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A Changing Climate for Development

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  • Developing countries are highly vulnerable to climate change
  • Climate change complicates efforts to reduce poverty and promote prosperity
  • A “climate smart” world is possible if we act now, act together, and act differently
  • An equitable, efficient climate deal that recognizes the needs of developing countries is critical

September 15, 2009—Up on the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya, a Masai tribesman must have nine cattle before he can get married. Sam Stanyaki, a young man from Waso village, has worked hard to acquire these nine animals. But will he be able to marry in February next year with a big celebration, as he plans?

“This year, the rains have come so late that there is no grass left, and we are trucking our cattle out to places where we think the grass is better,” said Stanyaki, “There won’t be enough grass for everyone, and I am afraid that I’ll have to sell some of my cattle at a very low price, or that some will die. If that happens, I don’t know what I will do about my wedding.”

For people like Sam Stanyaki across the developing world, climate change is not an abstract notion, but a very immediate reality. It is about their cattle, their crops, their access to food and fuel, their families’ health and future prospects—and, for many, it is simply a matter of survival.

In fact, climate change is inextricably linked with development and human progress, says the latest of the World Bank’s long-running series, World Development Report (WDR) 2010, which highlights the enormous risks—but also the opportunities—presented by a rapidly warming planet.

“Developing countries, which have historically contributed little to global warming, are now, ironically, faced with 75 to 80 percent of the potential damage from it,” said Justin Lin, World Bank Chief Economist. “They need help to cope with climate change, as they are preoccupied with existing challenges such as reducing poverty and hunger and providing access to energy and water.”

Time for a “climate-smart” world? 

“The latest and best scientific evidence suggests that at global warming of more than 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, more than a billion people could face water scarcity, 15 to 30 percent of species worldwide could be doomed to extinction, and hunger will rise, particularly in tropical countries,” said Rosina Bierbaum, co-director of the report, and Dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan.

As the planet rapidly warms towards this grim scenario—and beyond it, if no action is taken—the poorest countries are already facing the largest damages from extreme weather events, the report notes. Hurricane Ivan, for instance, caused damage equivalent to 200 percent of Grenada’s GDP. Future climate change could include more frequent and intense floods, droughts, and extreme weather events that developing countries are not well equipped to manage even now. While “adapting” or taking steps to build climate resilience is critical, “mitigating” or reducing greenhouse gas emissions is also vital to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.

The good news, according to the report, is that a “climate-smart” world is possible, but only if countries and individuals act now, act together, and act differently than in the past. These messages take on added importance ahead of Copenhagen, where negotiators will meet in December this year to shape an international response to climate change.

Act now, act together, and act differently

The WDR makes a case for urgent action because of increasingly severe warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and evidence of damage already caused, and because mitigation must begin now in order to try to keep temperatures from soaring to as much as 5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.

“What happens in the next ten years will deeply influence the choices available to future generations,” said Marianne Fay, Chief Economist for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, and co-director of the WDR. “We must act now to tackle the climate crisis, with all the ingenuity and collaborative spirit of the human race, because the price of delay or inaction appears very high.”

The report acknowledges that immediate action is neither easy nor cheap, but stresses that it is the best option for two reasons: First, emissions of today trap heat in the atmosphere for decades, and second, costs go up as more and more investments are made in the wrong kinds of infrastructure and energy.

While calling for countries to act together, the report stresses that high-income countries have a historical responsibility to take strong action at home to reduce their heavy carbon footprints and to help developing countries with the funds and the technology needed for low-carbon progress.

“Even today, the poorest billion people on the planet produce only 3 percent of global emissions, while the richest billion of us emit 50 percent,” said Bierbaum. “So the conundrum is how to supply much-needed energy to the poorest countries of the world so that they develop faster, but not along a high-carbon path as was taken by rich countries, which are still emitting at a prodigious rate.”

Globally, 1.6 billion people still lack access to modern energy, without which no country can achieve prosperity. Strong actions by rich countries to free up some “pollution space” in the atmosphere would help rebalance the global emissions picture as low-income countries begin to emit more in the future.

Countries must also act together to adapt to climate change, the report notes, sharing technologies and financing new approaches to increase agricultural productivity, as well as enabling those in need to rely on food imports without fear of soaring prices and trade protectionism.

The world must act differently too, the report argues, by taking concrete steps to fundamentally transform energy systems so that global emissions drop 50 to 80 percent by mid-century; by managing land and water differently in the face of increased demands and new climate patterns; and by implementing policies that take into account new knowledge about climate change rather than plan for yesterday’s climate.

New instruments to manage land and water are not always complicated, and can be implemented even among small, low-income farmers. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, India, a simple scheme, in which farmers monitor their rain and groundwa¬ter and learn new farming and irrigation techniques, has resulted in 1 million farmers voluntarily reducing groundwater consump¬tion to sustainable levels.

The role of knowledge

“We need to do much more to get to a climate-smart world,” said Katherine Sierra, Vice-President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank. “On the energy front, we must tackle difficult issues like technology transfer, investment, and climate finance. But when it comes to adaptation and building climate resilience, the challenge is more complex and the role of knowledge will be key."

The report particularly draws attention to building capacity in developing countries to identify, evaluate, and integrate new technologies; and to the unique role that universities can play.

“Existing universities and research institutes could help foster the incubation of enterprises that promote sustainability,” said Calestous Juma, Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Juma notes that in Africa, for instance, most donor assistance does not harness the world’s existing fund of knowledge for long-term development.

Shifting public opinion

As the world seeks new technologies and new financing, the direction of public opinion and political will becomes critical. Although an increasing number of people know about climate change and believe action is needed, too few make it a priority, and too many fail to act when they have the opportunity. So the greatest challenge lies with changing behaviors and institutions, particularly in rich countries.

“Public policy changes—at the local, regional, national, and global levels—are necessary to make private and civic action easier and more attractive to individual citizens who, as consumers, determine the future of the planet,” said Fay.

One example of policy shifts came last week when the World Bank Group announced that financing of renewable energy and energy efficiency projects and programs in developing countries in fiscal year 2009 rose 24% to over $3.3 billion, a record high. Renewable energy and energy efficiency projects and programs last year made up more than 40% of the $8.2 billion in energy financing, the highest proportion of energy financing ever.

In 2008, the World Bank Group’s Board of Executive Directors approved a Strategic Framework on Development and Climate Change, under which fresh commitments were made to increase investments in new renewable energy and energy efficiency by 30 percent a year between fiscal years 2008-2012.

To join a global discussion on “development in a changing climate,” visit the report’s blog at 

Out of the mouths of children

Child Artwork
Anoushka Bahri, Kenya, age 8

“If nothing is done, we shall lose our beloved planet. It is our collective responsibility to find ‘unselfish’ solutions and fast before it’s too late to reverse the damage caused every day.”
Maria Kassabian, aged 10, Nigeria.

“Many people are taking action to protect our environment. I think that only by working as a team will we succeed in making a difference. Even children can join together to help because we are the next generation and we should treasure our own natural environment.”
Adrian Lau Tsun Yin, aged 8, China

Kassabian and Yin are quoted in the World Development Report, as are other children from around the world who will inherit the planet in the condition that it is left to them.


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