Last summer’s monsoon hit South Asia particularly hard and left nearly 1,400 people dead and displaced millions of others.
In the last sixty years, such weather extremes have become more common in the subcontinent and, without urgent action to limit carbon emissions, their impact on communities will likely get worse.
In addition to these extremes, average weather patterns are also changing with each year turning out to be warmer than the previous year and monsoon rainfall patterns are getting more and more erratic.
Eight hundred million South Asians to be exact – or half the region’s population—are at risk to see their standards of living and incomes decline as rising temperatures and more erratic rainfalls will cut down crop yields, make water more scare, and push more people away from their homes to seek safer places.
This worst-case scenario and relevant adaptation strategies underpin the upcoming report South Asia’s Hotspots, whose main findings were presented yesterday at a panel on building climate change resilience in South Asia at the World Bank Spring Meetings.
Its main author, World Bank Lead Economist Muthukumara Mani detailed how specific geographic areas across South Asia or “hotspots” which –until now—were relatively immune to climate change threats could be badly affected by 2050.
Most hotspots, Mani remarked, are located inland, already poor, have fewer roads and are isolated from main economic centers. And with many residents subsisting on farming, higher incidences of droughts or floods combined with extreme heat could further drive down their fragile wellbeing and force more people into poverty.
And while other manifestations of climate change such as sea level rise or natural disasters and their impact on economies have been well documented, less is known of the long-term effects of higher temperatures and unpredictable rainfalls on local communities.
It’s urgent to develop this understanding as most countries in South Asia have already passed their optimal temperature tipping points, beyond which standards of living and consumption are only expected to drop irreversibly.
To build resilience, the report recommends that South Asian countries better prioritize their financial resources where they’re most needed and target the most vulnerable individuals and families.
Mani noted that diversifying jobs beyond agriculture, investing in education and skills, and improving access to electricity can ease the expected decline in living standards caused by long-term climate impacts. Such actions, he argued, must be tailored to address the specific climate impacts and local conditions found in South Asia’s hotspots.
In the end, the cost of inaction—that is, if carbon emissions continue unabated—could be huge as countries with severe hotspots, Mani concluded, would see income in these areas drop by 14.4 percent in Bangladesh, 9.8 percent in India, and 10 percent in Sri Lanka by 2050.
Following the presentation, government, civil society, and academia elaborated on concrete climate actions and adaptation strategies to build a more resilient South Asia.
The panel included Ms. Mahmuda Begum, additional Secretary in World Bank Wing at Economic Relations Division at the Bangladesh’s Ministry of Finance, Ms. Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) and CEO of Mountain and Glacier Organization (MGPO) in Pakistan, Mr. Anand Patwardhan, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, USA, and Ms. Jaime Madrigano associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, USA. Ms. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region, World Bank Group moderated the discussion.
Noting that Pakistan’s soaring population coupled with shrinking arable lands present a challenge to the country’s environment sustainability and food security, Aisha Khan emphasized that building climate resilience should go hand in hand with better –that is, more open and inclusive—governance. Involving civil society, including women-run organizations, will bring greater accountability to climate change policies that will later impact the entire population. And that sense of co-ownership and shared responsibility, Khan added, is critical to civil society.
Such collaborations are key to building strategic climate resilience and, to be successful in the long term, should extend to partnership between countries. Water presents such an opportunity. “We in South Asia are the third pole…with the densest glaciers outside polar regions in the world,” she said. “Water being a common problem for all of us, we need to do more work together.”
When it was his turn to speak, Anand Patwardhan noted that the conversation about climate resilience would have to go beyond risks and be reframed around opportunities to further advance the development agenda. In India, large national programs such as Smart Cities or Swachh Bharat projects are two examples of how climate action can help achieve greater development outcomes. In South Asia, Patwardhan later remarked, a lot of infrastructure still needs to be put into place. There lies an opportunity to invest in natural infrastructure [that benefits both the economy and the environment] and ecosystem adaptation to advance resilience across the region.
A Healthy Environment is Now a Universal Human Right: But What Does the Recognition Mean?
On July 28, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution that “recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right” and emphasizes its connection with “other rights and existing international law”. The resolution also calls upon “states, international organizations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders” to “scale up efforts” to pursue this new human right.
The resolution is based on a similar text adopted in October of last year by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a group of 47 UN member states, which equally called upon states, international organizations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. The recent UNGA resolution has been praised as a “landslide vote”, as “historic”, and as a “victory for the environment”. Yet, UNGA resolutions, even though they become part and parcel of international law, are not legally binding for any member states – a typical UN paradox.
Humanity faces a “wicked” crisis
UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the UNGA decision as a milestone in the “collective fight” against what he called “the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution”. However, while this statement was well-intentioned, it may not entirely reflect the true nature and extent of the “wicked” crisis humanity finds itself in just two decades into the 21st century.
