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Ian Johnson is vice-president for sustainable development at the World Bank.

By Ian Johnson

BUENOS AIRES — As countries from around the world gather in Buenos Aires this week for the 10th U.N. climate change conference, we must recognize that the issue of climate change, and its effects on people in both rich and poor countries, remains a threat to global security. Poor countries and poor people in developing countries in particular are the most vulnerable group.

Scientists agree that the world’s climate warmed during the 20th century, and will continue to do so to the detriment of our ecosystems and well-being. Most of this warming is attributable to emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activities, mostly the use of oil, coal and gas, and deforestation.

As the planet’s temperature rises, climate variability increases and the world suffers from an increase in extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and hurricanes. During the last half of the 20th century, the number of such events per decade went up 5.5 times — from 13 in the 1950s to 72 in the 1990s — and the average annual damage costs from them increased 12 times — from less than $5 billion per year to nearly $60 billion per year.

With Russia’s recent ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty is set to come into force early next year for the 126 nations that have joined it so far. It is now timely to initiate fresh thinking about engaging other key nations, such as the United States, China and India, in the conversation about what to do after the expiration of Kyoto in 2012.

Looking ahead to the post-Kyoto world offers the chance to start a new dialogue and to look at new options on climate change. Both rich and poor countries can start talks on new post-Kyoto commitments on emissions targets for a second commitment period (2013-2017).

Or nations can set the more ambitious goal of limiting long-term change in the earth’s temperature, and then dividing equitably the emissions rights among countries in order to eventually achieve that temperature limit. This would require increasing investments in energy research and development for new and improved technologies, coupled with a new sense of partnerships, including with the private sector, which will be key for achieving progress in the long term.

Up until now, rich countries, with only 15 percent of the world's population, have been responsible for more than 50 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and thus most of the environmental damage. It is the developing countries and poor people within them who are most vulnerable, and it is they who will have to pay much of the “costs.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that a 3 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures could lead to a loss of GDP in developing countries of 2 percent to 9 percent per year, as well as resulting in devastating effects on human health and welfare, and fragile ecological systems.

Rich countries need to take the lead in rolling back subsidies supporting dirty energy. Globally, including OECD countries, the scale of subsidies surpasses $200 billion a year. Rich countries have the obligation to lead the process of technological transformation by moving from carbon intense energy production and consumption to new forms of energy and more energy-efficient technologies, while at the same time contributing to the development and use of clean technologies in developing countries.

It is unrealistic to ask developing countries, where more than 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity, to bear the burden of costs associated with the much needed technological change.

This is not an either/or approach. It is not about global regulation of CO2 emissions versus technology development and adaptation to climate change impacts. It is both. We cannot wait until 2015 to discover that the U.N. Millennium Development Goals aimed at reducing poverty by 50 percent are at risk because of the detrimental impact to development efforts posed by global warming.

Further increases in the temperatures at the surface of the planet will make the problem much worse, because of sea level rise and the increasing variability and volatility in weather patterns in the near future. For example, there could be more heavy precipitation events and heat waves, leading to more flood and droughts.

According to World Health Organization figures, at least 150,000 people die unnecessarily each year as a result of global warming. These figures could increase because of potential disease outbreaks that would threaten the efforts of achieving progress in reducing child mortality, improving nutrition and fighting malaria.

From Southern Africa to Central America, and from Bangladesh to Afghanistan, poor people bear the consequences of droughts and floods. In the last decade, more than 2 billion people have been adversely affected by changes in climate, most of them in poor countries.

The Kyoto Protocol represents only a modest reduction of carbon emissions in industrialized countries: 5 percent between 2008-2012 relative to 1990 levels, with varying targets for individual countries. Now there is a chance to look forward and enlist the global community, with no exclusions, although with differentiated responsibilities, in the pursuit of a more secure world to avoid the dire predictions of a world characterized by environmental degradation and social conflicts.

Real progress can be made in sustaining development efforts and preserving our planet. But first, all countries — and especially developing countries — must integrate climate concerns into policy planning and improved governance in key sectors such as energy, water and transport. Rich countries must also move toward environmentally friendly production and consumption patterns, and use innovative mechanisms such as carbon finance to buy reductions of greenhouse gases from developing countries.

Only then will the threat of climate change recede for the global community and for the poor who stand to suffer the most from the drastic changes it brings.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media ServiceS, INC. (12/13/04)