efforts. Recent work by the OECD shows, for example, that a very significant percentage of the official aid to developing countries flows towards sectors that are vulnerable to climate change. Yet development aid programmes, as well as national development and sectoral plans, typically pay little or no attention to climate change considerations.
How then to promote development that is both climate-proof to anticipated impacts, and climate-friendly in terms of helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? This was the question discussed by 150 government delegates, experts and civil society representatives at a Global Forum on Sustainable Development held at the OECD in November 2004 (see reference). Experiences shared at this Forum showed numerous examples of impacts already underway in many regions of the world, where climate change could exacerbate existing vulnerabilities – from glacier retreat in Nepal, Peru and Switzerland, to anomalous heat waves in France, to sea level rise and salt water inundation in Kiribati, Bangladesh and the United States.
Decisions which bear upon the vulnerability of societies to such impacts will be made by national and local governments, international donors, the private sector, local communities, and individuals – not just by international negotiators at forums like the meeting in Buenos Aires.
There are now also many examples of fruitful collaboration between such groups. In Kiribati, for instance, a major effort involving the national government, international donors, and local communities is underway to mainstream adaptation to climate change at all levels of decision-making. In Senegal and Uruguay, it was the collaboration between government agencies and farmers that led to the promotion of agricultural practices that significantly improved the removal of greenhouse emissions from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration.
Likewise, policies pursued for non-climate objectives, such as in the response to air pollution, the choice of energy technologies, and in the design of transportation systems, can go a long way towards reducing greenhouse emissions.
The dialogue between the climate change and development communities has come a long way. What started with relatively polarised “climate-centric” views on the one hand, and “why bother” questions on the other, is now evolving into a constructive dialogue between the two communities on how to integrate both greenhouse emission reductions and adaptation measures into development activity.
This is of course early days, but there is much that can be done to improve matters fast. For instance, governments could make sure climate change considerations are made a core part of planning, when bridges and highways are being built, for instance, or energy systems being designed, or even when poverty alleviation projects are being implemented. But this can only happen if climate experts and the development community work together. This ground-level action is needed to complement and strengthen the multilateral negotiations under the Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol.
The entry into force this month of the Kyoto Protocol is clearly a landmark in international efforts to combat climate change. It may only be a first step, but if it helps the international community to confront the challenge of seeking more long-term solutions to climate change, it will prove to be a vital one.
A shorter version of this article called “Aiming for Earth-friendly Development”, and signed by Kiyotaka Akasaka, appeared in The Japan Times, 20 December 2004.
OECD (2004), The Benefits of Climate Change Policies: Analytical and Framework Issues, Paris. ISBN 9264108319.
For a short review of the Global Forum on Sustainable Development, see “Development Climate”, December 2004, at www.oecdobserver.org.
©OECD Observer No 246/247, December 2004