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Addressing Climate Change and Realizing the SDGs

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By Dr Palitha Kohona* | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis

COLOMBO (IDN) - In an unusually mild Paris in December 2015, over 195 countries agreed on a set of broad measures to address the gathering threat to human existence of global warming and climate change.

A beaming 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 global web movement Avaaz, described the Paris Accord as a "brilliant and massive turning point in human history". The 79-member Africa, Carribean and Pacific Countries group (ACP), most with relatively small economies, enthusiastically welcomed the accord.

This followed on the heels of the global summit of world leaders held on September 25 to 27, 2015, prior to the UN General Assembly which adopted the ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs). The 17 new universal goals, and 169 targets agreed upon will provide the framework for economic and political policy making by UN Member States over the next 15 years to make the world a better place for humanity.

The indicators, against which their performance will be measured, will be finalised by March 2016. Some, including the UK and Japan, wanted fewer goals.

While the media generally tended to treat these two events as independent from each other, the SDGs which interface across the board are also linked to efforts to address climate change. This link must be kept in mind, especially in the cases of adaptation and mitigation.

Ending poverty and hunger, ensuring food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture, managing water resources and sanitation, achieving sustainable economic growth and employment and sustainable industrialisation, and using renewable energy, among them.

The oceans, inter alia, are the major influence on weather patterns, the biggest sink for GHGs, the predominant source of protein for humanity and a major employment generator. The sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources will need to be kept in mind when addressing climate change.

In Paris, the international community made a commitment, by consensus, to curtail GHG emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, with an aspirational target of 1.5 Celsius. It is important that 188 countries pledged to implement measures unilaterally to realise this goal. They have submitted the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the Climate Change Secretariat, to be reviewed every five years.

The trillion Dollar question

Recognising the need of developing countries for additional funds to comply with their voluntary commitments and to deal with the multiplying consequences of climate change, developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion to them by 2020 for adaptation and mitigation and at least that amount afterwards. The most vulnerable countries will receive over $250 million. These figures refer only to funds made available through public sources, although where the full amount will come from is not exactly clear.

The trillion Dollar question, despite the familiar UN hype, is whether the promised resources, vastly inadequate for the need but so necessary for the realization of the SDGs and the Paris Accord, would be generated, specifically through the SDG, revitalisation of global partnerships while the world will be simultaneously struggling to wean itself from fossil fuel dependency.

The importance of mobilizing the enormous funds required was emphasised again by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the ceremony welcoming Thailand as the new Chair of the G 77 and China.

The SDGs will apply to every country. Even their partial attainment in the coming fifteen years will pose a gigantic challenge to all of humanity.

In a world where, embarrassingly, over 1 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day, approximately 800 million go to bed hungry, 795 million or one in nine humans remain malnourished, 57 million children have no access to education, 2.4 billion live without proper toilette facilities, 663 million lack access to safe water, one third of all schools lack safe water and toilette facilities, millions of women still die in childbirth and many more children do not live to reach their fifth birthday, while 62 individuals own more wealth than the poorest 3.2 billion people on earth, realising the SDGs may turn out to be simply too daunting.

One pressing and distracting challenge ballooning from a destabilised Middle East is the massive outflow of displaced persons across borders causing strains on economies that could have provided the required funding for addressing climate change and realign the SDGs. Over 38 million remained displaced the world over in 2014.

Even if the world will eventually pat itself on the back for achieving some of the SDGs, the cost will be mind-boggling. Rough calculations made by the intergovernmental committee of experts on sustainable development financing have put the cost of providing a social safety net to eradicate extreme poverty at $66bn (£43bn) a year, while annual investments to improve infrastructure (water, agriculture, transport, power) could be up to $7tn globally.

The Addis Ababa conference on Funding For Development, which preceded the SDG summit, formulated conclusions with a view to identifying funding sources for the SDGs. The UN ritually hailed the Addis Ababa action agenda (AAAA for short) as containing “bold measures to overhaul global finance practices and generate investment” for tackling the challenges of sustainable development.

On closer analysis, the commitments made by the multilateral financial institutions, the UN agencies, the private sector charities and the bilateral donor community, though impressive, do not appear to come even close to the sums required to achieve the SDGs.

What after the joyous acclaim

With regard to climate change, past experience does not engender too much confidence either. 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 control emission levels, continues to control Congress. Republican presidential candidates are anything but sympathetic to limiting GHG emissions. The U.S. policy approach to climate change would provide the excuse for many others to wiggle out of their publicly stated commitments.

The World Bank estimates the funding requirement to facilitate transition to low carbon and climate resilient economies by developing countries 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 World Bank will use the INDCs to develop country specific programmes for its client countries. The U.S. has pledged $800 million. What has been offered still falls far short of the $100 billion that is agreed to be made available by 2020.

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

Even with the commitments made in Paris, global temperatures will continue to rise till at least 2030 and will require difficult modifications to economic activity and life styles to achieve 2c goal by 2050. With rising temperatures, effects on agriculture and food security would have devastating consequences, more humans will recede in to poverty, and climate refugees would become an unmanageable reality.

“New additional funding” missing

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 commercial lending is being counted by some countries as development assistance.

The SDGs, especially sustainable production and consumption patterns, among others, were not confronted with honesty in Paris.

Efforts to hold historic polluters responsible for the current crisis has been effectively quashed. Sweeping the past under the carpet can be seen in more than one area of human concern. One recalls the abortive effort by Palau and Trinidad and Tobago to seek an advisory opinion from the ICJ on responsibility for global warming.

The fast expanding economies of China and India, which have only recently dragged millions of their people out of poverty, largely through the reliance on fossil fuels, may face huge challenges domestically 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.

Furthermore, the Paris Accord contains no legal commitment to curtail emissions in accordance with the INDCs. It requires parties only to meet every five years to review progress. This process could be subject to different pressures, including from domestic industry.

Learning the lessons

The international community may have reached a point where it is necessary to acknowledge the elements and approaches that failed in previous development exercises. Likewise it needs to recognize the approaches that succeeded and are sustainable. Little Singapore at one end of the spectrum and large China at the other end offer examples of success. But what succeeded in one place may not necessarily work elsewhere.

While it is expected that developing countries themselves will raise some of the necessary funding, including through the building of strong institutions, better taxation, reduction of corruption and stemming the illicit outflow of funds, these measures will not necessarily produce significant results in the short term.

A widely hawked policy approach to development encourages public-private partnerships. Since the financial crisis of 2008, state involvement in the economy is no longer dismissed even by the conservatives. While some developing countries will follow this path with success, it is difficult to imagine that many, especially the smaller ones, with their limited economic opportunities, would or could.

The lack of personnel trained in modern economic management, costly and usually imported energy sources, economic limitations that do not encourage the ready flow of foreign investments are critical constraints.

Nobel laureate, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, has cast serious doubts on the public private partnership approach. In the circumstances, bilateral development assistance will continue to play a role, especially for the large number of such small developing countries.

A holistic and proactive approach to the SDGs could also be a catalyst for innovation, development of new technologies and establishment of new industries.

Renewable energy

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 an apparently targeted manner, resulting in specific industrial sectors, such as the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines, booming and the environment benefitting.

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, and railways, among others.

*Dr Palitha Kohona is former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in New York. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 January 2016]

Photo credit: salem-news.com

2016 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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