Least developed countries

“We don’t need donor money to forge ahead”

Saleemul Huq is a veteran of multilateral climate negotiations. The Bangladeshi scholar is now focusing on networking universities from least developed countries in order to boost adaptation to climate change and mitigate global warming. In an interview, he elaborated why this is the right way to develop national capacities.
Cyclone shelters have dramatically reduced the loss of life. Boethling/Photography Cyclone shelters have dramatically reduced the loss of life.

What has the Paris Agreement delivered to least developed countries (LDCs) so far?
I think there are four major achievements:

  • Everyone is on board. That basically remains so in spite of US President Donald Trump’s decision to quit. The good news is that all other parties want to continue. We have universal buy-in.
  • The Paris Agreement does not only concern governments. It concerns all relevant players: nation states, subnational authorities, local governments, private-sector companies, civil-society organisations, individuals. All of them are empowered to implement measures to mitigate climate change and adapt to the phenomenon. Everyone can take part.
  • The Paris Agreement takes a bottom-up approach. Action is voluntary. Some of us worried that the non-binding nature of the agreement would make it toothless, but I think this is actually a strong point. It is better to work with the carrot than with the stick. We mustn’t forget the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding emission for industrialised nations.  The USA never ratified it, and Canada dropped out after some years. In principle, I am in favour of strong agreements, but experience shows that the imposition of rules does not work. Voluntary action is more effective for obvious reasons.
  • Another advantage is that we can now form coalitions of the willing. All parties are doing what they consider to be in their own interests best. The 48 member countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum,  for example, have decided to go 100 % renewable by 2050. We no longer have to wait for every party to sign up to every single paragraph.

But does voluntary action really lead to meaningful transformation?
Yes, it does. Renewables have taken off; they have become highly competitive. No private-sector companies are investing in coal anymore. Some governments are still trying to keep the sector alive because they worry about some of their nation’s industries, but otherwise coal is dead. It happened fast, in the bat of an eyelid. Petroleum and fracking are being hit too. Investors are increasingly opting for other technologies. E-mobility is another example, the transport sector is going electric. The green economy – green bonds, green investments, more transparency et cetera – is becoming reality. We are entering virtuous cycles, and we should do what we can to promote this trend further. Penalising fossils makes sense, for example. The crucial thing, however, is that this is now a market-driven process.     

At current trends, nonetheless, global temperatures are still set to rise by three degrees or more. The goal is to keep the average increase below two degrees and preferably 1.5 degrees.
Yes, we certainly need to ratchet up. Since there is a risk that this may not happen fast enough, we must raise ambitions. We must find out what works and scale it up. We have to generate enthusiasm. If we want global warming to stay below two degrees, everybody has to do the right thing for their own reasons.

What must happen at the next Conference of Parties in Bonn in November?
My proposal is to turn the format of these conferences inside-out. Those who design and implement action should get centre stage. In the past, the governments negotiating global agreements in the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) mattered most. It was all about words on paper. But their work was completed in Paris. UNFCCC conferences were actually always unusual UN events in the sense of involving many stakeholders rather than only governments. Civil-society activists, scholars, private-sector groups et cetera were the side show, however. Now they deserve full attention. What matters most today is to share experience, spread information and move forward. We can focus on ground-level action now rather than worry about legal jargon.

According to the Paris Agreement, all governments must declare what they intend to do in terms of climate policy. Do these nationally determined contributions matter at all?
Yes, they are useful. They make sure that everyone is on the same page. They facilitate cooperation and comparisons. Moreover, they do drive action by governments. China and India are going solar, they’ll most likely phase out coal faster than they have declared so far. The important point is that they are doing what is good for them.

What should LDCs do?
We are thinking about how to leap-frog. We will not make the same mistakes the so-called advanced nations made. We must opt for sustainable solutions immediately. We can – and must – delink development from fossil-fuel consumption. It is true that, at this point in time, nobody knows exactly how that can be done, but determined leadership can certainly make it happen. Our governments have a role to play. Their decision to go 100 % renewable is pointing the way. Moreover, we must adapt to global warming. We are learning fast, facing huge challenges and tackling them. The poor are actually more resilient than prosperous people are, and we have to develop even more resilience, especially among the most vulnerable people. Bangladeshis have always been hit by floods and cyclones, but we always carried on afterwards, and we are getting ever more resilient.

