FRIDAY, APRIL 19, 201906:34 PM IST

Climate change: A troubling conundrum

Jun 16, 2014 10:19 AM IST

Election victories everywhere are built on promises of faster economic growth and greater prosperity. But despite the evidence of the massive economic damage from climate change, few politicians here in Asia or elsewhere have successfully run for national office vowing to confront the problem.

This raises a troubling conundrum. Without a political mandate, climate mitigation will continue to lag; and without action, runaway climate change will hurt lives and livelihoods and impede economic growth. Can this deadlock be broken? It can, but only if we build quickly on a few positive signs.

After all, what underlies the climate-growth quandary is not ignorance, but a lack of traction for science in politics and economics. Recent studies by the United Nations and the US government have warned that, if unchecked, the mounting costs of climate-related calamities will endanger the economy. Floods, storms, droughts and heat waves, on the rise in Asia and worldwide in recent decades, can blow economies off course just as financial crises can. The Philippines has been witnessing rising temperatures, much heavier rains and greater damages: President Aquino’s consistent call for a timely global response is clear recognition of the problem.

Yet, local politics everywhere has eschewed measures whose perceived benefits are partly global and only partly local. Binding climate targets that put a value on avoided emissions and oblige all to act—as does the agreement to be tabled in Paris next year—could overcome this roadblock. But international agreements have remained elusive.

So countries can take unilateral action without waiting for multilateral accords, especially when local and global gains overlap—just as many did in the area of trade liberalization. Climate reform could follow a similar track.

In the United States, the Obama administration’s dramatic proposal to slash carbon emissions from power plants to 30 percent below the 2005 level by 2030 presents health gains at home as well as the potential to spur global action. And with Beijing, New Delhi, or Metro Manila suffering unacceptable levels of air pollution, the local value of breathing better coincides with the salutary impact on climate change from cutting back on black carbon emissions. With rising concerns over the typhoon season in Southeast Asia or the Atlantic hurricane season in North America, the payoffs are tangible.

A second issue has been the perception that the benefits to climate mitigation accrue only in the distant future. For example, new evidence that the melting of part of the West Antarctic ice sheet will raise sea levels an extra 1.2 meters (four feet) refers to 2100, a date that few living now expect to see. Yet the link between climate change and the rising incidence of climate-related disasters, even if such a connection cannot be drawn on a single event such as the 2013 Typhoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan) in the Philippines, is already a concern, warranting mitigation now.

With the uptick in climate-related catastrophes from Australia to the United States, perceptions will likely change. A crisis, unfortunate as it is, can sometimes trigger a weighty response. Decades ago, the mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay in Japan and the Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio in the United States sparked environmental movements in these countries.

A third factor has been the misguided belief that environmental care hurts growth. Rather, the gathering evidence on the likely connection between climate change and natural disasters suggests the opposite: it is environmental destruction that threatens growth. Be that as it may, several steps can be taken that are good for economic growth and environmental sustainability, even if special interests might lose out.

Slashing fossil fuel subsidies amounting to over $500 billion a year globally is one example. Investments in renewable energy can also be such a win-win policy. As the cost of renewables declines, for example with fast-track developments in solar energy, their attractiveness compared to polluting fossil fuels can change rapidly. Meanwhile, those at the cutting edge of practices in fossil fuels, such as coal-fired plants capturing and storing carbon, will survive.

The crucial question is whether the emerging climate crisis will trigger national and worldwide environmental movements in time. This will happen if we realize that the risks are both local and global in nature, that they affect the present and future—and that it is climate action, not inaction, that is essential to protecting lives and livelihood and sustaining prosperity.

Vinod Thomas is director general of Independent Evaluation, Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines, and former director general of Independent Evaluation, World Bank, Washington, DC. 

© Asian Development Bank.

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