Poor will pay the price to cut emissions

By Tim Costello
CEO World Vision Australia

While Australians grapple with the idea of putting a price on carbon and the impact on their fuel and grocery bills, in many developing countries the choice looks more like a trade-off between national development out of poverty and global action to limit climate change.

In Brazil this month, the 75-year-old Forest Code has been amended in ways that environmentalists argue is likely to lead to faster deforestation of the Amazon rainforests, the so-called “lungs of the earth”, a change pushed by the agricultural sector.

In developing countries, greenhouse gas emissions don’t primarily gush from power stations but from land-use: from the forest burning traditions of subsistence farmers in Asia to the large-scale clearing of forest in South America to produce commodities for export.

The prices for beef, soybeans, corn, oranges continues to climb, driving the pressure to push farming deeper into rainforest; in much of the world, land and water available to expand production are diminishing.

The global community is now asking for limits on this expansion. Industrialised nations in their own interests spent 200 years creating wealth through burning fossil fuels, but now require the rest of the world to act for the global good.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last month passed a two-year moratorium on logging concessions. And African nations are working with the World Bank’s Biocarbon Fund to pursue funds from the sale of carbon sequestration – locked-up forests - while vast areas of cultivatable land on the African continent is being secured by nations from elsewhere for food production.

As Professor Ross Garnaut terms it, climate change is a diabolical problem which can only be dealt with through difficult international efforts. But are we in Australia really conscious of the price billions of the world’s poorest face?

Australia, like many industrialised countries, is heavily dependent on coal-fired power. And exporting coal has kept our economy buoyant. As a nation we are grappling to find the least-cost ways to cut greenhouse pollution without harming our lifestyles.

But the world is shifting. A decade ago, China consumed 11 per cent of the world’s energy; in 2010 it consumed 20.3 per cent of an increased global energy sector, making it the biggest energy consumer on the planet, according to a report in last week’s Economist. In 2000 China used about a third of the world's coal; in 2010 it was close to 50 per cent, its economy the second largest.

Wouldn’t there be justification for not only China, Brazil, India and Indonesia, but also the whole African continent, central and south-east Asia to choose to pursue carbon-heavy industrialisation as their means to climb out of poverty? To emulate countries like Australia? In the process they are likely to eliminate the prospect that the world could limit escalating CO2 levels and the subsequent dangerous consequences of climate change that would, scientists tell us, be the result.

Even so, their pledges to act to reduce carbon pollution are substantial. If they proceed as they promise, the emission reductions of China, India, South Africa and Brazil -- the BASIC countries – may eclipse the cuts proposed so far by the seven biggest developed countries -- the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia - by 2020.

It is clear the world needs to cooperate. According to Dr Simon Lewis, a tropical forest expert from the University of Leeds, if the forests of the Amazon were all removed – for example to build Brazil’s food exports - this would perhaps add 100-200 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. Globally emissions now run at about 10 billion tonnes, so we would add 10-20 years worth of today’s level of emissions. Brazil’s income would rise, but there would be global consequences And these fall primarily on those who can least afford it, and least cope.

World Vision’s work is among the poorest of these nations. We seek the well-being of all children, so they can enjoy “life in all its fullness”. Being heavily dependent on the environment around them means that long-term development - and often community survival – goes hand in hand with sustainability.

We are partnering with communities to create greater prosperity in ways that sustain their livelihoods by protecting the lands they depend on. In Ethiopia, seven small communities have banded together and restored degraded hills that is now providing more food, fodder and fuel, and the captured carbon is being sold through the World Bank. 

Energy-efficient stoves mean fewer forests are cut down for fuel, and less pollution affecting families and the atmosphere. Farmer-managed natural regeneration has transformed whole areas of Niger into productive green forests rather than degraded scrubland.

These developments are promising, and benefit poor communities directly, but they need to be replicated at scale with support in ways that can create viable, sustainable economies.

The conflict between development and sustainability can be managed. Despite the dashing of expectations at Copenhagen, the world must pursue an agreement that helps lift poor communities from poverty but which also cuts greenhouse pollution.

Justice demands that wealthy countries who have profited from the market failure of carbon pollution – meaning the cost of energy did not cover its damaging effects – ought to shoulder the biggest burden to clean it up.

For Australia it means doing our fair share: making the transition to a low-carbon economy, being part of the global conversation to find an agreement, and helping poor nations to adapt and make the transition from poverty to a clean future.

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