United Nations-sponsored talks on climate change, set for Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, are crucial for the survival of millions of people in Asia. Countries that are part of the 21st Conference of Parties – COP21 as the talks are known – are expected to come up with a legally binding climate agreement that is expected to help countries adapt to climate impacts and at the same time, curb global warming through carbon emission mitigation.
The COP21 talks are forecast to be the most promising in the 21 frustrating years that such talks have been taking place. However, even though unprecedented cooperation has been the hallmark of preparatory talks, they are unlikely to result in an agreement to hold global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade over the pre-industrial average, the minimum warming that climate scientists believe is necessary to keep danger at bay. And particularly the projected agreement will not be enough for a safety margin in the low-lying areas of Asia.
Two Most Vulnerable
Of the many countries in Asia facing climate change impact, the Philippines and Bangladesh are two of the most vulnerable. The Philippines’ geography puts it squarely in line of the so-called Pacific typhoon belt, experiencing an average of 19 tropical cyclones or storms which enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility in a typical year, six to nine of which usually make landfall. It is the most-exposed large country in the world to tropical cyclones. Its poverty, government inaction and lack of capacity to adapt to climate change make it even more vulnerable.
More ominously, warmer sea waters have produced stronger typhoons in recent years. In fact, the government, through the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has found it necessary to create new categories for stronger typhoons. Previously the strongest were categorized into “signal no. 4” with wind velocity 171 to 220 kph within 12 hours. However, Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, in November of 2013 was the strongest to make landfall in recent history at 313 kph, killing more than 6,000 people.
More than a year after Haiyan, PAGASA created “signal no. 5” for typhoons with wind velocity of 220 kph or more within 12 hours. This new category is supposed to help more Filipinos understand typhoon strength and lead to better preparation, something lacking Haiyan and one of the reasons why the death toll was too high.
Bangladesh is also often considered a poster child for the impact of climate change. A combination of its flat deltaic topography with low elevation, heavy dependence on agriculture, high population density and incidence of poverty make it equally vulnerable to climate change.
In addition to inundating homes and lands of millions of people living in Bangladesh’s low lying areas, projected sea levels due to global warming are almost certain to destroy Bangladesh’s UNESCO heritage site, the world’s largest tropical mangrove forest the Sundarbans, which support the livelihoods of people from many neighboring districts. It is also the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger.
With climate change-induced increasing frequency of floods, droughts and salinity ingress, the country’s agro based economy is being hit hard. Farmers whose produce is dependent on predictable patterns of wind and monsoon are incurring heavy losses due to the changing weather patterns. Around 1,000 km. of cultivated land and sea product culturing area will likely turn into salt marsh.
While Bangladesh has been a hotbed of cyclonic events, two major cyclones, Sidr killed 10,000 people in 2007 and Aila killed more than 350 in 2009, taking place within a very short period and wreaking unprecedented havoc. More frequent and devastating cyclones, storm surges and river bank erosion are not only causing widespread damage to people’s lives, properties and livelihood, but also leading to displacement and creating climate refugees.
Finance, adaptation, loss and damage needed
For countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh, policies such as finance for adaptation and loss and damage need to be a major part of the COP21 climate agreement. However, these issues remain problematical as developed countries try to take as little responsibility as possible in the agreement.
Finance for adaptation is important to help developing countries adapt to climate change. Bangladesh for instance has established a strong national strategic framework for tackling climate change and set up the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund using US$100 million of its own funds. While Bangladesh currently funds 80 percent of its adaptation programs domestically, internal funding of this resource-constrained nation is highly inadequate in the context of exacerbating impacts of climate change, so access to international climate finance is crucial.
The Philippines has a similar mechanism, its own national adaptation fund amounting to approximately US$23 million, a disheartening and minuscule fraction of what will be needed. According to the World Research Institute, the Philippines and other developing countries must spend $28 billion per year by 2030 to adapt to climate change. In this context the issue of easing the barriers to accessibility of international sources of climate finance for developing nations needs to be addressed at the Paris negotiations.
Loss and damage, on the other hand, pertain to compensation from the major producers of greenhouse gases such as China, the European Union and the United States to developing countries for climate change impact they can no longer adapt to. This also pertains to permanent loss and damage incurred from climate change impacts.
Talks on loss and damage have been stunted in climate negotiations as rich nations veer away from any liability that compensation would entail. However, loss and damage is a crucial policy issue that developing countries continue to fight for in the negotiations. Developing countries want rich countries to take full responsibility for their historical emissions which caused the climate change we know today. The G77 group of developing nations and China have already made strong statements that not having loss and damage in the agreement is equivalent to climate denial.
Climate compensation from loss and damage and finance for adaptation are taken as two different forms of finance for developing countries. These are also two policy issues rich countries have been avoiding.
COP21 crucial for Asia
Many countries in Asia will be looking forward to a strong climate agreement that incorporates provisions for loss and damage and adaptation financing for the vulnerable nations. While Paris will not be panacea, it is a crucial checkpoint on the path to a sustainable future for humanity. Veering off guard here by failing to make a binding treaty can make all future efforts too little and too late. The world cannot afford to fail in Paris. A failure of a strong agreement in Paris is a failure for millions of people already fighting for their lives.
Renee Juliene Karunungan is communications director and climate justice campaigner from the Philippines, and Sohara Mehroze Shachi is a development professional from Bangladesh working on climate change, environment and disaster management issues