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Climate change

“A lot at stake”

by Hinrich Mercker
Rich countries and emerging nations must become leaders in global environmental protection, says Hinrich Mercker, climate expert at InWEnt. He sees urgent need for action in the fields of funding, technology transfer and capacity building. [ Interview with Hinrich Mercker ]

Politicians around the world seem far more preoccupied with the current global financial and economic crisis than with climate issues. What is your view?
The climate matters much more than the financial and economic system. The world economy, to a large extent, reacts in psychological terms, so governments’ actions can re-establish confidence in the solvency of banks, for instance. State guarantees amounting to billions of dollars and euros will certainly make a difference. But the melting of Greenland’s ice would have irreversible consequences of a 100 % physical nature, and bail-out packages will not provide mental comfort.

What is the connection between the financial crisis and the climate crisis?
On the downside, some business people are arguing that the financial
crisis is so expensive that we can no longer afford climate protection. The costs of “business as usual” would be even higher. On the upside, we have now seen that governments can act in a cooperative, coordinated manner. Moreover, in face of imminent danger, they can mobilise previously unheard-of sums. If they do so to rescue an important sector for the economy, they should also be in a position to protect humanity’s material base of existence. Moreover, it seems obvious that public investment programmes will be necessary to keep the world economy going – and such programmes could serve environmental purposes. There are abundant options in the fields of climate-friendly energy supply and transport. Of course, it would also make sense to invest in coping with effects of climate change that can no longer be avoided.

Which regions of the world will be harmed the most?
That will probably be the delta regions of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong and the Nile. All three are low-lying, very densely populated areas, with a relatively weak infrastructure.

What needs to be done to adapt?
A lot can be done in technical terms. Some experts are calling for more flood protection and levees, while others stress the importance of shelters to prepare for disasters. Geographical information systems will certainly prove to be valuable, as will early- warning systems. Of course, matters vary from region to region. The Andes and the Himalayas are exposed to other risks than coastal regions. Different technical solutions must be put in place to reduce the risk of landslides and to prepare for rising sealevels, obviously. However, certain conditions must be met everywhere to make sure that what is technically possible in principle is indeed implemented in practice.

Internationally, there is an urgent need for action in terms of
– finance,
– technology transfer, and
– capacity building.
Industrialised countries, which are mainly responsible for climate change, and the large emerging nations, which are also partly to blame, must live up to their position as role models. They have to provide money, technology and expertise. It will not do to simply pass on their own experience. We are facing new, at times unfamiliar challenges. Affected countries and regions must be put in a position to quickly learn from their own experiences, and mutually support one another in adapting to the change. No one will learn how agriculture in tropical countries can adapt to the changed conditions in the EU or the USA. In any case, it is clear that the time of national egotisms must be over.

What role does InWEnt play in this scenario?
First of all, we offer training of course, in the field of disaster management for instance. InWEnt advised government agencies in Mozambique about matters relating to the management of catastrophic risks for years after devastating floods. Moreover, we also provide valuable spaces for discussion and political dialogue, so people can learn from one another, exchanging views and experiences across borders. Finally, the long-term regional networking of our partners is important. As I mentioned before, it will be essential that people learn fast and pragmatically from one another. That will only be possible if they have appropriate contacts in the countries concerned.

Do developing countries have enough specialists to participate effectively in international climate negotiations?
No, that is definitely not the case. Very poor and very small countries are challenged in particular. They simply cannot afford to send delegations of 20 people or more to Poznan for the UN Climate Change Conference in December, for example. On the other hand, the poor world is represented quite competently at international meetings these days. As in other areas of global policymaking, it has become evident here too that we are living in a multipolar world. China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa and others negotiate with increasing assertiveness, so rich nations no longer determine what happens on their own.

The need to act in response to climate change is especially great in the highly developed OECD countries, however.
Indeed, emissions must be cut dramatically to ensure the climate crisis does not escalate. Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, who has since distinguished himself as a climate expert, maintains that global emissions must be cut by 50 % below the 1990 level by the year 2050. Otherwise there is a risk of change becoming completely chaotic und uncontrollable. However, we must also take into account that in the time span mentioned, the world’s population will grow from around five to nine billion people. If we assume that everyone is entitled to causing the same level of pollution – which is how Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel basically argues – a mere 2 tonnes of CO2 may be produced per person in the year 2050. ­Today, ten times as much is being emit-­ted per capita in the USA, five times as much in Germany and twice as much in China.

Doesn’t that mean that the rich and emerging countries are not living up to their job as role models, that you mentioned earlier?
Your question is more complex than it appears at first. I cannot answer with a simple yes or no. Europe has played a leading role for a long time, and that is particularly true of Germany. We already promoted climate protection when, in many poor countries, the conventional wisdom was still that environmental protection was an issue for the well-off and that it could wait until poverty was conquered. Unfortunately, some leaders in the poor world still think that way.

And what is your assessment of Europe’s role?
The EU seems to be dissipating its energies at the moment, I’m afraid. On the other hand, I found it encouraging that both candidates in the US presidential election took comparatively progressive positions. Both Barack Obama and John McCain understood the situation better than Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who still believes that the greenhouse effect is scientifically disputed – and the Czech Republic is taking over the EU presidency in January. And as far as the emerging nations are concerned, China’s approach to climate issues is very interesting, for example. One cannot deny that they are aware of the problems and willing to cooperate. I find it worrying, however, that no one has assumed true leadership – hopefully, Obama will do so. There really is a lot at stake.

Questions by Hans Dembowski.