COP 15: Starting at Development and Climate Days

Today, I attended the first of four “Development and Climate Days” at COP 15.  Formerly the “Development and Adaptation Days”, the name has been changed to reflect a growing appreciation for the connection between mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to inevitable environmental changes in the developing world.  The Days feature panel discussions and a parallel film festival on international development.  The event is taking place two metro stops away from the main COP location, at the Concert House—a facade that I suspect would captivate those who appreciate hyper-modern architecture, and I’m pretty sure that the interior was modeled off of Battlestar Galactica—and is operating at a comparatively peaceful, though no less urgent, pace.

A high-level panel discussion kicked things off.  The Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dorte Neimann, spoke of Denmark’s impressive track record of supporting adaptation programs throughout the world, and of a new substantial financial commitment to continue such activities.

Next, moderator Saleemul Huq of the International Institute of Environment and Development introduced Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya, encouraging the audience to listen to people like her more often because professionals engaged in adaptation to climate change are vulnerable to theory-fatigue, and Wangari Maathai brings us back to operationalizing adaptation concepts: What are people adapting to, and by what means?  How are adaptation interventions different from conventional “development” interventions?  How do we overcome the many challenges to facilitating behavioral change through aid?  What is experience teaching us about hazards linked to climate change, and adaptation at different levels—transnational, national, regional, local?  Professor Maathai spoke about the history of the Greenbelt Movement and her grassroots work in Kenya.  She emphasized the importance of protecting indigenous forests in the developing world (tea plantations don’t qualify, as the former President of Kenya suggested she consider), and the cascading losses of ecosystem goods and services – such as water catchment and filtration – when these forests are degraded or destroyed.  An estimated 17-20% of global emissions of greenhouse gases come from deforestation—and so it is clear that healthy forests not only serve to limit vulnerability to climate change, but are a significant part of the global carbon cycle and in the suite of current mitigation policy options.  In the evening, Professor Matthai returned to the Concert House to grace a reception by revealing a media project she has produced with Google Earth in which she narrates a tour of animated satellite images to tell the story of the state Kenya’s natural resources and ecosystem services, and people’s vulnerabilities to environmental degradation and change.

Ditlev Engel, the CEO of Vestas, spoke next about implementing “ready” energy technologies in the developing world – namely, wind turbines – by using easily sourced materials for manufacturing.  He emphasized the role of the private sector in complementing a public primer for adaptation with the real fuel that will make actions dynamic and sustainable.

Lastly, late to the panel discussion because his plane from Sierra Leone was delayed, economist Dr. Paul Collier, author of “The Bottom Billion”, spoke about the need for Africa to adapt, spending a bit of time on how Europe “shot itself in the foot” when it regulated genetically modified crop technologies and imports, and how Africa subsequently “shot itself in the chest” by following suit. Dr. Collier (obviously) believes that on a continent comprised of hundreds of millions of mostly subsistence farmers, the adoption of GM crop technology is essential to adapting to a future characterized by more variable and unpredictable weather patterns and agro-ecological zones that will shift in a changing climate.  In the Q&A session, the Malian Ambassador to Denmark made very vocal her frustrations with Dr. Collier for what she perceived to be his colonial-esque, outdated top-down development attitude towards Africa – i.e. that he is a typical European expert working in Africa when what Africa needs are African leaders.  Paul Collier is a bit brusque at times, but I, personally, chalk it up to a lifetime of working on development issues with very few development success stories to keep the spirit off the floor.  He seems to be a realist of the highest order, sharply honest, any piece of him that may have once been inclined to placate now whittled away by a long record of international development failures and ever-worsening chronic poverty.  Never defensive, he works in a field fueled by compassion and philosophies of justice – where sharp honesty can be jarring and borderline offensive.  Funny how I find myself defending him.  I didn’t quite like his overly macroeconomic focus in “The Bottom Billion.”  And there is one specific point of contention that I have with something he said.  He told us to try a thought experiment: Tomorrow, it is discovered that cassava production releases toxins that are linked to cancer throughout the world.  Do small-scale African farmers who cultivate cassava “owe” the rest of the world for putting the toxins in the air – even though they didn’t know that cassava can kill?  Collier argues that this is analogous to the claim that the developed world “owes” the developing world for the costs we have imposed on it through emitting CO2 throughout our industrialization and into modern times.  Why do I (think I) have a problem with this?  We’ve known about the greenhouse effect for a long time (it has been investigated for more than a hundred years, in fact) and have argued and argued about the science for a long time (much of the “debate” fabricated for political and economic means, in my opinion) with the knowledge that there is, at least, a possibility that a changing climate will bring about serious changes to social and ecological systems, and many humans will suffer.  We also make the obvious assumption that the most that suffering will be felt by those who have the most undiversified livelihoods and who are most dependent on locally-sourced crops and natural resources: the poor.  So, do we owe for foot dragging?  Do we have a moral obligation to pay the costs of adaptation?  Do we owe for failing to make a legitimate, proactive attempt to mitigate greenhouse gases?  Do we owe for potentially imposing ever more serious costs on the global poor as we continue to emit and grow our economies?  Thoughts?

Mauna Loa CO2

Tomorrow, I’ll get to a post about some very interesting perspectives on one of the more promising initiatives coming out of COP: The United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD Program).

P.S. COP 15 is a fashion show.  Seriously.

Written by NICHOLAS PARKER.

2 thoughts on “COP 15: Starting at Development and Climate Days

  1. Matt

    Does the issue of owing really matter? Morally and ethically, of course. But, practically?

    In the case of Africa we’ve been providing aid, for better or worse, for well over the past 30 years, and as you said there have been “very few development success stories.” How will this work better than the past?

    The second issue is who’s going to pay? The EU pledged 3 Billion/year, if the US matched, would it really be enough? I thought I heard the UN a stated we would need 200 billion a year to make a real impact.

    All I’m saying is that it is unlikely fairness matters. I see the idea of the US giving significantly larger funds to the developing world as a poison pill that will kill any treaty.

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    1. Nicholas Parker

      I think the question is about additionality: funds above and beyond existing ODA that will target climate change adaptation, specifically. Of course, as you and both observe, it’s difficult to define what kinds of adaptation investments will be distinct from existing investments in, say, environmental governance, insurance programs, agricultural development, business training, etc.

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