UN Climate Plans vs. The Poor

Monday, September 01, 2008 

By Franklin Cudjoe & Bright Simons 

worldACCRA — Despite the breakdown of UN climate-change talks in Bali last December, the same themes were still being pushed at this week’s meeting in Ghana–but now developing countries have begun to question the effects on the world’s poorest.

Although he recognises that vulnerability to climate is a result of poverty, Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, had stated he wanted to focus on emissions reductions, to slow down or even halt climate change.  This is the standard UN line, strongly supported by the European Union and Japan, among others. Not everyone was so keen.

"It is clear that mitigation cannot be a priority for developing countries any more. Adaptation is clearly the way forward," said Ghanaian representative William Agyeman-Bonsu.

Indeed, nearly all the Least Developed Countries were far more interested in coping with current and future conditions rather than sacrificing economic growth at the altar of emissions reductions, especially when India’s and China’s growth make the idea redundant.

Many of the predicted impacts of climate change, from increased flooding to the spread of infectious diseases, have long been around, killing kill millions of people every year–particularly the poorest.

For poor countries it is therefore essential that climate change policy does not undermine the biggest anti-poverty weapon of all, economic growth. How governments respond, trying to adapt to climate change or trying to stop it, will make all the difference. The UN has claimed that foreign aid can help but Africa’s countless aid-financed infrastructure projects, riddled with corruption and waste, demonstrate otherwise.

Many have attributed this week’s images of torn bridges and flooded farmlands in Sandema in northern Ghana to climate change. In reality, flooding is a seasonal event that has been occurring for centuries. Farmers suffer in this region because a lack of other jobs forces them to remain in the low-lying basins of the White Volta. So their real problem is poverty, not climate.

Their plight is exacerbated by the cyclical Bagre Dam spillages from neighbouring Burkina Faso. From the beginning, the two countries did not work together, relying instead on a badly-managed foreign aid package.

It is easy to see why poor countries are sceptical about spending billions on emissions reduction when similar amounts could hugely improve the infrastructure that keeps the weather at bay–dams, flood defences, drainage and so on. For many, discussing the future seems irrelevant when the present is so bleak.

De Boer also spoke of the need to stop deforestation as part of climate mitigation strategies. The issues are similar. Ghana has lost half its forests over the past 50 years to slash-and-burn agriculture and logging, with Sandema being one of the worst affected areas.

Local people are best placed to prevent the disappearance of forests–but to do so, they need to know that conservation will work with, not against, their economic well-being. Tourism and the wider leisure industry have proved successful in checking deforestation in the Caribbean, while plantation forestry and lumber management have achieved similar outcomes in Japan, Indonesia and Argentina.

The common factor has been the promotion of clearly defined, and often transferable, property rights. Rights over natural resources empower individuals and communities, meaning those best equipped to conserve their surroundings have an incentive to do so.

Such property rights, together with the rule of law, also have the wider effect of bringing economic growth, which reduces climate vulnerability–especially vulnerability to the diseases that kill millions right now. Governments and international organizations need to focus on true sustainable development, the kind that helps both the environment and the people who live in it.

Climate mitigation schemes, in contrast, are too often dreamed up by bureaucrats with little appreciation of the local situation. The Nigerian government, for example, recently announced its intention to generate 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2012, forgetting that the vast majority of its people rely on noxious fuels like wood or dung because they have no access to existing electricity, let alone any future schemes. Nigeria has recently spent over US$10 billion, according to some estimates, on an energy programme that has added zero megawatts to existing supply.

People need electricity now, not pipedreams: sustainable bio-mass fuels, meaning dung and wood, kill at least 1.6 million children a year, by World Health Organisation estimates.

The world’s poorest countries must continue to fight for greater realism in the climate debate: their livings and even their lives depend on it.

Franklin Cudjoe and Bright B. Simons are Executive Director and Director of Development, respectively, of the Accra think-tank IMANI: the Centre for Education & Policy