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A silent revolution unfolding against climate change

February 9, 2012

Finding a lasting solution to climate change has been part of environmental diplomacy for several decades, but it is only in last few years that a growing sense of impending crisis has forced world leaders to think beyond immediate interests and come up with effective and concrete ideas.

Andrew Steer, special envoy for climate change at the World Bank, said during a talk at the Fletcher School that policymakers from both developed and developing countries now recognize the gravity of the situation and a consensus is emerging, which may set a new course for the global fight against climate change. “15 years ago there was this belief that climate change was a worry of rich countries who can afford it and that poor countries were too busy getting developed. It is not the case now. The countries we work with are very concerned about climate change.”

In fact, he shared the results of a recent survey showing that 48 percent of Americans care about climate change whereas in Latin America and Southeast Asia this figure is more than 90 percent. In small island countries, 99 percent of people are concerned about the changing weather patterns and rising sea level.

Given this scenario and widespread concerns, the World Bank is playing a pro-active role in facilitating efforts to tackle climate change and bringing decision makers to the negotiating table. Steer spelled out four reasons for putting climate change at the top of the agenda at the World Bank: temperature increases, sea level rise, extreme weather events, and shift in hydrological cycles.

The rise in average temperature would not be limited to two degrees as the new data show; it could now go up to 3-4 degrees, which may have devastating effects on the climate. This realization has certainly made world leaders take stock of the situation and adopt tough measures. Steer drew attention to the fact that now more and more countries are showing resolve, and as a result, they are asking the World Bank to put it high on the agenda.

“Ten years ago, maybe 10 percent of our client countries would have said to us, ‘climate change is important and we want you to make it one of the three or four main themes you work on.’ Last year, 95 percent of all the countries we work with said to us, ‘please make climate change one of the three or four major themes you work on.’ Absolute silent revolution! You simply cannot do business today unless you take climate change seriously – both on the climate resilience side and on the low carbon mitigation side,” Steer said.

So far, 90 countries have given their statements of intent for their plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, which is a great leap forward. “Never before in history have 90 countries said to count them as part of the solution. It’s not just the rich countries and not even just the BRIC countries. 51 developing countries, 27 low income countries, and African countries are part of this,” Steer told the audience.

However, all of these plans and intentions leave much to be desired, as Steer unequivocally said that even if we add all of this together, we get to the most optimistic end of the range, and we’re still nowhere close to where we need to be. One of the top consulting companies has presented its energy assessment and done a survey that is very pessimistic in terms of what could be done to get to where we need to get to. It will only be 60 percent of the effort that is required by 2020.

Agriculture is the sector most threatened by climate change, and yields in Africa may go down by 25 percent. The crisis is looming large and drastic steps are required. “Doesn’t it make sense to think of taking carbon dioxide out of the air, where it does harm, bringing it down to earth and making soil richer and more resilient and higher yielding? Some African countries have come forward with a declaration saying we want the UNFCCC to take agriculture holistically into the story to make it eligible to receive triple win investment: better yield, better resilience, more carbon sequestration,” Steer said.

Carbon offsetting could be an effective tool as it not only helps lower the overall cost of solving the problem of climate change but also helps transfer finance and technology to developing countries. But the sluggish economy has had adverse impacts on the carbon market. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic that carbon markets will eventually be back in a big way because countries will have to make tough decisions about mitigation in a cost effective manner.

At the Durban climate summit last year, an agreement was reached on forming a Green Climate Fund to encourage cooperation and mutual assistance. Steer believes this institution could become very big with a budget of tens of billions of dollars a year. Germany, South Africa, China, Malaysia and a few other countries are interested in bidding to host the institution. The World Bank is the interim trustee of the fund.

The Green Climate Fund of $100 billion a year in aid to developing nations raises hope, yet, a lot more effort and money is required because the costs of climate change are much higher. Steer emphatically favored the idea of countries agreeing on comprehensive deals and legally binding targets to deal with global warming because, as he said, it’s not about diplomacy; this is about the future of our next generations.

-Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD candidate F13

View Steer's presentation slides here.