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February 26th, 2009:

A Real World Crisis

Updated on Feb 26, 2009 – SCMP

As the world faces a breakdown of the global financial system, governments are negotiating a new climate-change deal this year to reduce carbon emissions. It is unclear whether the current problems will hinder or help the climate negotiations. Many say governments and business leaders will probably focus on the short term because it is easy to go along with a “business as usual” way of doing things.

The global financial crisis is intricately linked to the widespread environmental breakdown. Both are the result of an economy powered by vast quantities of fossil fuels. The accepted notion of economic growth stresses the creation of immediate value that is often far beyond the regenerative capacity of our assets or capital, whether financial or natural.

As vast sums of money are pumped into financial markets just to help stabilise them, the attention of world leaders is being diverted from the climate-change crisis. They are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the world economy is physically limited by the resources and services provided by the environment.

Human activity cannot be separated from what nature is able to support. However, the way we waste our natural capital, through overexploitation and pollution, is seriously degrading the environment in many parts of the world. Accelerating greenhouse-gas emissions are changing the world’s climate at an alarming rate, affecting agriculture, commerce and even human life through droughts, floods, extreme storms and forest fires. Species are threatened; others are adapting in unwanted ways, notably crop pests and disease-causing pathogens. The threat to civilisation is very high.

During a recent visit to South Africa for a meeting between the Tallberg Foundation – a Swedish non-profit organisation – and public- and private-sector leaders, there was a growing sense that many parts of Africa will be among the worst hit. The continent’s forests are dwindling, removing a vital carbon “sink”, while deserts are expanding. Governments are still allowing new coal mines to open rather than turning to renewable power. Safe water supplies are under stress as droughts and floods become more severe. The rising population only puts greater demands on limited resources.

A lot of solutions have been suggested for Africa’s problems, many of them common sense rather than hi-tech. Many opportunities exist in rural areas for small solar-powered energy systems to be developed using affordable, existing technology. Conservation and efficiency projects are a priority. Low-tech farming methods such as intensive organic production can reduce water use, eliminate reliance on proprietary seeds and fertilisers, and lock up carbon in soils while raising farm productivity and improving nutrition.

The key to these solutions is that they must be practical. Our African friends complained that, all too often, foreign governments want to press on them technology and methods that are inappropriate for their communities. The message was about being disconnected. Good intentions are wasted if those who offer technology and development assistance do not understand the needs of the African people. Many Africans feel that developed countries are too quick to pass on outdated technology, to make a quick profit, while simpler and cheaper solutions are available.

The Tallberg Foundation has identified four main goals for government and business leaders. First, they must address climate change within the wider challenge of preserving the regenerative capacity of global ecosystems. Second, they should ensure that a new climate regime is developed using the most up-to-date science. Third, they must embed ethics and principles of equity at the core of the global response to climate change. Finally, they must recognise that the effectiveness of a new climate deal depends on global governance reform that promotes the common good and not just economic interests. This applies not only to Africa, but to China and the rest of Asia, too.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.