Please give an example.
Well, we had two cyclones this year. We proved capable of evacuating 2 million people at short notice. Only 28 deaths were recorded – and every person concerned had actually left a storm shelter for one reason or another. We do not know yet how many fishermen out at sea were killed, but we do know that the majority of the more than 3000 casualties claimed by Sidr, the devastating cyclone of 2007, were people on fishing boats that could not be warned in time. These figures need to be seen in perspective. In 1991, a cyclone of similar force killed almost 130,000 people. And in 1970, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 died due to another one. Bear in mind that our population has grown in all those years. Today, our early-warning system is working, our cyclone shelters are robust, and our statistics are much more precise. Cyclones still do a lot of damage, but we’ve dramatically reduced the loss of life.

Yes, I agree, and your colleague Feisal Rahman recently made that case in D+C/E+Z (e-paper 2017/04, p. 22 / print edition 2017/05-06, p. 30). However, he also pointed out many other challenges, including the salinisation of aquifers or fast urban growth. Will Bangladesh really be able to cope?
No doubt, the impacts of climate change will be severe and strong, so we must work hard and learn fast. My point is that, in spite of all our problems, our economy is growing, and we are making considerable progress.

That is true of Bangladesh, but not of all LDCs, especially not in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yes, there are great differences between countries, and the problems are obviously greatest in strife-torn places. Nonetheless, LDCs are making collective efforts, and we are not waiting for the international community to come to the rescue. There is a lot we can do without donor assistance, not least because we have more in common with one another than with donor countries. We must ensure that best practice spreads fast.

Please give an example.   
At a meeting at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, several universities recently teamed up to establish the Least Developed Countries Universities Consortium on Climate Change (LUCCC). My International Centre on Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) is a leading member. LUCCC is a south-south initiative. We will be exchanging researchers and faculty among one another. The sending university will cover the travel expenses, and the host university will pay for the colleague’s stay. We will be learning from one another and building capacities this way.  

Do you see a role for international donor agencies?
I am not a great fan of official development assistance (ODA). I would rather see donor governments fulfilling other obligations, especially ensuring the flow of the annual $ 100 billion they have pledged in support of climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries from 2020 on. The problem with ODA is that it is entirely donor-controlled. Consider capacity-building, for example. In the past 10 years, donor governments have invested € 300 million to € 400 million in capacity building, but the lion’s share went to their own agencies like Germany’s GIZ or Britain’s DfID. Fly-in/fly-out consultants don’t really build capacities, however. That is why Article 11 of the Paris Agreement states that capacity development must be done long-term and in-country. Donor money would be better spent on universities in LDCs because universities are the places where nations generate knowledge and train leaders. They are the hubs of serious capacity development. So yes, if donor agencies want to support LUCCC, they are welcome to do so. They could help us scale up our programmes, but we do not need donor money to forge ahead.  

Two years ago, when I last interviewed you ahead of the climate summit in Paris (D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2015/06, p. 16, print edition 2015/06-08, p. 8), you sounded much more pessimistic. Now you seem somewhat over-optimistic. I appreciate the efforts LDCs are making, but I fear the impacts of climate change may prove even worse than expected.
Well, perhaps I am over-optimistic, but that is not something I worry about. If we keep considering every problem that may lie ahead, we will not be up to the tasks we’re facing. We have to be normative, we have to say: this is what we want to happen. If we don’t set goals, we won’t get there. So no, I am not focusing on what might go wrong, but on what needs to be done. Moreover, I am now spending much more time working with students in Bangladesh, young men and women who want to make a difference. They need guidance more than they need money, and their energy and enthusiasm are most encouraging. They inspire optimism.

Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) in Dhaka. He is also a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.  



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