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FEATURE: The tipping point

Through my work for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) , I have come to the view that we have now reached a tipping point. Copenhagen may not have had the groundbreaking outcome we all hoped for, but many southern heads of state who attended returned to their countries determined to tackle climate change.

There is a growing awareness that this is a big challenge that has to be confronted head-on, and implemented in national policy. What I’m finding is that there’s also a growing demand for capacity building. Examples such as Bangladesh show that capacity building programmes can be led successfully from within developing countries in partnership with rich countries. If we fail to work together, we risk missing out on the opportunities provided by a low-carbon transition.

When discussing the future impacts of climate change in developing countries, the first thing that government and policy-makers say to me is: ‘We’re convinced. But now what do we do?’ At the moment, we really don’t have all the answers for them – except to say that they should build up their national capabilities to be able to answer the questions at the national level.

Some countries are doing it faster than others, but they all need to learn from each other. Globally, one of the greatest challenges we face is that we do not have good structures in place for cooperation among developing countries, particularly across the three continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

I think a genuine learning exercise between north and south, and among southern countries, with policy-makers from developing countries leading the way, would be a very good progression. It should also be achievable within the next five years.

CDKN’s focus on this type of capacity building is crucial. I would advise choosing a variety of countries that are already ahead in these areas, some vulnerable, some fast developing, but all dealing with a combination of climate impacts and low carbon development, and help them achieve their targets. Others can then adapt and follow these examples in their own countries.

With the support of IIED, this year I am helping to set up a new centre in my home country of Bangladesh, primarily to train people from developing countries in climate compatible development. The reason for locating it in Bangladesh is that that the country is genuinely progressive in this field.

Bangladesh is heading towards becoming a middle income country with a reduction in its population growth rate to less than 2% a year. Agricultural production has more than kept pace with population growth; economic development and growth rates are about 5% at the moment and growing. However climate change threatens this trajectory quite significantly. It has become the iconic climate vulnerable country with flooding, cyclones and droughts affecting agriculture and livelihoods.

But the country’s capacity to deal with such events has shown a marked improvement. In 1991 the country experienced a cyclone that killed over 100,000. In 2006 there was another of a similar magnitude but the death toll was down to fewer than 3000. More than 2 million people successfully moved to shelters along the coast, constructed in a massive building programme. There was also heavy investment in early warning systems, both at the technical level of getting information from satellites and at a local level, where warnings were disseminated through Red Crescent Volunteers, and where NGOs had worked to educate children about the dangers. This scheme did not reduce the impact of the cyclone on the economy, but it did save lives.

Capacity building continues. The Bangladesh climate change strategy and action plan was prepared about a year and a half ago by the previous Government, and by Bangladeshi national research experts with consultation from civil society. The finance minister at the time was so taken with the plan that he allocated $50 million of the national budget to implement it. After the change of government, the new finance minister added another $50 million to the climate change resilience fund so that Bangladesh has now put $100 million of its own money into implementing the strategy, while at the same time inviting international donors to provide assistance. To date the UK, Denmark and Japan have raised a further $100 million. Bangladesh represents a good example of a country acting proactively, with donors and supporters also being working together to help the country.

When it comes to climate compatible development , we’ve lost a lot of time, which will be very difficult to get back. On the other hand, if we can make the required major mental shift in thinking about a global transition to a low-carbon pathway, then we can move very, very fast.

Fossil fuels will become old-fashioned, like the sail boats of previous centuries. We will move into an unknown realm and new era of technology. But we really haven’t made an investment in this new world yet.

I do not think that rich countries enjoy a monopoly or advantage in this sphere. Developing countries can leap-frog and become the innovators of the future. It’s impossible for rich countries to think they can pull up the ladder and survive on their own.

I had great hopes of Copenhagen making a big breakthrough. I don’t think we’ll have a chance like that again in Cancun or in South Africa. These decisive moments don’t happen every year; they happen every half a decade or so. So the next five to seven years will give us another occasion to heighten awareness and achieve the kinds of transformational decisions at the global level which can be implemented at a national level. Some countries are implementing them already, and we are tipping over into a new era of low-carbon, climate resilient growth.

Opinions expressed in ‘CDKN voices’ are the author’s own and are not necessarily the view of the CDKN or its member organisations.

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