Is climate change the missing link in the millennium goals?

Reuters AlertNet Climate-smart, climate-resilient, climate-compatible development – call it what you will. These days, it’s received wisdom in the aid sector that extreme weather and longer-term climate shifts are hitting the poor hard and things are likely to get worse as global warming heats up the planet.

Many agencies now plan their work with at least an eye on the weather and climate hazards forecast for the coming months and years and how that could affect their programmes and the people they’re helping. A growing number of projects aim to equip local communities with tools and knowledge to cope with increasingly adverse meteorological conditions.

Christian Aid and its partners, for instance, are providing farmers’ groups in Kenya with seasonal weather forecasts and data on climate trends from the national met office, as well as the latest market prices. This should enable the farmers to plant crops that are both suitable for market trends and for expected levels of rainfall.

In a report issued ahead of next week’s U.N. summit to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the British-based development charity cites this project as an example of a sustainable approach to economic development that integrates resilience to both climate and price variability.

Christian Aid argues that the eight global promises – which include halving the proportions of people living in extreme poverty and suffering from hunger, reducing maternal and child deaths, getting all children into school and ensuring environmental sustainability – fail to tackle the root causes of poverty.

It says the MDGs – set in 2000 and due to be reached in 2015 – aren’t ambitious enough to shift the world onto a sustainable development path, and let rich nations off the hook with regard to curbing global warming and the loss of natural resources and biodiversity.

“Here, the MDGs are a product of their time, because in 2000, a broadly shared understanding and recognition of the full importance for development of climate change and wider environmental sustainability was arguably lacking,” notes the report. “In 2010, it is vital that global efforts to combat poverty take full account of this.”

But do they? Sifting through the 31-page draft declaration on the MDGs expected to be formally adopted at the Sept. 20-22 meeting of world leaders, there is surprisingly little reference to the growing importance of environmental concerns.

Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are mentioned as “increasing challenges” which, alongside the recent financial and food price crises, “have increased vulnerabilities and inequalities and adversely affected development gains”.

The action agenda for achieving the targets in the seventh MDG – which promotes environmental sustainability – includes a call to step up efforts to reach a new global deal on climate change, stem the continued loss of plant and animal species, slow the rate of deforestation further, and boost energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, the agenda for meeting the first MDG, on eradicating poverty and hunger, includes “addressing environmental challenges to sustainable agriculture development such as water quality and availability, deforestation and desertification, land and soil degradation, dust, floods, drought and unpredictable weather patterns”.

But what is missing is a bold statement about the worsening effects of climate change on poor people and a genuine sense of how important it is to help them adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas if advances on the MDGs are to be safeguarded. In fact, the phrase “climate change adaptation” doesn’t appear even once.

Focus on concrete Problems

Development and environment experts agree the MDG document is weaker than they’d like on climate change.

“I am sure there was a bit of a calculation … ‘let’s focus in on the MDGs’, and there was probably a bit of a fear that putting too much (emphasis) on climate change could derail that,” said Olav Kjorven, director of development policy at the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

He added that climate change is taking a back seat at this year’s U.N. General Assembly compared with last year when it was the main theme ahead of a key U.N. meeting in Copenhagen in December, which subsequently failed to seal a new global deal to curb global warming.

“(This time) the focus is on getting girls to school, reducing maternal mortality and getting safe toilets out there so kids don’t die of diarrhoea… These are simple concrete problems that we have to solve,” Kjorven said. “But we also know that sustainable development efforts will be completely jeopardised if we don’t address climate change – both adaptation and mitigation. So we can’t afford to let the climate change agenda slip.”

UNDP will take every opportunity to keep the issue alive next week, he said, including at roundtable sessions where it’s up for discussion and at a star-studded event that will showcase the achievements of grassroots groups in alleviating poverty while conserving biodiversity and ecosystems and tackling climate change. The agency will also launch an international partnership to help individual communities adapt to climate change.

Likewise, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) plans to issue a brief for policy makers that will include concrete examples of how investing in clean energy, sustainable transport, forests and environmentally-friendly forms of agriculture can at the same time improve health, provide safe drinking water and combat hunger and disease.

“Climate change cannot and should not be sidelined in 2010 at any of the high-level summits because it remains one of the overall challenges facing humanity and will influence whether we achieve the MDGs and other targets we have set for the next decade,” UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall told AlertNet.

Another major new initiative is expected to focus on offering alternatives to inefficient and highly polluting cooking stoves, currently used by around three billion poor people – most of them women.

In the light of all these environmentally-themed events in New York next week – let alone the practical work being done on the ground – it’s clear there’s a determination among those who care to step up efforts to integrate the climate and development agendas. So does the relatively low profile of climate change in the draft summit document really matter?

Experts admit the bulk of the damage from climate change is likely to hit after the MDG deadline of 2015, and so making sure it’s fully incorporated into what comes next is perhaps more important than shouting about it now.

Some also say NGOs and other agencies are treading rather more carefully in the wake of the Copenhagen climate summit’s disappointing outcome and controversies that have shaken public faith in the science on global warming.

Pakistan’s current predicament suggests that the need to address climate change and the MDGs in an integrated manner is more urgent than some top politicians and international bureaucrats would appear to believe.

But for that to happen, says Simon Anderson who heads the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development, people must stop cultivating work on climate change as a separate “mini-industry” operating in parallel with development programmes. Others agree this division has little meaning for developing-country governments struggling to help communities out of poverty while protecting them from the harmful impacts of climate change.

“The war of getting the walls between the silos of climate change and development broken down is going to have to be fought for quite a while longer,” Anderson said.

The Millennium Development Goals Report for 2010 has more information on the MDG on environmental sustainability and the indicators used to measure progress towards it.

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