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Climate Change Expert Worries Financial Crisis Will be 'Excuse' to Delay Action

Interviewee: Kevin M. Conrad, United Nations Special Envoy on the Environment and Climate Change for Papua New Guinea
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Staff Writer,
October 8, 2008


World leaders continue talks on a framework to replace the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which expires in 2012 but there is new concern they will be imperiled by the global financial crisis. UN special envoy on the environment and climate change for Papua New Guinea, Kevin Conrad--who famously stood up (NYTimes) at the 2007 UN climate change meeting in Bali and told Bush administration negotiators "if you are not willing to lead, get out of the way"--says the financial crisis should not be used as an excuse to halt climate change efforts. "It's very easy to find an excuse not to do what has to be done, or what is not the right thing, and as we know politicians excel at that," he said, adding: "there are real costs of inaction." Conrad says his country is already experiencing the consequences of climate change. He argues the financial crisis may provide a useful way to prioritize efforts and implement the cheapest solutions first.

You've helped spearhead efforts to get deforestation prevention included in the financing scheme for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries. Can you talk a little bit about where things stand now on the deforestation prevention funding?

You know, from one perspective things have gone very well, almost too well, in the sense that our efforts on deforestation have moved very quickly in what is typically a very slow UN process. So, as a matter of fact, we're sort of slowing down a little bit to allow the rest of the negotiations to catch up. So, on one hand, we have resolved all of the key methodical issues, so we know we can measure forest carbon, we know that there are policies and institutions that can be put in place that reduce deforestation. The biggest question is just how serious are rich countries? That unless rich countries take deep cuts themselves, and obviously the United States is a key player in this, but unless rich countries take deep cuts and then are willing to provide the finance for poor countries to reduce their own emissions, then those are the two elements that are necessary for us to succeed.

One of the big issues on climate change is balancing the needs of developing countries for development. Some people worry that climate change will begin to overtake broader development goals and funding priorities. How do you balance broad development goals such as education and water quality, health, against the increasing necessity to meet climate change needs, either on the mitigation side or the adaptation side.

We cannot say we're going to do one thing and not another thing. We have to do all of these things. And in order to do all of these things we have to be smart about it. But the most important thing for me, beyond realizing we have to get it done, we have to change our philosophy, where--let me use the old analogy--where you can either give someone a fish and feed them for a day, or you can give them a fishing pole and feed them for a lifetime. And what our approach to aid has been, that we're going to give you money and solve your problem for a day. What we really should be doing as a global society is giving developing countries a fair shake in the global economy so that they can, of their own free will, and of their own free choice, and based on their own efforts, pull themselves out of poverty.

And let me just explain what that means. For example, a hundred and fifty years ago, the world fell in love with the Earth's geological services. These were the services that create oil, or hydrocarbons. So, very poor people in East Texas became very rich. Countries in the Middle East became very rich. Now what the world has to understand is that we need a transition. We have to value those ecosystem services, instead of saying those are free, we have to provide value to them. Papua New Guinea is a large tropical rainforest country. If we valued the ecosystem services of the world's forests, they absorb about $100 billion of carbon a year. Now, that is more than the world's ODA [overseas development assistance]. On an annualized basis, the world's countries give about $75 billion of ODA. So, just by changing and valuing an ecosystem service, we provide a sustainable, long-term revenue stream to the rural communities in developing countries.

The world is facing a massive financial crisis right now. What implications does this crisis have for international efforts on climate change? Particularly efforts to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I've read some stories in the last couple days that said there's already worries that this might impact UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

Well, again, I think we have to live in reality. And there is an economic hiccup and maybe it's more than that, we'll have to see. But, you know, again, I think it may be useful. Can we use this to focus on what we should be doing in the climate change game in the short run? That is the following: we should be really looking at low-cost emission reductions that we can effect very quickly. If people are worried about the cost of climate change, the atmosphere can't tell if a carbon reduction came from an expensive choice or a cheap choice. The atmosphere can only tell whether it was actually reduced. So, this is where, by working with developing countries, and by working in sectors like forestry, and by prioritizing those quickly, we can gain big emission reductions at a low cost while we're allowing our global economy to resuscitate.

In countries like Australia there was some concern that they wouldn't be able to start their cap-and-trade program because they didn't feel like their economy was growing enough, the political will maybe wasn't there. In the United States certainly, the political will is shaky at best. And then also the business climate, companies and banks are having severe issues. How does this affect policy making? How does this affect green investment decisions?

Well, you know, it's like anything else in life, it's very easy to find an excuse not to do what has to be done, or what is not the right thing, and as we know politicians excel at that. So, we do have a serious problem. I speak on behalf of Papua New Guinea, we are currently seeing sea-level rise impact our communities. We are relocating communities. There are real costs of inaction. If you use classic economic evaluation, we understand that the longer we wait, the higher those costs become. It's sort of that philosophy that has to drive our decision-making. So we're taking the low-hanging fruit, we're achieving the emission reduction, until such times when our economy is stronger, where we can take on, we can carry the heavier burden. So I think we have to be practical, thoughtful, but at the same time, not use one problem to, in effect, snowball to create an even bigger problem.

Do you have any concerns about this financial crisis as far as development and climate change?

I do in the short run. At some point, the people of the United States are really going to have to put pressure on Congress, and have them stop these traditional approaches to dealing with calamities, because it's too slow and it adds up being too expensive by the time everyone piles on. So, in that context, yes I am concerned. But in that context I believe that we as a global society understand we have a very serious issue [on climate change], and understand that we're all going to have to carry a burden in order to win this battle, and I'm still positive about our collective ability to tackle this crisis of our generation.

Just a follow-up, because this issue of the U.S. participation in this global society and dealing with climate change has been an on-going topic. Do you have some perspectives on the United States and climate change going forward?

It can't be a small subset of the world's economies, toeing the load for everybody. What is not equitable is the largest historical emitter and the largest current emitter in the world doing nothing. The United States emits about 20 tons per capita of carbon emissions, and their GDP per capita is over $40,000. India is less than $1000 per person in GDP per capita and less than 2 tons per person in carbon emissions. So for the United States to say it's going to do nothing unless India does something is preposterous, and it's not equitable. So the challenge is, what's fair? Yes, the United States must lead. Yes, the United States must carry its fair share. The question is what is fair of developing countries. And that's the biggest question in the next year and a half before we get to Copenhagen.

I've read some responses on this financial crisis. What I heard was there there's a fundamental sense of unfairness, that the United States could suddenly pull $700 billion out of the air, and rescue credit markets. But then when there are all these other issues, climate change, development issues, clean water, education, that then there's no money for that. Is there a sense of resentment?  How are other countries viewing this?

Politely, with disdain. You know, for the entire world to get together and say "We're going to defeat global poverty", okay, and to come up with estimates of $25 billion a year or something like that to accomplish that and to be nowhere near mobilizing that kind of money after talking about it for fifteen years, and overnight for the United States to mobilize almost a trillion dollars by the time it's all told, just talks about priority. It talks about what, are we serious? Are the citizens of the United States-not only are they living as a shining beacon on a hill-in effect, have they walled themselves off from reality? Are they getting fat at the expense and at the loss of life of the rest of the world? And so these are issues that I think we should have more debate about. We really have to talk and say, "What are our priorities?"

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