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Comment: UN needs to work out a Plan B for climate change

Should Ban Ki Moon’s high-level political forum on sustainable development tackle rising emissions as a priority?

The aim of the high-level panel is to provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations for sustainable development (Pic: UN)

By Joy Hyvarinen

The new UN high-level political forum on sustainable development (HLPF) has big tasks in front of it.  A “Plan B” for climate change should be one of them.

The forum, set up in follow-up of the Rio+20 Conference, will meet for the first time in September.

It is meant to provide the world with political leadership on sustainable development, follow up and review progress on past international commitments and ensure “appropriate consideration of new and emerging sustainable development challenges”.

Every four years the forum will convene at the level of heads of state and government in connection with the UN General Assembly, an important opportunity for international agenda-setting and political leadership.

The forum will convene annually under the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), including a meeting of ministers.

The Forum is meant to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which was established in follow up of the original 1992 Rio Conference.

Mega-scale threat

Climate change is a sustainable development challenge on an unprecedented scale.

It is impacting the essential building blocks of development, such as health, food security, water and ecosystems, threatening human security.

For example, according to the World Health Organization many of the major killers such as diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue are highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen.

The World Food Programme (WFP) highlights that because of climate change millions more people will be at risk of hunger and undernutrition, most of them in the world’s poorest countries where hunger, undernutrition and food insecurity are already widespread.

The World Bank says that the effects felt through water will be some of the most hard-hitting consequences of climate change on the world’s poorest citizens.

Climate change is not a new sustainable development challenge, but it is a critical one on an enormous, growing scale.

Its implications, in particular for poor and vulnerable countries and communities, should be considered an “emerging sustainable development challenge” with a prominent place on the new UN forum’s agenda.

The limited prospects for progress in the negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) make this urgent.

Escalating risks

A recent report from the International Energy Agency confirms that the world is not on course towards the goal to limit the average global temperature increase to 2C.

Based on the current state-of-play an increase between 3.6 C and 5.3C is more likely.

The consequences of a temperature increase in this range would be extremely far-reaching, in particular in vulnerable countries and regions. In a recent op-ed commenting on the possibility of a future 4 ˚C increase World Bank President Jim Yong Kim called it “a future of enormous suffering”.

A report commissioned by the World Bank indicates that a 4C world would be a world of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought and major floods in many regions.

Sea level rise would be likely to be between 0.5 – 1 metres by the end of the century, with continuing increases for centuries after that.

The scale of impacts on vulnerable countries and communities raises unprecedented legal issues. Even if efforts to support adaptation are increased there is likely to be extensive unavoidable loss and damage in vulnerable countries. How can this be made good?

The UNFCCC negotiations on a new climate agreement, meant to come into effect in 2020, and on action to reduce emissions pre-2020 seem set on course for too little, too late.

Prospects for the fast and deep emission cuts that the world needs – with developed countries taking the lead, as they have committed to do – and for ramping up adaptation support are not good.

The UNFCCC negotiations are considering issues related to loss and damage.

It may turn out to be possible to establish an institutional mechanism or arrangement of some type for loss and damage, as proposed by developing countries, but the prospects for a response commensurate with the scale of loss and damage seem remote.

Climate change is altering the world in way that raises fundamental questions about global justice.

Those who have contributed the least to climate change and who are already facing the greatest obstacles to achieving sustainable development will suffer the worst consequences.

This should be a top priority on international decision makers’ agendas.

Plan B

With little likelihood of enough action through the UNFCCC negotiations it is time to ensure that Plan B is in place.

Climate change-related threats to sustainable development and human security are likely to continue increasing rapidly. The world needs a second line of defence against climate change.

This is an issue that should be firmly on the new UN forum’s agenda from the start. With the lack of progress in the UNFCCC a much larger burden of combating climate change has moved to the development frontline.

The high-level political forum needs to consider what expected climate change impacts mean for sustainable development and what action is needed.

At the first inaugural one day meeting of the forum in September heads of state and government should signal climate change as one of their top priorities.

Joy Hyvarinen is Executive Director of the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD)

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