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Plea for a UN Environmental Disaster Rapid Reaction Capability

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By Dr Palitha Kohona* | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis


COLOMBO (IDN) - The worst cyclone on record to lash the idyllic islands of Fiji, Winston, left behind an unprecedented trail of devastation and death. A decade of hard won economic achievements lay scattered in a jumble of twisted steel and shredded plantations. Lives that had at last become more bearable are back to struggling to exist.

Science suggests that deaths and destruction experienced by Fiji, are likely to be repeated elsewhere, more frequently, as global warming and climate change begin to affect the planet's environment, in particular the oceans. The effects of Katrina and Sandy on the U.S. and Haiyan on the Philippines are still vivid in our minds.

Fiji's experience would have been much worse at the individual level, but setting a useful example, the country employed modern technology to warn the population in advance. Thousands were evacuated to places of safety thus ensuring minimum casualty levels. Villagers helped each other before the International community became activated, especially in the confusing days that followed the devastating cyclone.

In the recent past, there has been a welcome tendency in many poor countries to employ technology to warn their populations in advance of impending natural disasters, thus minimizing the number of deaths and injuries and, in some cases, damage to property. Of course, we are still to develop reliable earthquake warning systems.

A number of key lessons can be learned from Fiji's bitter experience. Adequate preparation, particularly issuing warnings through modern communication technology, could help to curtail deaths and injuries. Better construction practices could reduce damage to dwellings and infrastructure.

Bangladesh, for example, has invested in earthen platforms on which people take refuge in times of flooding, including after cyclones. Communities helping each other have been the most effective method for dealing with the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe of Winston's magnitude. With sea level rise, the prospect of mass movement of environmental refugees no longer remains in the realm of speculation and needs our attention.

Closely linked to any discussion of climate change are the oceans. The oceans and seas are also a major global economic asset. It is estimated that the oceans and seas, which cover 71% of the globe, contain approximately 24 trillion Dollars of exploitable assets. In 2013, 86 million tons of fish were harvested from the oceans, and provided 16 % of humanity's protein requirement. Fisheries generate over 200 million jobs.

Increasingly, the world's energy requirements, oil and gas from below the sea bed, as well as wind and wave power, come from the oceans and seas. The sea bed will also be the source of many of the minerals required by competing industries.

With ocean warming, economically valuable fish species critically important to poor communities in the tropics, both as a source of income and of protein, are likely to migrate to cooler climes. Low lying coastal areas will be flooded and fresh water resources contaminated, affecting large human settlements, especially in developing countries. Increasing ocean acidification and coral bleach could cause other devastating consequences, including to coastal areas and fish habitats.

The ocean being the biggest sink of greenhouse gasses (GHGs), the increase in GHGs will cause greater warming and the faster melting of the ice caps. Some small island groups might even disappear beneath the waves causing mass migrations.

Scientists now believe that over 70% of man made GHGs generated since the turn of the 20th century were absorbed by the Indian Ocean which is likely to result in unpredictable consequences for the littoral states of the region. Waste generated by humans, especially plastic, now form a destructive mass in the middle of oceans, possibly contributing to global warming.

Natural phenomena, such as hurricanes and typhoons, would be much more devastating as we witnessed in the cases of Katrina and Sandy in the U.S., the brutal Haiyan in the Philippines and the recent Winston in Fiji.

The socio-economic effects of global warming and sea level rise to the multi billion-dollar tourism industry (476 billion dollars in the U.S. alone) would be far reaching. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN, having acknowledged the significance of the vast and complex challenges confronting the oceans and seas, have highlighted them as a Sustainable Development goal.

Heralding a generation with climate hope

In December, over 195 countries met in Paris and, amidst much self congratulatory hugging and backslapping, agreed on certain broad measures to address the threat to human existence of global warming and climate change.

The UN Secretary-General, for whom climate change has been "one of the defining priorities of his tenure", described the Paris Accord as heralding a generation with climate hope and a "monumental triumph for people and the planet".

