The domino effect

In our increasingly globalised world, no nation is exempt from the impacts of climate change. Small-island and least-developed states may bear the brunt, but developed and emerging economies will also be affected. We must all seize the opportunities that 2015 presents

1st June 2015

The aftermath of tropical Cyclone Pam, which ripped through Vanuatu in March 2015. Low-lying Vanuatu is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.  © UNICEF/Crumb

The domino effect

In our increasingly globalised world, no nation is exempt from the impacts of climate change. Small-island and least-developed states may bear the brunt, but developed and emerging economies will also be affected. We must all seize the opportunities that 2015 presents

By Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

2015 is a pivotal year, as two critically important processes are set to dictate the future development trajectory of our planet. The post-2015 agenda will be finalised in September and will highlight the imperatives of integration and universality to the successful realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And a universal climate change agreement is set to be reached in Paris in December.

The new climate change agreement will be far more than an appendage to the SDGs. A weak agreement, and more intense climate change, would create rough seas for sustainable development. A strong one would put wind in its sails.

Already, many nations are suffering more discernibly from the impacts of climate change – including drought, flooding, disasters, food insecurity and rising sea levels. Take the world’s 52 small island developing states (SIDS). Almost one in every 100 of us is from one of them. That’s one in every 100 people who may be faced with losing their home and livelihood due to sea-level rise and coastal erosion.

It is not only the SIDS that are facing challenges. According to UNEP’s Keeping Track of Adaptation Actions in Africa (KTAA) report, the projected two billion residents of Africa in 2050 will still find themselves significantly dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods: livelihoods that could be damaged by a predicted crop yield reduction of up to 20 per cent due to the impacts of climate change.

But in our increasingly globalised world, no nation should consider itself exempt. Developed and emerging states may be better placed to absorb climate change impacts, but their economies will experience the domino effect of risk, as natural and social systems are closely linked. And the exposure of people and assets to risks is increasing worldwide.

For example, in addition to the loss of life, the floods in Thailand in 2011 resulted in the disruption in supply of tech components, interrupting automobile manufacturing and creating a global shortage in computer hard disks. The estimated economic losses: $46 billion.

Interconnected markets and movements of goods and people render environmental challenges and natural resources disputes borderless. Sea-level rise, drought, floods, crop failure, tsunamis, hurricanes – Mother Nature does not discriminate according to development level, size or political influence. Climate change is thus also a global socio-economic and geo-political issue that will, in due course, affect every person on this planet to varying degrees.

Turning point
And so, we rightly look ahead to Paris as a potential turning point in human development. Without a robust and realistic agreement that can be adequately financed through public and private capital, many current and future development gains will be eroded as the escalating impacts of climate change become reality.

These are gains that have been hard won over the last two decades. If these gains are lost, the cost could likely be calculated in billions of dollars. There is much at stake as the world enters into an intense few months of climate change negotiations.

We must aim for a framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to ensure that global temperature rise this century is kept below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. However, even if we limit global temperature rise, climate change is here to stay, and with it an intimidating price tag. Previous estimates suggested that $70-100 billion would be needed annually by 2050 even if the temperature limit is met. But UNEP’s latest adaptation report has found that costs are likely to be at least two or three times greater.

These costs will be borne by everybody, but developing countries, least developed countries and SIDS will bear the brunt. International finance, still far short of where it should be, can facilitate efforts to cope, but nations themselves will be forced to divert scarce resources and funds from development investments to fund adaptation measures – damaging economic prosperity and sustainable development.

UNEP has already highlighted, through its KTAA and Adaptation Reports, how investment in adaptation actions can provide low-cost solutions to climate change challenges and stimulate local economies through more efficient use of natural capital, job creation and increased household incomes.

The KTAA report estimates that investments in climate change adaptation can improve the livelihoods of 65 per cent of Africa’s citizens through more efficient and innovative management of ecosystems, including agriculture and forests.

Equally, by integrating climate change adaptation strategies in national development policies, governments can provide transitional pathways to green growth and protect and improve the livelihoods of hundreds of millions. We are seeing a growing understanding of specific adaptation needs at national and local levels, as the impacts of climate change are factored into budgets.

For example, India recently set up its own adaptation fund. At the first-ever UN Environment Assembly in 2014, a resolution was passed calling on UNEP to continue supporting countries in ecosystem-based adaptation and for countries to integrate climate change responses into their development plans.
Increasing technology and knowledge also plays a critical role in meeting the adaptation challenge.

Many of the technologies for adaptation exist. However, barriers to the uptake and transfer of these technologies have prevented their wider use. Governments should look at incentives, regulations and stronger institutions to remove these barriers – while the technologies themselves should be viewed as useful beyond increased climate resilience, and drivers of faster development.

Supporting more vulnerable economies provides an unprecedented opportunity to be part of game-changing socio-economic solutions that can be applied in broader contexts and bigger economies.

In short, we should look upon those nations most vulnerable to climate change as microcosms of our larger society, and harbingers of a future we are all facing if we do not act together.

With a full commitment to sustainable development and a new climate change agreement, we could reduce poverty levels, achieve sustainable growth, restore social, environmental and economic capital, and put in motion the efficient and equitable management of our planetary resources. This is a window of opportunity that none of us can afford to miss.