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OPINION: Challenges from the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit


The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) is in its thirteenth year, and every year the number of participants and the prestige of the speakers increases.  It is a unique occasion, outside the UN system, where Presidents and Prime Ministers from North and South share a stage and highlight problems and achievements.

As is to be expected, those world leaders who accept the invitation from the DSDS to participate are those who are already showing leadership on these issues. The result is that most of the speeches are focusing on what initiatives are being taken, leaving the impression that things are in order.

There are some welcome challenging voices, mainly from civil society. For example, Jonathan Porritt Director of Forum for the Future, provocatively stated that ‘governments around the world are dramatically failing us’.

The reality is somewhere in between. While certainly the level of effort and action is nowhere near what we need, the majority of Governments in Asia, and elsewhere, are developing and implementing low emissions development strategies.

Many are partnering with CDKN on this endeavour, and we’ve featured some in our latest newsletter, specially produced for the DSDS. Central America is transitioning to a more sustainable energy pathway; iconic Southeast Asian cities are attracting ‘green’ tourism, and new local jobs; and India is building low-carbon homes for its most vulnerable citizens.

I spoke at the plenary session on 1st Feb and put forward six challenges which  define the climate debate today.  In the 1990s, the debate focused on cutting emissions, the last decade has been about how to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This decade is more complicated. It is littered with new buzzwords such as ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘cross-sectoral approaches’.

These are six challenges that add to the confusion and complexity but which must be at the heart of how we  bring about climate compatible development:

1)      The CO2 challenge is real, and needs to be tackled now. The current trajectory and projections from both developed and developing countries cannot become the reality. India and many others have put in place national targets. While this is welcome leadership, it falls short of the challenge. A higher global carbon price is required, with ambitious national and sectoral carbon budgets imposed by Governments.

2)      The physical impacts of climate change in various sectors are under researched and not fully understood or integrated with national climate change policies and action plans. In Pakistan the 2010 and 2011 floods killed thousands of people, and affected millions. The vulnerability of our citizens needs to be our biggest concern.

3)      The physical impacts translate into economic costs. The impact on regional and national trade is not fully understood, nor are the linkages with commodity prices and price hikes. Most studies look at economic costs in the context of extreme events. Since economic costing is done mostly by multilateral lending institutions after disasters, it focuses on the cost of damage to infrastructure but not the cost to lives and livelihoods of the poor and marginalised. Shrinking livelihoods of the poor because of droughts, floods and failed crops result in outward migration and unplanned urbanisation. Policy makers are grappling with how to secure assessments of all types of economic costs so their countries can be ready to access international climate finance.

4)      Our proposed timelines for action – even the limited action we have committed to – do not match the timelines of when we have to make emission cuts. Each successive assessment has highlighted that the adverse impacts of climate change are hitting people and societies at a faster pace than originally anticipated. Therefore, the key battle is to draw timelines for action that are ambitious: delivering deep cuts in emissions over a shorter period of time in both developed and developing economies.

5)      Emerging economies such as India and China have to share the burden of emission cuts. However, they also have to keep growing their economy to lift the significant proportion of their population who are still living in poverty.  Policies and practice will need to balance both objectives.

6)      While most of us see the long term crisis of climate change on the horizon, the reality is that people and institutions have immediate and short term interests and imperatives. These are often overwhelming and long terms interests are compromised and ignored. Hence the need for consensus building and crafting a shared vision for immediate actions.

Each challenge is huge. Taken together (and there are certainly more) they look insurmountable.  Laying these issues on the table, which the DSDS allows us to do, is the first step. However, it is easy to define the problems, it is a lot harder to propose the solutions.  Some of the experiences and best practices put forward by policy-makers and experts at the Summit will hopefully serve as models for others to learn from.

Ali T. Sheikh is the CDKN Asia Director. CDKN supported the 13th DSDS, 31 Jan – 2 Feb 2013, as a thematic track partner.

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