The Paris Accord, if successfully implemented, could very well be his legacy to posterity. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabious, who Chaired COP21, emotionally gavelled the meeting closed as the global web movement Avaaz, welcomed the Paris Accord as a "brilliant and massive turning point in human history".

Under the Paris Accord, the international community committed to curtail GHG emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, with an aspirational target of 1.5 Celsius. 188 countries pledged to undertake measures unilaterally to realize this goal through their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), which have been already submitted to the Climate Change Secretariat.

These contributions are not binding but will be reviewed every five years. There is also a commitment, originally made in Copenhagen, to provide $100 billion to developing countries by 2020 for adaptation and mitigation and at least that amount afterwards. The most vulnerable countries will receive over $250 million.

Some take the view that the Paris Accord has the potential for decarbonising the world economy by the middle of the current century and assist those under immediate threat to adapt and adjust to global warming and climate change, especially sea level rise.

The Paris Accord will be open for signature at the UN in New York from April 22, 2016 and will enter into force upon ratification/accession by 55 countries that account for at least 55% of the global emissions.

Overwhelming challenge

Nevertheless, doubts continue to remain on whether humanity has really confronted this overwhelming challenge to its very existence.  Even with the INDCs faithfully implemented, global temperatures will continue to rise till at least 2030. Cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons and other such natural phenomena are likely to become increasingly more destructive.

Past experience does not engender much confidence in this regard. The Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, concluded by consensus in 1997, was also welcomed with joyous acclaim. But the U.S., the biggest emitter of GHGs at the time, having actively participated in the negotiations, signed but never became party to the accord. A new administration in Washington ensured that the U.S. would not only not become party but would stridently oppose the Kyoto Protocol.

While the U.S., now the second biggest emitter of GHGs, played a central role in consensus building in Paris, President Obama's tenure as president will end in 2016. The Republican Party which has not thrown its weight behind the need to curtail emission levels, continues to control Congress. Republican presidential candidates are anything but enthusiastic about limiting GHG emissions.

The U.S. approach to climate change would provide the excuse for many others to resile from their own commitments. Already Obama's Administrative Orders on GHG emissions are being challenged in court.

Canada, a major exporter of fossil fuels and industrialised agricultural products, which actively participated in the Kyoto negotiations, formally denounced the Protocol in 2011 citing its inability to fulfil its commitments. Australia, another key player in Kyoto, is a major exporter of coal, natural gas and agricultural products.

As to whether countries such as Australia and Canada have the economic ability and the political will to dramatically introduce changes to their fossil fuel export dependent economies will remain a critical question.

Harmful industrial agricultural practices, especially large scale animal farming, may pose difficult hurdles for countries dependent on these exports. Subsidised exports of fossil fuel consuming power plants by developed countries, such as Germany, will make developing countries dependent for years on fossil fuels.

Likewise, the fast growing economies of China, India and Brazil which have only recently dragged millions of their people out of poverty, largely through the massive use of fossil fuels, may face huge domestic challenges in any effort to curtail GHG emissions.

60% of GHGs emanate from just five countries, the USA, China, India, Russia and Japan. The EU is responsible for 12% of global emissions. The above countries and the EU can on their own make a significant contribution to decarbonising the world economy.

Sans quantitative target

Furthermore, the Paris Accord, not containing legal commitments to curtail emissions in accordance with the INDCs, requires parties only to meet every five years to review progress. This process could be unreliable due to different pressures, including from domestic industry.

According to Climate Action Tracker (CAT), only five countries submitted INDCs fully consistent with the 2°C limit. Major emitters such as the USA, the EU, China and Brazil, will have to revise their INDCs, since they will most likely cause global warming exceeding 2°C. Globally scaled, the climate pledges of many countries such as Australia, Canada and the Russian Federation would actually lead to global warming of more than 3°C.

While some developing countries may be capable of realising the INDCs on their own, many will need funding and climate safe technology to achieve the transition. Much of the climate safe technology is already available although at a high cost.

