Climate and Development: Connecting Two Sides of the Sustainability Coin

On 23 September, over 120 world leaders gathered at the UN Climate Summit and voiced their concerns about climate change and the measures they are taking to tackle it. The Summit, hosted by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and which is not part of the formal United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, aimed to raise political momentum and to galvanize action as the major global climate agreement is to be reached in Paris in December next year.

Rather than reflecting on the absence of important leaders or the depth of commitments, which have been covered extensively by other media, this commentary directs attention to the interwoven linkages between climate change and development and calls for a complementary approach to both fronts in the year ahead as crucial agreements are negotiated.

It was neither the goal of this summit nor within its scope to specifically discuss climate change in the context of development. Development nonetheless and inevitably came up as a topic. The Chair’s summary of the summit states that “[l]eaders acknowledged that climate action should be undertaken within the context of efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and promote sustainable development.”

Development and climate change have been mentioned in a UN report as two sides of the same coin. Climate change affects all facets of the development agenda, from poverty eradication to healthcare provision, from economic growth to disaster risk reduction. Existing problems that are confronting humanity, such as food insecurity and water scarcity, continue to be exacerbated by climate change. Progress on several of the Millennium Development Goals, particularly Goals 1, 4, 6, and 7, continue to beundermined by climate change. To name two examples, climate change has beenpositively associated with many vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria. It also contributes to increasing child mortality by indirectly raising food prices. A lack of effort to address climate change will likely undermine development further by increasing the vulnerability of already economically and politically marginalized communities against climate change. Likewise, the achievement of no more than 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise will partly depend on development. Stagnated development will impact on the ability and willingness of nations to tackle climate change, as their priority remains on striving to meet the basic needs of their people.

The coming year is critical for shaping global policies on climate change and development. It is in 2015 that a legally-binding climate agreement and the sustainable development goals (SDGs) will be negotiated and hopefully agreed upon. The initial draftof the SDGs revealed a set of 17 goals, one of them being to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”, while acknowledging the UNFCCC to be the “primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change”. Although the climate change and post-2015 development agendas run along separate tracks in the UN system, and given the development agenda is inherently broader than the climate change agenda; climate change and development policies should be made coherent and mutually reinforcing. Reciprocal efforts should be made for each track to be closely informed by progress in the other (with regard to development issues pertinent to climate change), in order to create complementarity and to avoid contradictions.

Climate change considerations can be mainstreamed into existing planning and decision-making processes. Even if one takes on a narrow view of development (economics only), climate change, if streamlined with development policies, can produce win-win situations. A case in mind is the severe air pollution in China, which has been aburdenon the nation’s Gross Domestic Product and human development and one of the causes of which is greenhouse gases-contributing coal power plants. Curbing air pollution has become a strong motivator for the Chinese government to promote the large-scale use of renewables and boost energy efficiency in manufacturing. These measures may eventually help achieve China’s goal to have emissions peak “as early as possible”, a commitment announced at the climate summit with flexible language but shows for the first time China’s determination in tackling climate change.

When climate change and development objectives are not carefully crafted and thus diverge, there is the risk, especially for poorer countries, that a large proportion of the state’s budget is diverted to climate change mitigation and adaptation. This in turn decreases the available funds to be spent on health and education, as a recently published report by the Overseas Development Institute indicates. Measures taken to address climate change in this manner can therefore reverse development.

Despite grim and urgent challenges such as the Ebola outbreak and the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, world leaders must not be short-sighted about the equally acute problem of climate change. A holistic approach to address climate change and to promote development is imperative but at the same time a complex task. It requires not only enormous resources, but also strong political will from all sides. Both resources and political will (particularly that of the Global South) can be increased if we connect climate change and development. The pledges made by world leaders on 23 September, however conservative or innovative, need to be backed up by detailed action plans, even if they only incorporate “no-regret” measures that improve economic growth and climate risk performance together.

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