Q&A: Curbing climate change requires "complete transformation" - UNEP official

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 October 2014 10:50 GMT

"We’re talking about a fundamentally different approach to our economies, to our development, to our energy use" - UNEP official

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world must revolutionise the way it pursues economic development by shifting to a far cleaner model if it is to put the brakes on global warming, according to a top U.N. environment official.

Kaveh Zahedi, regional director and representative for Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), spoke with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum 2014 in the Malaysian capital this week.

The Iranian-British official, who directs UNEP's projects in 39 Asia-Pacific countries, talked to correspondent Thin Lei Win about what’s already being done in the region to cope with climate impacts, and what the international community should do next.

Q: You said at the forum opening that the world is not on the right path when it comes to addressing climate change. How far off track are we?

A: Many of the reports that are coming out indicate that instead of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius - which is the globally agreed limit beyond which things become much more difficult to manage - we’re now heading towards pathways that could take us up to 4 degrees and possibly even beyond that. 

Q: What do we need to do to avoid such worst-case scenarios?

A: We’re talking about a fundamentally different approach to our economies, to our development, to our energy use and the type of energy we use: a complete transformation. That’s why it’s so difficult to achieve and it’s taking so long in (international climate) negotiations.

It’s (an approach) where the energy we use will not cause the emission of greenhouse gases but also…emit less methane that is affecting our crops, (and) emit less black carbon that is affecting the health of our people. 

Q: How possible is this? 

A: I actually think that if we were able to go forward in time and look back, we would be astounded at the pace of change for the better that we’re seeing.

The problem is that the climate is changing faster than we are reacting to it at the moment. So our efforts still seem like a case study here, and a pilot there. We need to take those tests - what we’ve tried and works - and scale them up, society-wide or economy-wide. 

Q: How well is Asia Pacific adapting to the impacts of climate change?

A: This region has had to react because climate change is a reality (here). A (forum) speaker told us the 2010 floods in Pakistan affected 30 percent of the country and 30 million people.

And small island developing states are telling us that a single weather event shaves a percentage point off their GDP (gross domestic product) growth each year, or whenever it happens. 

(In response) we’re seeing cases where rice is being developed that can withstand both drought and floods. We’ve seen that in the cities, where the majority of the people in our region live, resilience is being built into new infrastructure projects. 

One example of particular interest to us at UNEP is the way some countries are better using ecosystems adaptation. What that means is that you invest in building up your ecosystems as your frontline towards adaptation. 

This could include coastal resilience by protecting or replanting mangroves which help absorb some of the storms and, to some degree, protect coastal communities.

It includes protecting watersheds so they absorb the heavy rainfalls that are coming and will continue to come, rather than all the water affecting the downstream communities. We see this being deployed in countries like Nepal, Pakistan and elsewhere. 

Q: What are your hopes for 2015, when new global deals on climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development are due to be agreed?

A: I think the hope we all have is based on a bit of uncertainty. We see across this region and elsewhere extraordinary movement on climate change.

We saw at the U.N. secretary-general’s climate summit (last month) really innovative partnerships coming out, and financiers telling us they’re going to de-carbonise their portfolio … Google and Apple have said similar things. We also saw mayors of 200 cities pledging to reduce greenhouse gases from their cities. 

But the question remains: will all of this be enough? Will all of this add up? The hope for (the 2015 U.N. climate talks in) Paris is that we can add all the action, all the pledges, all the movement into a regime that ensures and assures us that we will be on track to not go beyond 2 degrees (of global warming). 

(Editing by Megan Rowling)

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