Firstly, even the term “quintuple crisis” would not do justice to the perfect storm of planetary disturbances and destruction that 200 years of intense extractive capitalism and 50 years of largely unregulated economic globalization have brought to Earth and mankind. In addition to the three crises mentioned by Guterres, the oceans, freshwater resources, soils, and land cover are all under attack, and pandemics, food, and energy crises are on the rise.
Secondly, if there really was a “collective fight” against this perfect storm, we would notice it and, among other things, see a tangible decline in annual carbon emissions, biodiversity loss rates, or amounts of plastic found in the oceans. But rather, we are yet to see measurable improvement in any of the many alarming trends and trajectories of global environmental pollution and destruction – because most nations still do not fight against these trends. They do too little too late, or nothing at all, or prefer lip service and downright disinformation over real action.
The elevation of environmental health and sustainability to the international legal status of a “universal human right” by many of Earth’s worst polluters also raises the question of how well human rights are actually being respected, observed, and implemented these days and what is being done to sanction trespassers. The UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to World War II and the Holocaust in 1948. The entire set of UN human rights has never been legally binding and so depended on national governments and courts at various levels to litigate and sanction human rights violations.
The exercise of universal rights is in crisis, too
In recent decades, the list of human rights has been expanded, now including the rights of children, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities among others. In 2010, access to clean water also became a universal human right. But does the codification of these “rights” by the UN actually guarantee real and measurable freedoms, dignity, and safety for all? Unfortunately not, as the list of obvious violations of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Rights by countries that have signed and ratified these treaties is shockingly long.
Too often, individuals are detained and prosecuted for exercising free speech, free expression, or even academic freedom. Recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights formally stated that China’s treatment of the Uighur minority may constitute a “crime against humanity”. Similar statements were made after the recent coup in Myanmar. And Russia’s brutal illegal war against Ukraine is in gross violation of a whole set of human rights. Sadly, all too often despots and perpetrators are getting away with their violations and crimes despite international human rights law and its institutions.
So, does the mere existence of a new universal human right on environmental health and sustainability mean that all countries that voted for it in the UN, actually respect, ensure, and defend it? Likely, no. In a way, this latest resolution of the UNGA might rather be more cause for concern than relief. Too often in recent years and decades has the UN system been misused by its own members as a talk shop deluxe, a place of hollow announcements and declarations – usually after lengthy and tough negotiations – with little action or measurable progress on the promises made. For example, seven years after the adoption of the much-revered Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and the 2022 UN conference for the protection of the oceans ended without a decision. Governments and corporations spend huge amounts of money for PR campaigns and lobbying – only to cover up their inaction.
Global crises need a new type of action
The science is clear that the world is fast running out of time to act on climate change. There is literally no time left for more of the same endless conference cycles, hollow statements, and watered-down compromise declarations, and symbolic “rights” that are not enforced with hard sanctions. This is the time for civil society to stand up where governments fail to act responsibly, and businesses keep profiting from extraction and pollution. We need a worldwide movement, a global alliance of “citizens of Earth” leading to a new social contract on planetary boundaries, limits to growth, and respect for nature and other species, to transform the age of extraction into a new age of renewable, sustainable stewardship. It is unclear whether the UN is still an effective venue for the much necessary action in the face of environmental crises since, despite the move to engage nine “Major Groups” in processes related to sustainable development, it remains a closed club of nation-state governments, a majority of whom are not elected by their people. Rather, in the age of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, or #FreePalestine, global social movements show that real change is possible.
The Ravages Of Earth: Natural And Man-Made
Italy has suffered a terrible drought, and its longest river, the Po, ran dry. It is about 400 miles in length and flows east from the Cottian Alps. Not in anyone’s living memory has it been that parched in the region.
It never rains but it pours they say, and it describes Italy’s weather perfectly for when the drought finally broke, the storms were so fierce as to result in massive flooding.
Several thousand miles east, past Greece, past Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan lies Pakistan, a nation of over 200 million, which is now also devastated by heavy rain and floods. President Biden has called for a $2.9 billion international aid package for a country a third under water to revive itself; also for people, who lost everything when their homes and crops were washed away, to be restored to some kind of normalcy.
As often happens with flooding, water-borne diseases follow and in Pakistan they include malaria that is deadly for young children.
The ravages of the planet do not end there for in the Antarctic, a large chunk of what is sometimes referred to as the doomsday glacier, has sheared off and fallen into the sea. One can guess the name implies a catastrophe, that is if all of it melted, it would raise sea levels enough to cause chaos on earth.
