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BW Businessworld

"Bridge the Communication Gap"

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Shiv Someshwar, Director of climate policy at the Earth Institute talks to Businessworld's Yashodhara Dasgupta how sustainable development goals can be used to highlight the inequities in the current system

What is sustainable development?
In 1987, a UN World Commission on Environment and Development report — ‘Our Common Future' (the Brundtland Report) — laid the basis for the concept of sustainability. The heavy focus was on intergenerational equity, both for now and in the future. Fast forward to Johannesburg 2002, the concept was revisited and it was clarified it by having three core areas – environmental sustainability, economic growth and social equity. The effort was to make sure that growth, equity and environment are recognised because there was a sense that developing countries were getting upset with the focus on sustainability which many thought was a ‘green wash'. They thought that advanced economies are talking about limits to growth by using the term sustainability because of the idea that there is one finite planet and it has to support all of us. The key word then is equity. It takes an entire village to support one person in the US. Here in India, you have 35 per cent of the population under the poverty line. So that's why effort was made to incorporate all three areas. Now, at Rio+20 (to be held in June 2012), the goal will be to revisit sustainable development. Some countries, according to me, are mistakenly opposing this because they think sustainable development goals could be used to bypass issues of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. But actually, they can use the sustainable development goals to basically highlight the inequities in the current system and force the industrialised countries to actually come up with the financing that has always been promised.

You guys need to be really pushing. You need to be pushing also for scientific data. What does science say about the 2 degree Centigrade target? How can you be so blasé about 2 degrees? It's is a huge amount. And now the US is going to say well, we never really promised. So we're looking at 4 degrees and it's not going to be linear rise in temperature. It's going to have all these huge implications on the ecosystem.

How do you then bridge the information gap about climate change which exists nationally as well?
That is not unique to climate issues. That is part and parcel of development itself. For example, the previous regime in the US used the uncertainties in the economic model to not make any policies. But not doing a policy is itself a policy. It's a job for NGOs, non-profits and the media to make sure it happens. There's a lot of emphasis with FDI coming in and the Indian government can put in money into renewable energy. I think these are very big stories that are completely absent in the news.

But what is climate policy really?
It is really policy on socio-economic development that has an impact on climate. If you're not going to be mitigating, how do you adapt? And so on. The implications of development on climate and then the equal impact of the same on the kind of policies you undertake in response to climate change. India has a very good set up called the Agro-Met Advisory system which is a world leader in giving climate information for 24-48 hrs to farmers. We've been working with them for 2-3 years to extend that to one month. When we think about climate change, it's important for mitigation and economic trajectories of governments but not for adaptation. At the farm level, if you talk about adaptation for a 100 years from now, they'd think it's really silly. They would want to focus on the next season or the next year. So the concept of what constitutes climate and response also has to be wider. You also need to anticipatory work plan as well.

What are the key parts of climate policy?
Whether one likes it or not, government departments and ministries are in silos. Given that fact, we need to make sure at critical junctures especially at spatial scales in the district and state level, there is really strong inter-sectoral policy coordination so that we have don't have a situation where multiple climate policies say between agriculture, water resource management, energy are working at cross-purposes. Subsidies are also important. It's not about yanking the subsidies away. Here we have to look at the nature of the social safety net that we need to put in place anticipating the kind of welfare shock from removing the subsidies.

So what's not being done here that should be?
You have the very impressive eight missions – the National Action Plan on Climate Change – that are based on the trajectory of what's going to happen a hundred years from now. I'd like to see how resilient critical infrastructure is here in India now. Right now, like in the case of Mumbai floods, everything comes to a standstill. Or if there's a major drought, what happens to the farmers. In addition to this action plan, what's really important would be to engage the current infrastructure and policymaking to see what the resilience of the system is to enhanced climate variability. Where you had return periods of drought between 6-8 years, now in some parts of India that may be 4-6 years. What would happen then? What would happen in case of extreme events? Doing this gives you a sense of the vulnerability of infrastructure to climate dynamics and you know what else you need to do in order to create resilience. This also gives you a chance to look at the new infra requirements just from the climate perspectives. Too many times when people talk about adaptation, they only focus on climate as the dynamics as though only climate is changing and the rest of it is static – what I call development nirvana. That's not really the case at all. You've got massive population movement, resource intensification, changes in agricultural patterns and job structures in urban areas. Once you've looked at the vulnerability and new infra requirements, on top of that add what you know about the population trajectory or the urbanising trend, what else should be the combined infrastructure. That's one thing I feel India should do and that's also a way to immediately attract the attention of policymakers. What happened in Mumbai was because of climate change as well as designs which were a 100 years old.

What about pay-offs?
You can also look at this in terms of engaging new areas of opportunity. Indian entrepreneurs are extremely innovative in seeking out new areas. For example, the efficiency of buildings, fuel efficiency, using less materials – there's a huge opportunities in a series of industries. The same thing holds for agriculture. Businesses always protest when things are changing and that they need stability of policy. But the very fact was that they got into the business at the time of change. So I don't think they should fear policy changes as long as it is reasonable and has scientific backing.

How do you bring financial institutions into this?
There's a great deal of emphasis for example, in the states of New York and California forcing insurance companies to reveal plans for extreme climate events. Do they have any plans or are they just going to throw up and declare bankruptcy. The green insurance companies have been at the forefront of climate risk evaluation. And investors want to figure out if their investments are safe in the insurance companies. This is how the finance industry is becoming savvy on the risk and opportunities from changing climate.

What about those in India?
Pata nahi (No idea).

Will it be effective to look at these public goods as global commons or local commons?
Local can be looked at as metropolitan, as sub-national all the way to global. All of them have the commons embedded and have institutions that are at the national level accountable to the citizens. But what happens to water aquifers or to fertile agricultural lands in delta regions? There's accountability there and at the same time, nation-states are making policies at the global level. So it makes no sense to talk about local versus global. The tragedy of the commons can happen at any of these levels. Garrett Hardin had it wrong. It's a very famous thesis. But there's much research that came out later to say that there are social rules of engagement and regulations that permit a certain level of extraction like you have at a national level as well. So we're not trying to figure out is how to make sure we inform policy makers across these levels. Biophysically and socio-economically they're all connected. For example, if there's a bumper harvest of coffee in Brazil, the price of coffee collapses. We longer have the freedom to say this is within our national boundaries, we don't care what happens outside.

What about just the term global commons? It would have the same impact as protecting national commons.
I think that comes down to good communication. Global doesn't mean we're disconnected. We're all part of the world. I do see what you're saying. There is a sense of disconnect. That's made worse by the scale of 100 years. We need to focus on right now.

Related Link: Changing For Good