Climate change and security: What is the future that awaits us?

By John Rankin

As South Africa and Durban get ready to host the 17th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 17) from 28 November-9 December, 2011, a key question is posed to all nations: where do we stand and how does this affect us?

Climate change is one of the greatest common challenges facing the modern world. Left untackled, it will lead to more extreme and unpredictable weather conditions, including widespread flooding - the aftermath of which I saw first-hand during a recent visit to Eastern Sri Lanka - and drought. As two island nations, Sri Lanka and the UK are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

All of us - political leaders, diplomats, business people, scientists, activists and citizens - need to work together to provide solutions to this climate change challenge.

We all need to understand that climate change is not just an environmental threat. It is also an economic and security threat. Governments and individuals are concerned about the cost of action on climate change. But the lack of action will have significant costs: the Stern Review predicts that the costs of climate change will be between 5-20% of global GDP if no action is taken to prevent it, with developing countries expected to face the highest costs.

The reality is that action on climate change makes economic sense for all of us: there are, for example, a great variety of measures that households and businesses could take which would not only reduce their carbon emissions, but also save them money.

The human impact of climate change also extends to food, that most basic need of humankind. Changing temperatures will alter crop distributions and crop yields. For example, there are dire consequences in store for rice production, the staple of the South Asian diet. A recent study by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) study shows that every 1o rise in night-time temperature - a rise so small your body would barely register it - will produce a corresponding 10% decrease in grain yield.

The demand for food is predicted to grow by 70% by 2050. For developed economies, this will mean higher prices; for agrarian economies in the developing world, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Moreover, climate change is expected to lead to key developments within the South Asian region. Natural resources such as water are likely to become scarce, leading to tensions and conflict among those countries that mutually depend on these resources. South Asia is already one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world and among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The combination is combustive. Increasingly erratic weather patterns continue to threaten people's homes and livelihoods, exacerbating social inequities and tensions, posing a real risk to peace and stability and affecting economy development. This reality was clearly recognised in the Presidential Statement issued after the UN Security Council debate on climate change in July this year.

The UK recognises that developed countries have to accept historic responsibility for creating much of the problem of climate change, and therefore, a greater responsibility for addressing it. The UK Government has committed to reducing our carbon emissions by 50% by 2025, and we are also encouraging the EU as a whole to increase the EU reduction target to 30% by 2020.

But the EU covers only some 12% of global emissions. We are now coming to the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and the need now is to build an ambitious, global, legally-binding regime, involving all major emitters. Only a legally binding approach will give business and investors the confidence they need to move rapidly on low carbon measures.

We need to summon the will, not just to avert disaster, but also to seize the opportunities of low carbon growth in trade, investment and new industries. Developing new technologies for sustainable development can be a driver for future growth. Sri Lanka, with its solar, wind and wave resources, is well placed to play a role in that development and benefit from it. The UK's own clean technology goods and services market is now worth £112 billion and employs nearly a million people.

President Rajapakse highlighted the need for "immediate action" on climate change at the recent SAARC summit. And yes - action is the need of the hour. The outcome of Durban should be a definite plan of action that will protect the world as we know it from being further imperilled by climate change. The theme for COP17 is "Working Together: Saving Tomorrow Today." Working together, it is time for us to make changes before the window for effective action is shut.

The writer is British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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