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Burden of the poor

Print edition : Mar 09, 2007

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Dr. Saleemul Huq.-INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, CANANDA

Dr. Saleemul Huq.-INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, CANANDA

Interview with Dr. Saleemul Huq, Director, Climate Change Group, International Institute for Environment and Development, London.

Dr. SALEEMUL HUQ was the lead author of the chapter on Adaptation and Sustainable Development in the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001. He is now the coordinating lead author of the chapter on Adaptation and Mitigation in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), currently under preparation. Excerpts from an interview:

How do you see the issues pertaining to the vulnerability and adaptation of developing countries - aspects with which you are associated in Working Group II of the IPCC - evolving in the light of the new report of Working Group I?

The last report, which came out in 2001, already indicated that developing countries would be affected by climate change disproportionately and poor countries in particular and poor people in all countries would be severely affected. What has come out now in the Fourth Assessment is that the indications of climate change have become much stronger. And the scientific community believes that they are already seeing [the effects]. So it is not something that will happen in the future. Unfortunately, because of the physics of the system and a lag in the atmosphere and in the oceans, we have a certain amount of unavoidable climate change coming our way in the next 10 to 20 years' time and, therefore, these vulnerable poor countries and poor people in developing countries will have to face it, whether they like it or not because there is no choice. Therefore, they have to find ways of being warned, being prepared to deal with it. In the climate change jargon, we call it adaptation. Previously, the emphasis was on mitigation, on reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that the problem could be prevented. That still remains very important because we can still prevent the very large-scale impacts globally over the long term, in the next 40 to 100 years. But unfortunately in the next 10, 20 or perhaps 30 years, it is unavoidable. We will have to live with it through adaptation measures. So the situation now with the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC is that the emphasis on having to deal with the impacts of climate change has been reinforced and become more acute. Therefore, all countries, and particularly the developing ones, need to take the issue of adaptation as a response much more seriously and prominently than in the past. That's the new development with respect to the science of climate change.

How do you see the governments of developing countries responding to these requirements in terms of putting in place appropriate policy instruments and programmes?

Most developing countries have been slow to realise the problem of climate change and also slow to react to it and to think of what they need to do about it. But I think that has changed now; in the last year or two there has been a very rapid and growing awareness of the problem across the board - in the public realm, in the scientific community and among policymakers - and the realisation that it is something that is not going to go away easily and that we all are going to have to face the battle and we need to know how to do that. What appropriate knowledge, research activities, polices and practices are needed to deal with it. We haven't got there yet. We are still at an early stage of trying to figure out the best way to do it. But it is something that has, I think, now become more of a priority than it was. But the problem with climate change is that, particularly in developing countries but also true in other countries, it has to compete with the many other priorities that people have. And it is unfortunately sometimes seen as a long-term problem that we don't have to worry about immediately. I would argue that that's a wrong perception because many of the things that we are doing now will either make us more vulnerable or less vulnerable. And if we take decisions correctly, we can help ourselves in the future. It is, therefore, relevant for decision making [even] in the short term although the consequences of what we do will have long-term repercussions. And that's what will reduce our vulnerability through adapting and through reducing the problem in the first place by reducing emissions.

You have been talking about the links between development goals and addressing the problems of climate change. Both Bangladesh and India have large common issues to confront with poverty eradication; energy needs, particularly rural; economic growth; and so on. What kind of priorities do you think are most appropriate for countries like ours?

Unfortunately, the first and the most severe victims of the climate change problem will not be the rich who caused it but the poor who did not cause it, and there are many poor in our countries and if we want to help them we need to start thinking about this additional risk that they are going to face, which perhaps was not there before. Climatic variability and climatic impact have always happened. We have had floods, we have had droughts and we have had cyclones. But, unfortunately, in the future these will become more severe and therefore we need to be better prepared. We need to help these people to get requisite knowledge and capacities to be more resilient to these kinds of impacts in the future and to be able to deal with them. At the same time, we also want to develop and we want to provide all our citizens with quality of life improvement, which requires more energy, better transport. Many of these things can be done with lot of emissions of greenhouse gases if we base them on coal and fossil-fuel-type technologies. But we need to start thinking about providing that quality of life in a cleaner manner without necessarily the associated emissions of pollutants. It's not easily done but it is certainly possible if we put our minds to it.

What are the costs involved?

It is going to be very costly. [There is] a recent estimate by the World Bank just on the adaptation side - and again these are very gross estimates and nobody has really done a very good estimate of [the costs] all over the world. The problem of estimating the cost - and the IPCC tried to do this and we don't have the figures at the IPCC yet - [is that] the adaptation impacts are very localised. So you need to know many thousands of local situations and how much it will cost at that level and aggregate them.

From a bottom-up perspective, it is very difficult to say globally how much the world will need. The World Bank has tried to do a global estimate based on investment flows - both international and domestic - in developing countries and calculated how much of these investments are likely to be sensitive to climate impact and how much more investment would be needed to make the investments more resilient to the changes. And the figures are in the range of $10 to $40 billion a year for the developing countries alone. So the best estimate of the cost at the moment is tens of billions of dollars a year for the whole of the developing world. For the developed world, the rich countries, it will probably be much more because they have much more infrastructure to protect. For example, in the Netherlands they are already putting in place measures to raise the sea walls to protect the country from a sea level rise of 1 metre. In the next 10 years just that alone is going to cost them 10 billion euros, which they have allocated. They are a rich country and they can afford to do it. But we can't. Bangladesh is also a low-lying country, but we can't afford it even if that were the best thing to do. And to build sea walls and embankments is not necessarily the best thing to do. So the cost of adapting in developed countries is likely to be many times higher. So we are talking of many, many billions of dollars for adaptation alone. And on the mitigation side also there are quite substantial costs, mainly for adopting new technologies, phasing out old ones and replacing them with new ones.

But recent work suggests that there certainly will be costs, but it will not be as costly as not doing anything. And the recent Stern Report [commissioned by the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown] brought that out very clearly. [Sir Nicholas] Stern is an very eminent economist. He looks at the economics of how much it costs to do something and how much it will cost if we do not. He has tried to explain it in political economy terms. He showed very clearly that in global GDP terms the cost of doing things would be 1 per cent a year over the next 20, 30, 40 years and the [cost of] impact if we don't do anything in those years will be 20 times that.

So from a prudent risk management policy perspective, it makes sense to add an additional cost of doing that now to prevent the catastrophic impacts in the future. And that was very well received in the U.K. and Europe... and it seems that the Americans are also finally beginning to get the message and wanting to do something, which is a good sign because the Americans have been the most stubborn and have tried to deny it.

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