United Nations former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was realistic in his comment during the recently concluded Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) two-day international conference held in Dhaka. He pointed out that despite many constraints "Bangladesh is our best teacher in climate change adaptation".
In his speech delivered during the inaugural ceremony, he noted that Bangladesh, in the front line of countries facing problems arising out of climate change, had gained significance because of its experiences and vision, when it comes to adaptation. He was also observed that "If sea levels were to rise by just one meter, 17 per cent of the country (Bangladesh) would be under water by 2050. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Dhaka itself could be engulfed by even or slight rise in sea level".
Other participants included international dignitaries like Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. They noted that while the rest of the world continued to debate various aspects, different mechanisms and possible effects of climate variability and climate change, for Bangladesh adapting to a warmer, more violent, less predictable climate had become a matter of absolute survival.
The projected varied effects of global warming that came up for discussion included possible increasing of global surface average temperature by approximately 1.67 to 5.56 degrees Celsius by the end of the century and secondary effects like changes in patterns of precipitation, rising sea levels, altered patterns of agriculture, increased extreme weather events and the possible expansion of the range of tropical diseases. The meeting observed that Bangladesh had taken several anticipatory measures in this regard including adaptation initiatives like cultivating water-resilient crops, home solar systems and the creation of a climate trust fund.
The meeting in Dhaka was convened to prepare a set of recommendations on climate change adaptation for placing it before the United Nations during the next UN General Assembly session to be convened in New York in September.
GLOBAL WARMING: The focus on climate change adaptation has arisen as a response to global warming that seeks to reduce the vulnerability of social and biological systems to relatively sudden transformations and thus offset the harmful effects of climate variability. Analysts are however pointing out that even if emissions are stabilised relatively soon, global warming and its effects shall last many years, and adaptation would be necessary to the resulting changes in climate.
THE CHALLENGE OF ADAPTATION: Adaptation is especially important for developing and least developed countries as these countries are expected to bear the brunt of the effects of global warming. In addition, it is being reiterated that the capacity and potential for humans to adapt is unevenly distributed across different regions and populations, and developing countries generally have less capacity to adapt. Furthermore, the degree of adaptation also correlates to the situational focus on environmental issues. Consequently, adaptation requires the situational assessment of sensitivity and vulnerability to environmental impacts.
Environmentalists and socio-economists both agree that adaptive capacity is closely linked to social and economic development. There is a consensus that we do not know the full economic costs of adaptation to climate change, but they are likely to cost billions of US Dollars annually for the next several decades. Donor countries have promised an annual US$ 100 billion contribution by 2020 through the Green Climate Fund for developing countries to adapt to climate change. However, though the Fund was set up during the COP (conference of the parties) 16 meeting convened in Cancun, concrete pledges by developed countries have not been forthcoming as expected. As a result, the adaptation challenge has grown with the magnitude and the rate of climate change.
The other response to this critical climate variability problem has been undertaken through the principle of climate change mitigation. This advocates the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or enhancement of the removal of these gases from Earth's atmosphere through Carbon Sinks. It is however agreed that even if there is reasonable reductions in emissions, this is unlikely to prevent further climate change impacts. This has made the need for adaptation unavoidable. It was this realisation that persuaded environmentalists after inter-active engagement during the international Conference in Dhaka to agree that they needed to focus more seriously on measures related to adaptation, particularly with regard to unintended consequences for vulnerable groups.
TRADE-OFF BETWEEN ADAPTATION AND MITIGATION: Adaptation and mitigation can be viewed as two competing policy responses, with trade-offs between the two. The other trade-off is with climate change impacts. In practice, some even consider that the actual trade-offs are debatable. This is because the people who bear emission reduction costs or benefits are often different from those who pay or benefit from adaptation measures.
It may be mentioned here that environmental activists have been debating the evolving adaptation situation and climate change adaptation finance proposals in different meetings convened in the European Union and elsewhere. Attention has been not only on ODA or official development assistance associated among others by the World Bank but also on other possible measures. These include programmes and proposals involving auctioning of carbon allowances, a global carbon or transportation tax and compensation-based funding. Other proposals have also suggested using market-based mechanisms, rather than ODA, such as the Higher Ground Foundation's vulnerability reduction credit (VRC™) or a programme similar to the Clean Development Mechanism to raise private money for climate change adaptation.
Participants in the Dhaka meeting and also in meetings convened in New York and Geneva have not agreed on all aspects pertaining to adaptive policy financing and its integration with the development aid process. However there is consensus on one important factor. Outcome of such financing is dependent on the political will in that area.
It would be important to refer here to comments made in this regard by scholars Scheraga and Grambsch. They have identified several principles that need to be considered when designing adaptation policy. They include the following factors- (a) the effects of climate change might vary by region; (b) the effects of climate change may vary across demographic groups; (c) the effects of climate change must be considered in the context of multiple stressors and factors, which may be as important to the design of adaptive responses as the sensitivity of the change; and (d) the systemic nature of climate impacts complicates the development of adaptation policy.
Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992 and the formulation of Agenda-21, there has been one equation that has consistently been mostly supported. There is general consensus that adaptive capacity is the ability of a system (human, natural or managed) to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes). It is also recognised as the ability to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with consequences. Economists suggest that enhanced adaptive capacity would reduce vulnerability to climate change and promote sustainable development. Such activities need to include - (a) improving access to resources; (b) reducing poverty; (c) lowering inequities of resources and wealth among groups; (d) improving educational opportunities and sources of information; and (e) improving institutional capacity.
One needs to reflect on interesting local adaptive efforts being undertaken in different parts of the world. This is being done because local government authorities in cities as well in provinces currently realise that they have considerable responsibility in land use planning, public health, and disaster management. In this context, some have begun to take steps to adapt to threats intensified by climate change, such as flooding, bushfires, heat waves, and rising sea levels. This has included- (a) installing protective and/ or resilient technologies and materials in properties that are prone to flooding; (b) planting more heat tolerant tree varieties- in Chicago, USA; (c) creating rainwater storage facilities to deal with more frequent flooding rainfall or ensuring that there is water for irrigation in case of draught; (d) requiring waterfront properties to have higher foundations-Chula Vista, California and (e) surveying local vulnerabilities, raising public awareness, and drafting climate change-specific planning tools like future potential flood maps and raising street levels to prevent flooding (UK, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the USA).
GUJARAT MODEL: A significant step has been undertaken recently to combat air pollution in the western state of Gujarat. It could prove to be a model for the rest of the country. This measure has assumed significance given the fact that air pollution caused by factory emissions contributed to the deaths of at least 1.2 million Indians in 2017. The BBC has reported that the concentration of tiny particulate matter (known as PM2.5) in India is eight times the World Health Organization's standard. Air pollution in India is caused by fumes from cooking on wood or dung indoors in villages, and a combination of traffic exhaust, soot and construction dust and factory emissions in the cities. Now Gujarat has launched the world's first "cap and trading" programme in Surat to curb particulate air pollution. In simple term, the government has set a cap on emissions and will now allow factories to buy and sell permits to stay below the cap. Under this system, industries must hold a permit for each unit of particulate that they emit, and must comply with the prescribed standard of 150 milligrams per cubic meter of particulate matter released in the atmosphere. This trading system gives textile, paper and sugar manufacturing industries an incentive to find ways to reduce emissions through an adaptive mechanism.
An interesting exercise, it will be carefully watched by the rest of South Asia, including Bangladesh.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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