"Climate change is the defining issue of our time... Let there be no doubt about the urgency of the crisis." UN Secretary-General António Guterres, 2018
This month, on the eve of the Global Climate Action Summit and the gathering of world leaders for the General Assembly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered a major address to young people, business leaders, diplomats and journalists.
In it, he emphasized the need for greater ambition and leadership in addressing “the defining threat of our time.”
While the race is on to curb carbon emissions, and prevent the worst of runaway climate change, the adverse impacts continue to disproportionately burden the poorest and most vulnerable.
In response - under the vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the promise to leave no one behind - UNDP is working hand-in-hand with more than 140 governments, international development agencies, donors and local partners to both promote a global zero-carbon future and help developing countries to build resilience.
For an insight into the impacts of climate change and the adaptation challenges, UNDP Asia Pacific spoke with Reis Lopez Rello a Regional Technical Advisor specialising in adaptation, working with countries from Asia and the Pacific.
Reis, each day it seems there is more and more coverage of climate-driven disasters across the region, from devastating floods to turbo-charged typhoons and heatwaves. In your experience, what are some of the key risks that the region faces now, and in a world potentially 2 to 3 degrees warmer?
The impacts and risks associated with climate change vary, and of course, those faced by the Pacific are completely different to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Across the board, however, we see that climate change is a multiplier of risks and a magnifier of vulnerability, and that its impacts are multifaceted.
In Samoa, recurring flooding associated with intensifying tropical storms is a major problem. Over the past years a major river running through the national capital, the Vaisigano River, has flooded every time a major Category 4 or 5 cyclone has struck the country. The economic impacts have been significant, not to mention the impacts on infrastructure and human lives.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, the increasing risk of glacial lake outburst floods (‘GLOF’) is a major concern. Unfortunately, glacial lakes there are too high-altitude and inaccessible to be drained, so the risk is acute – the goal then is to minimise the impact on rural communities.
In Afghanistan, the impacts of climate change on rainfed agriculture are a big concern for the spill over effects: agriculture, which is the mainstay of rural economy, is primarily dependent on precipitation (rain and snow). Currently, severe drought is affecting two provinces with more than two million people expected to become severely food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance for survival.
Iran on the other hand is experiencing intensifying droughts and sand storms.
A key thing is that we’re really starting to see a clear link between the impacts of climate change and humanitarian aid. It is particularly evident in countries such as Afghanistan, where the impacts of drought are exacerbating impacts on livelihoods and pushing people to migrate.
Pressure is increasing on the UN system. To be more effective, we need to see humanitarian aid and the work of development agencies as part of a continuum. We need to be working together and to have a more linked vision.
In Samoa, recurring flooding associated with intensifying tropical storms is a major problem.
In Pakistan, the risk of glacial lake outburst floods (‘GLOF’) is rising.
In Afghanistan, the impacts of climate change on rainfed agriculture are a big concern.
What climate-related changes or impacts have you personally witnessed?
Among the most staggering impacts I have seen are the consequences of increasing salinity in southern Bangladesh: with a rise in cyclones and storm surges, crops and fresh water ponds are being increasingly flooded by seawater. This has a lot of implications for food security, livelihoods and health.
In a country with one of the highest indexes of poverty, and a number of other pressing challenges – including related to population pressures, pollution, environmental degradation– the situation is really challenging.
Another example which has stayed with me is the impact of climate change on Iran’s Bakhtegan Lake.
Conducting consultations for project development last year, I saw photos from the past – the lake was beautiful, with flamingos and extensive flora and fauna. But when we visited last year, the lake was dry… Yes, due in some part to water mismanagement and irrigation, but also directly related to a decrease in precipitation and an increase in temperatures and evaporation, driven by climate change.
The health of the lake has both ecological and social implications. There are profound social pressures linked to the lake’s demise – in the nearby city of Shiraz there are signs of increasing migration as livelihoods are disrupted.
What are the main challenges in addressing climate change in the Asia Pacific region?
Each country has its own specific challenges, but I would say the main ones across the board are technical and financial gaps; limited familiarity on how to access public funds; and uncertainty about the climate finance landscape (which, for adaptation, is mostly donor-driven).
Often governments come to UNDP to try to address priorities for which they don’t have the financial capacity. For instance, in Pakistan, when it comes to GLOF, the risk is in very remote areas, which are not highly populated, and are far from urban centres.
Without finance from environmental and climate funds – the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility, the Adaptation Fund and so on – it’s really hard for governments to tackle these issues.
UNDP, of all UN agencies, has the largest climate change adaptation portfolio. Many countries approach UNDP because they want support from an experienced, technically sound team that is equipped to help them meet global funds’ requirements (from gender assessments, to financial and economic analyses, procurement plans and feasibility studies). These all entail a lot of support.
What action has the governments you have worked with taken/been taking to address the impacts of climate change?
Governments across the region are recognising the issues and taking action.
Take Samoa. The Government has been very active developing policies and programmes to address the country’s vulnerability to climate change. Just a few examples include the construction of river walls by the Vaisigano river, the construction of new and retrofit of old bridges, a 2 million-tree planting campaign, efforts to climate-proof the sewage system, and initiatives to climate-proof the road that crosses this island nation.
Recently Samoa created a platform for advocacy and partnerships related to climate adaptation and resilience named “Samoa CARES,” reflecting its international leadership on climate change.
We know that to deliver on the ambitious goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including Climate Action (SDG13), we need to work together. Which partners are key?
In our projects we target the most vulnerable, which in most cases means working with rural and/or indigenous populations that are underserved by government services and whose income situate them below the extreme poverty line.
Depending on the project, we try to partner with other UN agencies and engage with communities and private sector partners from the very start, always focusing on what is most impactful for the target beneficiaries.
In most cases, we work together with NGOs, women cooperatives and other grassroots organizations that know the community well and have buy-in with community leaders and chiefs. Also, that have a good track record in rolling out activities with public finance.
We also need to engage with a range of government ministries – climate change shouldn’t only be an issue for the ministry of environment, or ministry of forest or ministry of climate change.
Actually, it is good to see climate change being escalated to also involve ministries of finance. Most of the national designated authorities under the Green Climate Fund are now ministries of finance – that is important and reflects the commitment of countries to tackle the issues.
Finally, how long have you been working on issues related to climate change and what ignited your interest or passion?
Well, it goes back to when I was a student in the early 2000s (I completed a BA in International Affairs with a focus on development, and an MA in Public Administration, with a focus on environmental policy).
From the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future) to the Stern Review (The Economics of Climate Change) many books and journals instilled in me a drive to engage in this field. Climate change was in the news a lot. For me, there was an urgency for action but also adaptation appeared to be an area with important and interesting opportunities.
I decided I wanted to combine working in human development with addressing the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable (in most cases, the extreme poor).
My career has evolved. Before working with UNDP, I worked for Price Waterhouse Coopers for 6 years, advising companies on how to define their sustainability strategies. Now, as a Regional Technical Advisor in climate change adaptation with UNDP, my role is to support Country Offices and relevant government ministries to access climate finance from public funds, so they can develop and implement cost-effective and impactful adaptation. For me, it's been very rewarding.
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