Climate change is an inevitable phenomenon, and it requires an urgent global challenge with long-term implications for the sustainable development of all countries. Several reports have warned of changing weather patterns and rising sea levels due to accelerating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities.
For many, a warming climactic system is expected to impact the availability of basic necessities like freshwater, food security, and energy, while efforts to address climate change, both through adaptation and mitigation, will similarly inform and shape the global development agenda. However, climate change will know no boundaries, poor and developing countries, particularly Africa and southeast Asia, will be among those most adversely affected and least able to cope with the anticipated shocks to their social, economic and natural systems.
The recent United Nations report projects that, by 2080, millions of people will be displaced due to sea-level rise, with densely-populated and low-lying countries, like many small islands developing states, facing the greatest threat from storm surges and rising seas, a recent floods during this season is already an example of such.
Global climate change is already affecting many natural systems. Scientists observed that snow and ice are melting, and frozen ground is thawing, hydrological and biological systems are changing and in some cases being disrupted, migrations are starting earlier, and species geographic ranges are shifting towards the poles. Despite remaining gaps in knowledge, it is likely that these effects are linked to human influence on climate.
However, responses to natural variability are difficult to separate from the effects of climate change. Impacts of climate change are just starting to become apparent. For instance, melting glaciers can threaten mountain settlements and water resources, and damage associated with coastal flooding is increasing.
Many impacts are expected to occur in natural systems over the course of the 21st century; for example, changes in precipitation and the melting of ice and snow are expected to increase flood risks in some areas while causing droughts in others. If there is significant warming, the capacity of ecosystems to adapt will be exceeded, with negative consequences such as an increased risk of extinction of species. The most vulnerable people are in general the poor, since they have less capacity to adapt, and their livelihoods are often dependent on resources that are linked to climate.
Residents of developing countries especially African nations are particularly more vulnerable to climate change, because of existing pressures on the ecosystems and low capacity to adapt. On all continents, water supply and the threat to coastal areas will be an issue. Overall future impacts are expected to be negative, but according to some scientists, that, some positive effects are also expected such as an increase in agricultural productivity at high latitudes accompanying a moderate warming, or decreased heating needs in cold regions.
Humans need to adapt to the impacts of climate change through technological solutions such as coastal defenses and changes in consumption habits. Vulnerability of human populations to climate change and its consequences can be affected by other factors, such as pollution, resource conflicts, or epidemics. An emphasis on sustainable development solutions can help human societies reduce their vulnerability to climate change.
A wide variety of policy tools can be applied by governments to create incentives for mitigation action, such as regulation, taxation, tradable permit schemes, subsidies, and voluntary agreements. Past experience of some countries shows that there are advantages and drawbacks for any given policy instrument.
For instance, while regulations and standards can provide some certainty about emission levels, they may not encourage innovations and more advanced technologies. Taxes and charges, however, can provide incentives, but cannot guarantee a particular level of emissions. It is important to consider the environmental impacts of policies and instruments, their cost effectiveness, institutional feasibility and how costs and benefits are distributed.
However, the impact of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period 2008-2012 on global carbon emissions is expected to be limited, it has allowed the establishment of a global response to the climate problem as well as the creation of an international carbon market and other mechanisms that may provide the foundation for future mitigation efforts.
Switching to more sustainable development paths can make a major contribution to climate change mitigation. Policies that contribute to both climate change mitigation and sustainable development include those related to energy efficiency, renewable energies, and conservation of natural habitats. In general, sustainable development can increase the capacity for adaptation and mitigation, and reduce vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
Global climate change adaptive capability of people and communities should be mediated through institutions approach: disseminating information, building knowledge, articulating needs, ensuring accountability, exchanging goods and services, and transferring resources, among others.
For 21st century challenges, it requires 21st century institutions. Today’s organisations must be able to manage public goods, bringing in the private sector. They must be stakeholder-driven, efficiently moving resources from global to local levels. They must be problem solvers, valuing ecosystems in dealing with climate change. To start up the adaptive measures, the existing institutions can be used for the deployment of financial resources and modify these institutions to better manage knowledge and services. And, in the longer term, as funding increases and agendas expand, new institutions might be needed to support the existing ones.
Adaptation requires mechanisms cutting across governments’ sectoral forms of organisation. National policy coordination for adaptation, disaster risk reduction, poverty alleviation, and human development should be led from the highest political and organisational level. Climate change is far too big a challenge for any single Ministry or an Agency because it requires coordination among multiple sectors. All governments have a responsibility to protect their poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Climate consequences will affect growing numbers of vulnerable people. Therefore, governments need to be ready with the appropriate social safety nets. In developing countries, external technical support is needed to strengthen institutions responsible for such systems, and national and international organisations should cooperate in this effort. International organisations and bilateral donors have a special responsibility to support and channel resources to communities in fragile states that suffer these present challenges via traditional and informal organisations.
In terms of climate change, national governments must deal with multiple agencies, all of which is for the purpose of proving their constituencies that they are taking effective action.
To this end, current warming trends are unequivocal. It is highly likely that greenhouse gases released by human activities are responsible for most of the warming observed in the past fifty years. The warming is projected to continue and to increase over the course of the 21st century and beyond.
Climate change already has a measurable impact on many natural and human systems. Effects are projected to increase in the future and to be more severe with greater increases in temperature. Adaptation measures need to be implemented and will be essential in order to address the projected consequences. There is, however, a limit to adaptation; mitigation measures in order to reduce the severity of impacts. Mitigation measures that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can help avoid/reduce or delay many impacts of climate change. Policy instruments could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in products, technologies and processes which emit less greenhouse gases.
Without new mitigation policies, global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow over the coming decades and beyond. Rapid world-wide investments and deployment of mitigation technologies, as well as research into new energy sources, will be necessary to achieve a stabilisation of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Additional research addressing gaps in knowledge would further reduce uncertainties and thus facilitate decision-making related to climate change.
By Professor Nasiru Medugu Idris
Idris is Dean, Faculty of Environmental Science, Nasarawa State University, Keffi; firstname.lastname@example.org