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It’s time to look at climate risks and adaptation measures from a transnational perspective

Though many adaptation policies and measures focus strictly on local and national solutions, the risks associated with climate change do not stop at national borders. SEI Asia Centre Director Niall O’Connor calls for progress in addressing climate risks that includes full holistic responses that place transboundary risks at their centre, rather than on the margins.

Niall O'Connor / Published on 18 February 2019

Traffic jam in central Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Jamie Kemsey / SEI.

In 2008, Senegal experienced severe food security challenges that upset countless lives and livelihoods and reverberated throughout the West African country of 16 million: rice prices skyrocketed by 200 percent in less than a year. The major culprit? Markets and unforeseen climate events thousands of miles away, on different continent. That year, India placed export restrictions on rice due to climate change impacts that resulted in a poorer harvest and lower stocks of the basic staple to send overseas to feed other populations.

Senegal was negatively impacted by climate change not from its own policies or actions, but those of another sovereign state to which it was not even physically connected or adjacent. India, for its part, was simply trying to secure its national interests, as most countries would do.

This story remains a good example of transnational, or transboundary, climate risks. These risks continue to grow, and it is critical now to assess whether climate change adaptation decisions we make at home can have impacts on communities outside our national borders. In many cases, as with India and Senegal 11 years ago, those impacts can be far-reaching and devastating. We must therefore ensure transboundary impacts are integrated into all climate change measures and responses from national to regional scales.

At the UN’s Third Forum of ministers and environment authorities in Asia Pacific in Singapore last month, a session on catalysing a global agenda on adaptation to climate change highlighted the reality that transboundary climate risks occur along many pathways, and are often neglected in national climate change adaptation efforts. We may understand biophysical risks that impact ecosystems across national borders, such as those posed to rivers, forests, oceans and air, but do we take into account other risks, such as those that impact trade (across global markets), people (from tourism to climate induced migration) and  financial  flows (on foreign investments)?

Do we assess these risks based solely on how they impact “our” community or nation, and mitigate against them, adapting to how we can maximise positive impacts at home, and forget about the external impacts they may cause to our neighbours? Sadly, this is often the case, and this is why a call for a more coordinated approach to assessing and agreeing on transboundary risks from regional to global scales is essential. This call must ensure we understand the trade-offs among various adaptation options to mitigate transboundary risks.

An independent regional forum is one way to tackle this. The forum would be tasked with coordinating each national response to the four key risk pathways (trade, people, biophysical and finance), to ensure national to regional integration. It would also help build on national adaptation plans for climate change to develop agreed and coordinated regional adaptation plans. The regional group could initially focus on a key issue, such as air quality, oceans, freshwater or ecosystems, and eventually integrate the more tricky areas of people and trade. With an estimated $4 trillion dollars at risk from changing hydrology across the Hindu-Kush-Himalayan region alone, for example, there is a clear business case and political need to address these issues.

While we know many key policies are already in place, lack of enforcement, and in some cases the political and business will to ensure compliance across the policies, leads to neglect of critical issues. The regional body could highlight areas of concern to governments, business and civil society stakeholders to initiate change, streamline approaches and help enforce compliance. Left alone, many vulnerable countries will continue to focus internally to solve their climate issues, not looking very far beyond their horizon.

The results of the current short-sighted climate focus were on display at the Environment Ministers meeting. Small island states such as Tuvalu spoke of the challenges of a slowly rising sea, while Bangladesh had tales of entire islands being submerged. Kiribati has gone one step further: the government is already buying large plots of land on another island, Fiji, to potentially migrate its entire population as seas swallow its habitable land. Tuvalu President Enele Sosene Sopoago, in his address to participants called on governments, business and civil society to work together to solve transboundary climate risks, suggesting the regional leaders forum as a start.

With growing indications we will not limit global warming to the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature as laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement, the cost of not acting on transboundary climate risks is too high. Senegal food price shocks and the inundation of Kiribati are only the beginning: escalating impacts in mountain areas, where a global increase of up to 2C could mean a 3-5C rise in high elevations, will heavily impact glacier melting, agriculture production and water resources management, all leading to large-scale people migration across terrestrial borders that would throw communities and economies into long term chaos. For small island states such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, the prognosis is equally devastating, with sea level rise and escalating human caused disasters through extreme weather patterns increasing vulnerability and causing disruption to millions.

The time has come to address these perilous threats with a full-throated holistic response that places transboundary climate risks at its centre, rather than in the margins. We must come together and seek solutions that are borderless.

Written by

Niall O’Connor

Centre Director

SEI Asia

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