Asia-Pacific, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

Q&A: Political Will, Governance Crucial to Climate Change Issue

Lynette Lee Corporal interviews GEOFFREY BLATE, Greater Mekong Climate Change Coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund

CHIANG RAI, Thailand, Oct 19 2009 (IPS) - How countries can develop and provide key services to their citizens while acting responsibly in limiting emissions is a balancing act for many Asian countries, including those in the Mekong region.

WWF's Geoffrey Blate  Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

WWF's Geoffrey Blate Credit: Lynette Lee Corporal/IPS

“You can’t say no to infrastructure and good sanitation and water delivery systems,” Geoffrey Blate, Greater Mekong climate change coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund, said in an interview on the sidelines of a consultation with stakeholders held by the Vientiane-based Mekong River Commission in this northern Thai city on Oct. 16-17.

“But what we’re saying is let’s take into account and emphasise a bit more the role of healthy ecosystems in providing resilience to climate change because ecosystems do play that role,” he added.

More than the development of climate change-proof infrastructure, Blate said the WWF would like to see more ecosystems-based adaptation strategies from the December global negotiations on a new global deal on climate change, as well as from any regional agreement on the matter.

“At least in the lower Mekong countries, it’s land use change that is contributing the most to the emissions at this point.” said Blate.

Investing in the environment has become even more important in protecting communities against the negative impact of climate change.

Blate explained that getting ecosystems, like mangroves, wetlands and watershed forests, to remain healthy will actually “provide a lot of resilience to climate change”.

On Oct. 5, the WWF itself released a report that urged the creation of a regional climate change adaptation agreement in the Mekong region, considered one of the most biologically diverse in the world. This diversity would be threatened by climate change.

“The report calls for the reduction of unsustainable, illegal or unregulated resource extraction, which includes wildlife trade, trafficking, infrastructure development, among other things,” Blate said.

Thus far, he credits countries like Cambodia for pushing for the creation of protected sites. As of 2003, the country has placed 25 percent of its land under its protected area and forest conservation project.

The Copenhagen climate change talks scheduled for December, said Blate, are crucial in that they would provide an overall framework for international cooperation among developed and developing countries.

IPS: Which among the six Mekong countries do you think would be the first to take that crucial step toward the creation of a regional climate change adaptation agreement? GEOFFREY BLATE: The question is difficult because all have to agree that they are going to work on this together. And all these goals of reducing current non-climate threats, including infrastructure development and other causes of habitat loss, are all wrapped up into regional trade, exchange of goods and integration of economies.

Thailand can say, ‘We’re going to really focus on this, making sure that there’s no wildlife trafficking. We’re going to really make sure that any forestry or any agricultural product or fisheries are done in a sustainable way as possible’.

But their resources are connected to their neighbours, and so there really has to be an agreement. Who should take the first step? Any of them should take the first step. Maybe China should take the first step as it’s the most capable in the region.

IPS: ‘Capable’ meaning…? GB: They are the most developed and have the most capacity. We just heard in the MRC meeting that they are very keen to cooperate and provide non-technical assistance.

In a country like Cambodia, or Laos, there’s still quite a bit of poverty; they are still struggling. Personally, I would expect countries that have a little more integrated economic development at this point, like Vietnam and Thailand, to step up a little bit more.

Thailand really should be — of the lower basin Mekong countries, in my opinion — the one to provide more leadership in this regard.

IPS: So it is more of a question of how capable these countries are and their willingness to make said changes? GB: Right. There’s political will and there’s governance. We already know that governance is a huge issue in all of the countries, but especially in the countries that are least developed.

IPS: How would you assess the MRC’s readiness or willingness to discuss and incorporate climate change in its plans? GB: I was encouraged to hear that people are pressing the MRC (to do something about it). But the MRC can only do as much as the countries, as member states, approve. I think the MRC is keen to address stakeholders’ concerns, to engage them in the consultation process and to understand how climate change will fit into this.

It’s tricky though. The MRC is a pretty big organisation, and climate change is meant to be a crosscutting initiative through the Basin Development Programme, the fisheries programme and other programmes.

How that’s working in a practical, realistic sense is hard to gauge at the moment. If I had to gauge it from this meeting, I would say that they could do a better job integrating the climate change initiative.

IPS: What do you mean by ‘better job’? GB: There is a climate change adaptation initiative, and that is sitting within the environment programme of the MRC. There is no one here from the environment programme or from that initiative. So how will the folks here and the rest of the BDP going to do the cross-walk with the climate change initiative and vice versa? I think people in the climate change programme should have been here to hear the concerns that have been raised.

The MRC has the initiative and is including the issue in their scenarios. Right now, as I understand it, they are only going to include it in the longer-term scenarios (beyond 20 years), but not in the nearer-term scenarios.

IPS: Will thinking of climate change as a development, and not just a mere environment, issue help in creating a sense of urgency among the public, including key decision makers? GB: We can start now and we should start now. Thailand and Vietnam now have national strategies. Cambodia and Laos are in the process of developing national strategies, but the process is very slow.

The MRC is probably in the best position to generate the necessary information and knowledge, and they’ve been doing it. However, it’s really only for the basin and there are lots of other links and areas that are connected to the basin which I think need to be included. So governments have to find a way to do it.

IPS: Do you see a shift happening in the way Mekong countries view climate change as being more than an environmental issue? GB: Some, not as much as there needs to be. In Thailand, I think people are starting to get it. The development community, like the donor community, the multilateral institutions, they get it. I still feel there’s a lack of awareness.

People kind of get that climate change is a problem, but I also think there’s a sort of ethical issue in the region where people think, ‘well, we need to develop and so we can’t worry about that’, and that since developed countries caused the problem, they should fix it on their own. But everybody has to take part in addressing this problem.

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