The Heat Is Online

UNDP Warns Poor Countries Face "Adaptation Apartheid"

U.N. Warns of Climate-Related Setbacks


The New York Times, Andrew Revkin, Nov. 28, 2007


A new United Nations report warns that progress toward prosperity in the world's poorest regions will be reversed unless rich countries promptly begin curbing emissions linked to global warming while also helping poorer ones leapfrog to energy sources that pollute less than coal and oil.


The world's poorest regions will also need much more help than has been provided to adapt to climate changes that are already unfolding, said the authors of the study, the United Nations' annual Human Development Report.


The report's focus on climate and its release date -- one week before international talks begin in Bali to shape a new international climate pact -- reflect a top goal set by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: prodding world leaders to act more swiftly on global warming.


Released yesterday in Brasília and online, the report builds on findings of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier in the year showing that poor countries face outsize risks in a warming world.


It also offers a more detailed view of how poverty, particularly in areas near the Equator, creates zones of extreme vulnerability to water shortages, droughts, flooding rains and severe storms -- all of which are projected to be more frequent or intense if concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to build.


The report also rebukes rich countries for failing to deliver on commitments for helping poor countries increase resilience to climate hazards under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which dates from 1992 and has been ratified by nearly all the world's nations.


It noted that through the middle of this year, money delivered to climate-adaptation projects through that treaty's mechanism amounted to about $26 million -- the equivalent of what Britain spends on flood defenses in a week.


The report includes comments from a host of contributors from around the world, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town.


Archbishop Tutu deplored how countries contributing the most greenhouse gases to the atmosphere were largely shielded from the worst climate impacts by wealth, while doing little to buttress poorer nations against climate hazards. People are being left to sink or swim with their own resources, he wrote, saying one result is a world of adaptation apartheid.


Some economists and development experts criticized the report yesterday, saying that a quick, costly shift away from fossil fuels, the main source of emissions, could actually backfire, blunting the climb toward prosperity that they say is a prerequisite for action to improve environmental quality.


Another reason for focusing on economic growth and increased ability to withstand climate shocks, this camp says, is that risks are rising not only because of warming but also because population growth in poor places is greatly increasing how many people are exposed to todays climate-related hazards.


But the new development report, echoing conclusions of the climate panel, argues that a prompt investment in emissions curbs is a bargain compared with the long-term costs of inaction.

The authors, led by Kevin Watkins of the United Nations, said anything less would be a moral and political failure without precedent.


"The bottom line is that the global energy system is out of alignment with the ecological systems that sustain our planet," said Mr. Watkins, who previously worked for the charity Oxfam. "Realignment will take a fundamental shift in regulation, market incentives and international cooperation."


The report echoes other United Nations studies and the positions of the European Union and many environmental groups, calling for an enormous reversal in emissions trends. Many groups are calling for greenhouse-gas emissions from developed countries in 2050 to be 80 percent below levels measured in 1990.


It also says some of the burden for curbing the gases must fall on developing countries as well, but with assistance, both financial and technological, from wealthy countries.


Robert O. Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale focused on ecosystems, climate and development, was not swayed. The U.N. report has got a few facts right but the policy dead wrong, he said. An aggressive mitigation plan is likely to be a greater threat to growth than climate change impacts. We do not yet have the technology to implement an aggressive plan and so its near-term cost could be staggering.


© 2007 The New York Times Company