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9.16.2009 World Bank Report Slams 'Inertia' in the Face of Climate Change


A major new World Bank report out today concludes that the world can fight poverty and climate change at the same time. But it won't be easy, and it won't be cheap.

The biennial global economic assessment, which this year focuses exclusively on the threat of climate change, estimates that nations will need nearly $500 billion annually by 2030 to both develop clean energy technologies across the world and cope with natural disasters.

Beyond the need for money, the "World Development Report 2010" calls on governments, research institutions and individuals to overcome a worldwide "inertia" that the authors argue has kept nations dependent on fossil fuel and too slow to muster the resources necessary to solve a problem many still see as distant.

"We are particularly good at acting on threats that can be linked to a human face, that present themselves as unexpected, dramatic or and immediate," the report warns. "The slow pace of climate change as well as the delayed, intangible and statistical natures of its risks simply do not move us."

The sweeping report -- which takes on everything from the need for climate risk insurance to avoiding deforestation -- comes as nations are trying to finish a new climate change treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

While decisions could come at a U.N. summit in Copenhagen in December, climate change activists say meetings of world leaders planned in New York and Pittsburgh this month could prove critical to the pace of the talks.

Among the thorniest issues -- second only to how drastically developed nations are willing to scale back their heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions -- is how much money wealthy countries will deliver to the developing world.

A stiff price that confronts the poor

The World Bank study estimates that poor nations will bear between 75 and 80 percent of the cost of floods, increased desertification and other disasters caused by global warming. Nations in Africa and South Asia are slated to lose as much as 5 percent of their gross domestic product if temperatures rise just 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

It estimates that countries will need $75 billion annually for adaptation -- things like wetland restoration or developing new crop strategies to help cope with warming temperatures. Nations would need another $500 billion annually for low-carbon technology development.

Yet while poor nations see funding as compensation, the United States and other countries are still grappling over how to sell domestically the idea of whopping climate aid packages in a time of financial crisis. At the same time, analysts said, negotiators have purposely held back on offering specific dollar amounts as a negotiating strategy to prod China and others to make emission reduction commitments.

"This is obviously one of the biggest issues in a Copenhagen deal, and there's some concern about unilaterally committing resources of this magnitude in advance of knowing what developing country actions are going to be," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The "World Development Report," meanwhile, makes the case for urgent action.

Crop yields will drop as diseases increase

Among the near-term impacts of climate change, the authors estimated that India's crop yields would likely decline 4.5 to 9 percent within the next three decades. Diarrheal diseases could jump as much as 5 percent in the next decade in countries with per capita incomes below $6,000. And in places like Côte d'Ivoire, where the World Bank has studied the link between rainfall patterns and investment in children's education, droughts could cause school enrollment to plummet 20 percent.

"Left unmanaged, climate change will reverse development progress and compromise the well-being of current and future generations," the authors wrote. "That is why decisive, immediate action is needed."

In the face of a global recession, the report advocates providing "green" stimulus packages -- something many countries, including the United States, Korea and China, already have done. The authors argue that investing in climate policy can create jobs while reducing emissions in wealthy nations and improving resilience to climate change in poorer nations.

The report also makes a strong case for breaking the link between fossil fuels and poverty development, saying the current use of natural resources is "not sustainable."

"Neglecting the natural environment in the pursuit of growth, people have made themselves more vulnerable to natural disasters," it says. Noting that developing nations need reliable and affordable energy to bring services to the estimated 1.6 billion people without electricity, the report calls for pursuing low-carbon supplies.

The finding is likely to get the attention of climate change activists, who have long pressed the World Bank to modify its own energy portfolio. Last week, the bank announced a record $3.3 billion in financing for renewable energy and efficiency projects over the previous fiscal year -- amounting to about 40 percent of the institution's energy lending. But environmental critics say that over the same time period, the bank doubled its financing of fossil fuels.