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HDR: Climate Change: Rich Nations' Responsibility

Irreversible changes for the worse?

The new Human Development Report will point to rich nations’ responsibility in fighting climate change this week. The climate crisis will usher in large-scale, irreversible changes in human development, unless decisive action will emerge from Bali, says Kevin Watkins, lead author of the report, titled “Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World”. Ramesh Jaura interviews Kevin Watkins.


This is the first time that a Human Development Report has chosen to focus on climate change. It is also the first time jointly with UNEP. What motivated you to focus this time on climate change especially as the problem exists for years and years?

I think two things. First of all the problem has existed for years and years and I think it is legitimate criticism to make why we have taken so long to take up climate change as a central theme. Of course we have covered it in previous reports but not in detail. What we have seen in the last few years is a number of major developments in climate change debate.

We had the fourth assessment of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which has established a clear and a very strong scientific base for understanding climate change and the processes that are driving it. We have had the Stern Review commissioned by the British government which has looked in detail at the economics of climate change, the cost of action and of the benefits of action.

What we wanted to initiate with the (new) Human Development Report is to ask a very basic question on the basis of the science and economics. What does climate change mean for the worlds marginalised people, the 2.6 billion who survive on less than two dollars a day. We wanted to bring a distinctive human development analytical framework to the problem, and what came out of the analysis is that we are dealing with a systemic threat to development to which there is no obvious historical precedent and no parallel.

What is the central message of the report, 18th in the series since 1990?

The central message of the report (to be launched just a week ahead of the global climate change conference in Bali) is that we are heading rapidly towards the point at which large-scale, irreversible changes in human development will become inevitable. When I say irreversible changes I mean changes for the worse. There is a very real danger that in the second half of the 21st century the big development challenge will not be accelerated human progress as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that defined a new ambition for 2015. The big development challenge will be international action to slow the rate of decline.

For the past 150 years we have had a pretty concerted linear progress in human development, in health and education, in poverty reduction in many other dimensions. Of course the progress has been uneven. In some parts of the world it has been far too slow. Of course there have been setbacks because of HIV/Aids and so on. But this is really the first time that the world as a whole, the human community has faced the real prospect of a systemic reversal in human development in our lifetimes. It is a reversal that will be followed by potentially catastrophic ecological risks for future generations.

And I think this twin concern about social justice between countries, the opportunities for human development today and social justice for future generations, for the people who are not born, our children make this a very real human development issue. And I think climate change asks us very fundamental questions about what it means to be part of a human community, what is our ethical responsibility, what are our obligations.

What does it mean in terms of population? I am thinking of Malthus population theory according to which among others only natural causes and misery could check excessive population growth.

I think Malthus was motivated by very different concerns. And I think the theory about population or the theory about contradictions between growth of population and food supply has historically been proven not to hold. Because across most of the world humanity has been able to raise productivity more rapidly than the population growth. And it is an example of how human ingenuity has tackled head on what was perceived as a great problem until more 200 years ago.

Now in terms of climate change of course population growth is an issue, particularly in high growth countries. So we shouldn’t sidetrack the fact that in some of the world’s poorest countries where there is a high rate of population growth the average per capita carbon footprint is one tonne per person or less whereas in the United States and Canada it is 20 tonnes or more. In other words, an American leaves a carbon footprint 20 times deeper than an average person in a country like India.

But there is, as the report says, an inverse relationship between responsibility and the problem and the suffering that will come. It’s not the small-scale farmer in Gujarat that carries the responsibility for global warming, its not people living in the drought-prone areas of the Mekong delta, or in rain-fed agricultural areas of the eastern highlands in Ethiopia. Historic responsibility for this problem rests overwhelmingly with rich countries. And the rich world has accounted for 70% of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions now on the earth. The rich world also has the financial and technological capabilities to demonstrate leadership and initiate deepest and the earliest cuts for climate change mitigation. In our report we call for that leadership.

What do you suggest the rich and the poor should do to tackle the problem of climate change?

The underlying goal that we suggest in the report has to be to keep climate change to a threshold of less than 2° C above pre-industrial levels. Were already at 7° C and time is running out. There is a window of opportunity but that window is closing. Rich countries will need to cut their emissions by at least 80% by 2050 in relation to 1990 emissions, with cuts of 30% by 2020. Even with those cuts the emissions from developing countries would peak around 2020, with cuts of 20% by 2050.

Of course it is very deep cuts we are calling for on the rich world but they have the financial and technological resources to achieve those cuts. For developing countries it will only be possible to mitigate on the scale that is required if rich countries create the financial and technological incentives for that to happen.

How much money do you think this will involve?

Well, we call in the report for a Climate Change Mitigation Facility which will be an annual financing mechanism which will have between $15 and $20bn per annum for the transfer of low-carbon technologies or finance to support the deployment of low-carbon technologies. The mechanism would also in some cases provide with guarantees and leverage for private capital investment in low-carbon technologies. But the critical point is that this really has to be viewed as the entry price, if you like, for developing countries into a multilateral agreement. The rich world having created the problem, cannot start making demands on countries like India and other developing countries that are not commensurate with the very huge human development priorities of countries like India.

But the rich world does.

Well, some parts of the rich world historically have made unrealistic demands on the developing countries. You can’t go to a country like India from the European Union: in India where we have 400 million people without access to electricity, where we have a per capita carbon footprint which is one-twelfth of that in the European Union. The European Union cannot demand from India that it deprives people of access to energy amidst such high levels of poverty. And I think basic equity demands that the entry of any country like India has to be contingent on northern government financing for the global public good that India has been asked to provide, the global public good mitigation commitment that will help the world achieve climate security over time.

But as things stand, what do you expect the Bali conference to do in this regard? Do you expect your report to be taken seriously by the leaders of the developed countries?

Well, the danger with the Bali conference, as with any international summit on climate change is that it will produce a communiqué which reminds us that we have a problem. We already know we have a problem. We have enough communiqués, we have enough speeches telling us how urgent the challenge is, how grave the threat. We need to see coming out of the Bali conference a decisive action . . . not just setting a timetable, what comes after the current commitment period, the Kyoto protocol, it has to include a commitment to agree what the shared global goal is – and we are suggesting a global goal should be a commitment to staying below 2° C – and making cuts that are commensurate with that.

Critically, governments need to come away from Bali and really accelerate efforts to put in place national strategies, regional strategies and the international mechanism that will first deliver the mitigation and secondly provide financing to enable the world’s most vulnerable people to cope with the climate change that is now inevitable. That is the twin challenge.

Do you think they really will face up to the challenge? Will the rich world really stop what you have called elsewhere political maneuvering of deckchairs-on-the-Titanic variety?

Well I think there are encouraging signs, the debate on climate change is moving and I think we are starting to see real political leadership and some countries and that is positive. The big hurdle that we face of course is that no country acting on its own -- however strong its political leadership -- can solve this problem. This is a collective action problem. And it will only be resolved by countries coming together.

Of course the countries in question are at very different levels of development, they have very different political systems, and they face very different constraints. But somehow we have to find a way of forging a common response to what is after all shared threat.

© IPS (Interpress Service)

Posted: 25 Nov 2007

Human Development Report 2007/2008, Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided worldRFefer, 213 pp, UNDP: November 2007 (www.undp.org).

More articles on this subject at www.wdev.eu:
>>> The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework
>>> Agro-Fuels and Social Movements in Brazil
>>> Human Rights & Climate Change (WDEV Special Report by Wolfgang Sachs)

The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework / Lisbon EU-Africa Summit: The Day after


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