OPINION: Climate action should not be a casualty of war in Ukraine

by Patrick Verkooijen & Ban Ki-moon | @PVV_GCA | Global Center on Adaptation
Friday, 29 April 2022 07:34 GMT

A farmer sprinkles fertiliser onto crops at a field on Tuti Island, Khartoum, Sudan, February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate finance is competing with much-needed relief for Ukrainian refugees. This short-sighted approach could trigger a hunger and climate catastrophe

Ban Ki-moon is 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the Global Center on Adaptation. Patrick Verkooijen is the CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation.

In the rush to aid Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war, Western governments are forsaking other humanitarian crises, including the enormous hardship caused by climate change.

Ukrainians rightly deserve our aid and solidarity. So do families and pensioners whose incomes cannot cover soaring food and energy prices. We also understand that public finances, already stretched by the pandemic, are under great strain. But deciding which is the more worthy cause – climate change or Ukrainian refugees – is a false dichotomy. It is also a huge policy mistake.

This is not an either-or situation. The world is fighting multiple crises on several fronts: COVID-19, climate change, and an energy and food emergency triggered by Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine. Neglecting any of these will compound the others.

Act before the window closes

Neglecting climate adaptation, in particular, is immensely short-sighted. It is the best strategy we have to address the root cause of many other crises, including those triggered by climate disasters, water scarcity, desertification, harvest failures and rising sea levels.

Climate scientists warned recently that 40% of the world’s population is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Planetary warming is happening faster and hitting harder than expected, they said. On the present trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) estimates that, by 2050, Africa could lose around 30% of all maize-growing areas as well as 60% of land suitable for growing beans.

Cutting climate finance risks stoking even bigger problems down the line. As global food prices soar and shortages loom, the most urgent need is for funds that improve the ability of climate-vulnerable countries to feed themselves.

The World Food Programme warns that 44 million people in 38 countries are on the brink of famine. War in Ukraine has hit the supply of grains and vegetable oils. One quarter of the world’s wheat and 80% of sunflower oil supplies could be affected, with Russian exports under embargo and Ukrainian ports and farming disrupted. This could constrain access to food elsewhere, sparking political unrest.

Spend now to save later

All countries, particularly the poorest and the hardest hit by climate change, could significantly improve their food security by using climate adaptation techniques for agriculture. These include introducing drought-resistant varieties of staple foods such as beans and maize; restoring degraded land and forests; adopting irrigation techniques that use less water; getting crops to market more quickly to reduce food waste; and extending crop and weather insurance to more farmers.

Climate adaptation works. Done well and at scale, it also provides an excellent return on investment. For sub-Saharan Africa, the costs of inaction are estimated at $201 billion a year – compared to the investments needed for climate adaptation in agriculture, estimated at $15 billion, according to the GCA.

In response to the looming food crisis, the African Development Bank and partners aim to mobilise $1 billion to boost the production of wheat and other crops in Africa. The goal is to help 40 million farmers increase their output of heat-tolerant wheat varieties, rice, soybeans and other crops to feed about 200 million people.

Training farmers in new techniques that increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change will be central to these efforts. Through the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program, an Africa-led initiative launched last year, work is already underway to bring climate-resilient techniques to small-scale producers who grow most of Africa’s food.

Housing refugees from fighting in Ukraine is indeed an urgent priority. But if we fail to maintain our investments in climate adaptation, we risk a global food crisis and worse.

Improving the ability of food-importing countries to feed themselves is therefore a pressing issue. But climate adaptation techniques can also help restore degraded lands, conserve water, and harness nature-based solutions such as mangrove-planting to protect coastal cities from sea-level rise.

Global warming is having earlier, more severe consequences than we ever expected. Wealthier countries must make good on their climate finance commitment of $100 billion a year for developing countries and their commitment to double down on adaptation finance made at COP26 through the Glasgow Climate Pact. International financial institutions must make it a priority.  

Climate action cannot become collateral damage to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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