Then there are man-made ravages and foremost among them is war. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made another fiery speech. Recorded earlier in Ukraine, it was replayed at the UN where the new session is underway. He claims victories and seizure of some 5000 square miles of territory. Despite his tendency to exaggerate, it is clear Russia has suffered a setback. Putin has ordered a mobilization — the first since the Second World War — and has called up reserves and army retirees. He says he needs more troops to man the now 600 mile front line. So far he has avoided inexperienced general conscripts who are known to suffer higher casualties.
It’s pointless to go back in detail to the early days of an independent Ukraine, of the coup organized by the U.S. against an elected president, of the famous “F— the EU” remark by Victoria Nuland, who was running the show and could not obtain EU support, and of the off-again-on-again civil war that ensued and continues. But the result has been tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, thousands dead and no peace in sight.
What Zelenskyy has been crowing about seems pretty small potatoes in comparison. And how Biden can talk about freedom for Ukraine is the sort of hypocrisy only politicians can muster. Remember Boris Johnson, the British PM, flying to Ukraine to meet Zelenskyy and express the UK’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Boris was in trouble back home and looking for favorable headlines. The ploy didn’t work. He is now out.
In a couple of months, the US will be having a midterm election. It is not unusual for the opposition to do well in such an election, but given the razor thin majority a couple of seats lost by the Democrats could flip the senate. That would place Biden’s aid package for Ukraine in jeopardy for the armaments have to be contracted, built and shipped.
Mr. Zelenskyy appears to be a high-wire act without a safety net. And most unfortunately, our climate ravaged earth is not equipped with one.
Forests for Climate: Scaling up Forest Conservation to Reach Net Zero
The role of forests in the global carbon cycle is fundamental. Unless tropical deforestation is halted, there can be no solution to the climate crisis.
While deforestation is responsible for nearly 15% of global CO₂ emissions, conserving existing forests offers as much as nine times more low-cost carbon abatement as planting new trees. If we do not halt deforestation by 2030 at the latest, it will not be possible to limit global warming to a 1.5°C pathway. In a new report, Forests for Climate: Scaling up Forest Conservation to Reach Net Zero, published today by the World Economic Forum, the case is made for private-sector investment in entire landscape approaches to protect forests.
“There is no tackling climate change without forests. Deforestation alone is responsible for nearly 15% of global CO₂ emissions. Conversely, nature-based solutions can provide one-third of the mitigation needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” says Nicole Schwab, Co-Director, Nature-based Solutions, World Economic Forum.
Reversing global deforestation is a complex challenge – but at its heart lie four simple conditions: scale, funding, integrity and inclusion. The report analyses an approach known as “jurisdictional REDD+” that channels results-based payments to forest governments and communities that avoid deforestation across entire landscapes. This approach builds on an existing UN initiative (“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation” or “REDD”) but scales it up from a project basis to programmes at national or sub-national scales.
Inclusion is a critical part of this new approach. For example, almost half of the intact forests in the Amazon are in Indigenous territories – and deforestation rates in these areas are three-to-four times lower than in equivalent lands not held by Indigenous people. The inclusion of both local communities and state governments or jurisdictions enhances the integrity of the programmes and helps avoid some of the risks associated with earlier attempts to reverse deforestation.
While “jurisdictional REDD+” addresses issues of scale, integrity and inclusion, the vital missing piece is funding. Current investments in nature-based solutions amount to $133 billion per year, of which the private sector contributes just $18 billion, according to estimates published in 2021 by the UN Environment Programme. Nature-based solutions, which include forest conservation and restoration, can deliver one-third of the mitigation needed to keep the planet on a 1.5°C trajectory, but funding for these solutions needs to triple to $400 billion by 2030.
The private sector has a key role to play in preserving the world’s forests while ridding their own supply chains of deforestation. Companies can access “jurisdictional REDD+” programmes through voluntary carbon market initiatives such as the LEAF Coalition that uses the rigorous new “ART TREES” standard for monitoring, reporting and verification. In 2021, the LEAF Coalition mobilized $1 billion in financing, kicking off the largest-ever public-private effort to protect tropical forests in countries such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Nepal and Viet Nam. To maintain the integrity of its carbon credits, the LEAF Coalition requires participating companies to use purchased credits in addition to, and not as a substitute for, deep cuts in their own emissions and those of their suppliers.
“The urgent priority is protecting tropical forests, even above planting new trees (which is also important), because the world loses tropical forests at the rate of 10 million hectares per year – equivalent to about one Central Park every 15 minutes. We need billions of dollars of investment in climate finance to protect the world’s forests. We are working on initiatives like the LEAF Coalition and Green Gigaton Challenge as we believe jurisdictional-scale action is the way to do this,” says Eron Bloomgarden, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Emergent, a non-profit intermediary acting between tropical forest countries and the private sector.
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