Managing Climate Change (Op-ed)

THE awarding of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize jointly to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ought to be roundly applauded. Through their work they have put on the global table critical knowledge needed to appreciate the urgency in fighting the menace of climate change.

They have shown that tackling climate change is no longer an esoteric long-term issue pursued by environmentalists at the expense of slowing down world development. On the contrary, urgent global action to manage climate change is an important element of a long-term strategy to eliminate global poverty and hunger.

An influential work, the “Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change,” commissioned by the UK Treasury that was released in October 2006 provides substantive arguments why paying attention to climate change now makes very good economic sense. Despite the controversy surrounding the report regarding some of the assumptions and the choice of the social discount rate, it would be irresponsible to ignore the call for urgent global action to fight climate change.

Arguably, few regions in the world are more at risk from climate change in terms of adverse impact on the poor than South Asia. The reasons are easy to see when one pays attention to the possible adverse effects of climate change identified by the panel of world experts working on the 4th IPCC report, which was last updated in September 2007. The possible consequences could include:

  • Melting glaciers on the Himalayan-Hindu Kush mountain ranges. According to Oxford University climatologist Mark New, over the past 30 years snow cover and ice cover may have been reduced by 30 percent in the eastern Himalayas. There is now a real risk that these glaciers might disappear altogether in the coming decades.
  • The rapid melting of glaciers is initially expected to contribute to excessive water flow and flooding in the region. Eventually, the full loss of glaciers, if it happens, would have a severe affect on the availability of fresh water in the three mighty rivers: Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra (and other smaller tributaries); these rivers are the life-line for an estimated 500 million people in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Much of this population is very poor.
  • The associated loss of farm production, water for human needs, fisheries, river transport, and livelihood will be devastating.
  • Water loss would also reduce the availability of power, which is already a serious development constraint in South Asia.
  • Changing climate patterns are lowering rainfall in arid and semi-arid zones and intensifying floods in other areas.
  • The coastal population in South Asia is already facing a serious flooding problem from rising sea level due to climate change. Even under conservative assumptions, the sea level could rise to 40 cm higher than the present level by the end of the 21st century and submerge a huge area of the South Asian coastal belt. Over 70 million people living along the coastal belt will be forced to relocate, causing tremendous human misery. The threat is particularly serious for Maldives and Bangladesh.
  • Human health is also at risk from growing incidence of diseases linked to rising temperatures and rainfall variability. Effects may range from diarrheal diseases to increased malnutrition.

Clearly, climate change poses a serious risk to poverty reduction in South Asia, and ought to be a central issue underlying national level poverty reduction strategies. Given the regional/global nature of the issue, action at the country level alone will not do. Only sustained collective action at the regional level coordinated with global efforts and combined with country specific interventions will help bring about the required changes. Climate change management will require action on several fronts.

  • South Asia is still a small contributor to global carbon emission in per capita terms. As such, it has a justifiable claim in its favour to a fair distribution of the cost of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Yet, rapid economic growth in the region, especially in India, and growing demand for energy is contributing to a rising incidence of carbon emission on aggregate that needs to be managed.
  • In general, concerted efforts are needed to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through more sustainable use of energy, improved forestry management and better urbanisation. India is already taking steps to achieve a low carbon growth path. It could play a lead role in continuing to pursue this and also set an example for the world’s major carbon emitters.
  • Using tax, pricing and regulatory policies to discourage use of technologies and activities that generate greenhouse gases will be a key mitigating measure.
  • A major factor contributing to India’s carbon emission is the rapid growth in energy use based on coal and oil as primary fuel. Other countries, like Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal have very good gas-based or hydro-power supply potential. More energy trade at the regional level, based on use of hydro-power and natural gas along with lower reliance on coal and oil, will be win-win for all.
  • Regional cooperation to improve water management and allocation aimed at reducing the incidence of floods while ensuring a more equitable distribution of water in each of the concerned countries for irrigation and other uses.
  • Regional cooperation for knowledge generation and sharing on climate change and water and energy resources to improve disaster management and promote private investments in sustainable energy and water resources.
  • Greater regional voice and activism in global fora to influence international action on climate change, including equitable cost sharing arrangements, and seeking better international funding for climate change agenda in South Asia, and stronger participation in carbon trading and other related global facilities.

Given the ongoing adverse effects of climate change, reflected in frequent natural disasters in the form of floods and drought, and the growing cost of inaction, the urgency for taking action cannot be over-emphasised. South Asian governments ought to seize this opportunity as a common agenda and get together to develop a long-term regional strategy for effective management of climate change with a view to securing poverty reduction on a sustainable basis.

The authors are with the World Bank, Washington D.C. The views expressed in this article are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank Group.

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