Climate change challenge for rich and poor

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases, News, Opinion article written on the 04 Oct 2010

With business leaders and the Australian Government finally acknowledging the need to put a price on carbon, climate change is back on the agenda here in Australia and it’s also on the agenda this week internationally. Representatives from countries around the world, including Australia, are assembling in Tianjin, China, as part of a crucially important United Nations Climate Change Conference that starts today.

After last year’s Copenhagen talks nearly collapsed, the next chance for a legally binding international deal on climate change will be at a UN meeting in December 2012. Today’s UN negotiations in China, and those to follow in Mexico in December, are critical steps on the way. If participating leaders are not able to come up with the nuts and bolts of an agreement at these two meetings, the chances of securing international support for such an agreement in the near future will become less and less likely.

One of the major sticking points at Copenhagen was finance for adaptation – in other words, the assistance needed for poor people in developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change they are already experiencing, such as increasing floods, droughts and storms. These people are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, yet they have done little to contribute to it. In Oxfam’s work with communities around the world we are witnessing how climate change is further exacerbating the difficulty people face in trying to escape poverty.

Nevertheless, many people are already taking important steps to adapt to the impact of climate change. In the Federated States of Micronesia, for example, islanders are climate-proofing their homes against tidal surges and flooding, experimenting with salt-resistant food and crops that withstand surges, and planting mangroves to halt coastal erosion.

Support for this sort of work is needed on a global scale urgently if we are going to prevent climate change from continuing to make the lives of the world’s poorest even harder. In Copenhagen, world leaders did commit to trying to find $US100 billion a year by 2020 from public and private sources in order to help developing countries adapt to climate change and develop along low carbon pathways.

This amount is half of what Oxfam believes is actually needed to do the job properly, but it is a start. However, currently no decisions have been made as to how governments will source the money, how this money will be spent, and who will manage and disperse it. These details need to be put on the table in China this week and are expected to be finalised in Mexico – this is why the talks in Tianjin are crucial.

Leaders attending the talks need to agree on the nature of this $100 billion fund and look at ways to ensure that the money is dispersed transparently. They also need to look at how developing countries can play a genuine role in helping to decide what the money is used for, as they are best placed to know what adaptation measures will work best in their local environments.

There is no doubt that the role of the meeting’s host, China, will be an important factor. Widely reported to be a blocker at the Copenhagen talks, what has not been as widely reported is the measures China is taking to reduce its own climate impact.

While China produces 17 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, it also accommodates 22 per cent of the world’s population – making its per capita emissions a fraction of most developed nations and a fifth of the carbon output of the average Australian.

China has also pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020 and has already taken steps toward that target. In September last year, China announced that it will launch its own carbon offset exchange – known as the ‘Panda Standard’ – that will act as a stepping stone to an emissions trading scheme that it plans to introduce from 2011.

Despite its reliance on coal, China is also becoming a world leader in renewable energy. It invested $US34.6 billion in clean energy last year compared with Australia’s investment of $US1 billion.

While China has experienced high levels of economic growth in recent years, it is important to remember that it is still home to 20 per cent of the world’s poor and this increases the challenges associated with moving to a green economy.

Wealthy nations like Australia, with high per-capita emissions, must face up to these challenges while also helping to create the conditions that enable poorer nations to focus on poverty reduction. This means finding ways to meet Australia’s commitments to the international climate finance fund without dipping into existing foreign aid budgets, because every aid dollar diverted to assist poor people to adapt to climate change is one dollar less for vital health, education, water and sanitation projects.

The challenge of climate change is a global one. But it is poor people in developing countries who are suffering its impacts first and worst. And they simply cannot afford to wait any longer to receive the assistance that they so desperately need.

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial was first published by ABC’s The Drum Opinion on 4 October 2010.