Copenhagen set the target of $100 billion to be provided by developed countries by 2020. The Paris Accord, contains no quantitative target. It merely states that there should be a progress beyond previous efforts, but postpones the revision of the already insufficient $100 billion target to 2025.

This figure refers only to funds made available through public sources, although where exactly the full amount will come from is not exactly clear.

The World Bank estimates the funding requirement to facilitate transition to low carbon and climate resilient economies by developing countries alone to be in the trillions of Dollars. For its part, it will increase the proportion of funds available to 28% of its portfolio.

The Bank estimates that once financing from partners and associated private sector funders are included, the grand total available would be a potential $29 billion per year by 2020. The U.S. has pledged $800 million.

China has pledged $3.1 billion to support developing countries in their efforts to counter climate change. What has been offered still falls far short of the $100 billion that is required to be made available by 2020.

An insurance mechanism for loss and damage and population displacement, relocation, etc., is recognised in the accord but may not be adequate to deal with the emerging crisis. Vast population displacements and climate refugees could be a real consequence of global warming and sea level rise. Some writers have already alluded to the possibility of Europe's present refugee crisis at least partly having its roots in climate change.

With global temperatures continuing to rise till at least 2030, difficult modifications to economic activity and life styles will be necessary to achieve 2°C goal by 2050.

The Paris Accord does not refer to "new and additional funding", leaving room for official development assistance to be mixed up with climate assistance. Already private sector lending is being counted by some countries as development assistance.

Efforts to hold historic polluters responsible for the current crisis has been effectively quashed. The effort by Palau and Trinidad and Tobago to seek an advisory opinion from the ICJ on responsibility for global warming was aborted under pressure. The IUCN is scheduled to revive this initiative. Funding for the Sustainable Development Goals, despite the Addis Ababa Accord on funding for development, will remain a challenge. With climate change adding to the burden, something somewhere will lose out.

Renewable energy industry

One bright spot might be the encouragement that the renewable energy industry will receive from the Paris outcomes. China, which is today's leading emitter of GHGs, is investing heavily on renewable energy in a clearly targeted manner, resulting in specific industrial sectors, such as the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines, booming and the environment benefitting.

Until recently, Vietnam had the biggest coal development plans in Southeast Asia – about 70 new coal power stations. This matched the operating coal capacity of Japan. But in January, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung announced that any new coal power projects would be cancelled.

In his statement, Nguyen referred to the Paris agreement and assured he would “responsibly implement all international commitments in cutting down greenhouse gas emissions”.

China, constantly threatened by air pollution, has also imposed a moratorium on coal mining for the next three years. U.S. President Barack Obama has halted coal mining on public land.

Given the complexity of the problem of climate change, the enormous estimated cost of addressing it comprehensively and the inevitable resistance from vested interests, consideration should be given by governments to approaching the challenge through key economic sectors. For example, power generation, motor transport, railways, etc.

Rapid recovery from a devastation of a major natural disaster would be a critical challenge for a small country. The sooner an adequate fund is established to finance such recovery efforts through a politically neutral body such as the UN, the better. The financial requirements to restore a devastated country can be substantial. While economically advanced neighbouring countries can and do step in to assist in providing immediate relief, this assistance is never adequate to meet the recovery needs of an affected country.

The UN should also seriously consider creating a rapid reaction capability to deal with environmental emergencies. Precedents exist. The big powers have military units ready to be deployed at short notice to deal with military and strategic emergencies.

The European Union has its rapid deployment force. Even the UN has explored the possibility of establishing a rapid reaction force to deal with humanitarian emergencies. It is conceivable that the UN could establish a capability to react rapidly to environmental emergencies which are likely to occur with greater frequency and which could affect the weakest countries disproportionately. Emergency stores could be strategically located and rosters of personnel identified on a regional basis, to be drawn upon at short notice.

*Dr Palitha Kohona is former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in New York and a onetime head of the UN Treaty Section. [IDN-InDepthNews – 7 March 2016]

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.

Photo: Fiji Cyclone | Credit: New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF)/Facebook

2016 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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