COLOMBO – When a globally-recognised scientist from Sri Lanka addressed a major United Nations (UN) session on climate change last week, the hall was filled to capacity. Not only that; the high level country delegates listened to the presentations and the ensuing discussions were lively!
Climate change and global warming are becoming critically important to the world.
|File photo : A flooded street owing to heavy rains
Normally when a leader of a country addresses the UN General Assembly, mostly delegates from that country are in the hall. Others are not interested. But this issue generated tremendous interest.
“The 3-hour session on climate and development drew a packed house.” noted Mohan Munasinghe, nobel co-laureate and an acknowledged world expert on sustainable development and climate change. Two other top experts-Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), and Martin Koh, Executive Director of the South Centre, also addressed the same meeting.
The meeting is a preparatory one ahead of the 2012 Earth Summit in Brazil, also called Rio+20. Two days later, Prof. Munasinghe briefed senior managers (Vice Presidents, etc) of the World Bank at its headquarters in Washington on the same issues.
Prof Munasinghe, who is advising many governments on sustainable development, spoke on the need for an integrated approach to address both climate change and sustainable development, based on his world-recognised Sustainomics methodology that he first unveiled at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
“You can’t isolate climate change from sustainable development, as they interact with one another,” he said explaining the points he made at both meetings.
Closer home; when asked about the erratic behaviour of the weather in the past few weeks where a cold wave and floods swept Sri Lanka, Prof. Munasinghe told the Business Times in a telephone interview that he believed this was because the El Nino (a regional phenomenon which heats up parts of the Pacific region, affects South America and rest of world) – and La Nina – which also starts in the Pacific and sets off a cold spell – happened one after the other. More than 40 people died and over a million others were affected. Thousands of acres of paddy and other crop were destroyed by the floods resulting in a shortfall in the rice harvest while vegetable prices are seen rising due to the shortage.
He said 2010 was the hottest year on record in the world. “We have had extreme hot and extreme cold weather (in recent weeks). El Nino brought in warm moist air into the Indian Ocean, and the cooler La Nina which followed, condensed the moisture and caused heavy rains in the region,” explained the Sri Lankan scientist who has just returned from one of his extensive overseas visits on work connected with global warming and climate change.
Asked whether climate change scientists have predicted such sudden changes in weather patterns, Prof. Munasinghe pointed to the IPCC’s Fifth assessment report which is being prepared for release around 2012-13.
IPCC reports are released once in 5-6 years and the last one was in 2008. Having contributed in a major way to IPCC work for the past 20 years, he cautioned that climate change is still a relatively new phenomenon and scientists are conservative in making predictions. “What the previous four reports have done is to show that the climate was going from bad to worse,” he added.
In the Sri Lankan case, Prof. Munasinghe strongly believes that the country’s main priority is to reduce the vulnerability of the poor to climate change impacts. “Our carbon emissions are low. While we may need to reduce it in the future – that’s not the main issue. Our main problem is reducing vulnerability as it affects the poor most. It is very unfair, because it is the CO2 emissions of the rich countries which have caused the problem”.
He said the main areas of concern in Sri Lanka are; 1) vulnerability to droughts and high temperatures in the dry zone, and the impact on agriculture and rice where up to 20% drop in yields could happen by 2050, 2) floods and earthslips in the wet zone due to excessive rain, 3) sea level rise and storms that would affect fisheries and coastal dwellers, and 4) worsening of water-borne and mosquito-borne diseases which are already prevalent in the country due to unsustainable development. “We need to climate–proof Sri Lanka by making our development path more sustainable,” he said coining a new word that would soon be international jargon.
Prof. Munasinghe work is increasingly recognised overseas as the world faces multiple crises involving energy, food and water, amidst rising demand from fast-growing economies like India and China. He is doing a lot of work briefing world leaders on sustainable development and the green economy concept, most recently in countries like Brazil, China and Turkey where there is greater political will than in western countries (to change the way business and development is done).
Last month in China, he addressed three separate high level meetings covering government officials, civil society and business where each sector is concerned about the environment and wants to change the way things are done. The first was a green conference for government officials followed by a business conference that (apart from the Chinese) also drew big multinationals like General Electric and Siemens, and then a civil society discourse on climate change organised by the Chinese Academy of Sciences for world experts.
On the world stage where his views are now being taken more seriously than some years back, Prof. Munasinghe believes there are multiple crises and in this context refers to the three bubbles – financial, social (where a number of the poor are increasing and unemployment is rising), and the environment (including climate change).
The West will take several more years to recover from their financial meltdown, while on the other hand, emerging economies are moving ahead swiftly.
He says unsustainable economic practices can worsen poverty while growth without equity makes only a few rich. Economic activities which disregard sustainability principles can also ruin the environment. “We have to look at a wider, integrated approach that addresses all issues together,” he said suggesting that one way is to ‘bend the curve of development in developing countries’ and reduce consumption by the rich.
Prof. Munasinghe believes that piece-meal decision-making often worsen problems. As one example, the climate expert spoke of how some years back the US pushed for corn-produced fuels. He added however that the US ‘experiment’ turned into a disaster in 2008 because a drought led to a worldwide shortage in grains which was further aggravated by the diversion of US corn for bio-fuel production. “The US programme didn’t solve the fuel crisis at the time, but simply aggravated the food crisis.” By contrast, Brazil began producing ethanol from sugar in the 1980s, without side effects. “I helped the Brazil process while working at the World Bank, which reduced their oil imports significantly” he said.
He points out to four fundamental drivers that underlie all earth’s main problems. To save the planet, there is a need to focus on; 1) Consumption – what people buy and use; 2) Production and how this happens (the technology used); 3) Governance – are we efficient?; and 4) Population – how numerous we are.
“If we can focus on these issues we can solve all our problems together – that’s what I told the meetings (in the US),” he said.
Prof. Munasinghe put forward a solution based on sustainable consumption and production. For example 85% of all consumption in world is done by the highest 20 percentile (1/5th) of the income earners (rich). Thus 1.4 billion people are consuming 85% of the world output.
“If they can be more sustainable in consumption, it can reduce the environmental burden by tremendous amount,” he said urging the world to develop what he calls ‘Millennium Consumption Goals (MCG) for the rich’. “We now have Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for the poor. We should extend that to the rich and make sure they consume more sustainably.”
Prof. Munasinghe is working with many multinationals on sustainable development issues, and companies like TESCO and Unilever are actively trying to reduce carbon emissions and energy and water use, with ambitious goals ahead.
On the governance side, he says the lack of political will is an issue and believes business and civil society cannot wait for the state to act. Instead these groups should reach out to non state actors to effect change and bring about a low carbon and low energy environment, he says.
On population, the professor believes the number of people on the planet could stabilise around 9 billion by 2050, from the current 7 billion – to ensure everyone has (an equal share) of the earth’s resources. “To do this we need to educate women and empower them.”
On rising temperatures, he says anything more than 2 degrees C which is the current temperature would be very dangerous to the environment. “At the current, galloping rate of development we could reach 3-4 degrees C. Something (desperately) must be done to curtail temperature rise.”
He says people must take principled and ethical positions. Children must be taught in schools that consumption and production must become more sustainable and based on ethics. They should learn that greed is unsustainable, while altruism and enlightened self-interest is good for mankind.