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SRI LANKA: Local Climate Efforts: Too Little, Too Slow, Too Late?

Feizal Samath* - IPS/TerraViva

COLOMBO, Dec 14 2009 (IPS) - Sri Lankan experts do not seem to be pinning their hopes on the ongoing climate talks in Copenhagen, saying greenhouse gas emissions will continue to torment the world as long as western lifestyles remain the same.

The key, therefore, is for the island state—and other developing countries for that matter—to tackle climate change right in their own backyards. That is, through applicable mitigation and adaptation measures. But that is easier said than done.

Kusum Athukorala, president of the Network of Women Water Professionals in Sri Lanka, a non-governmental group advocating improved water governance, said the only way out of the abyss of global warming—or an increase in average global temperatures—that many say have been forced on small countries by the west is mitigation and adaptation.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is being held in the Danish capital from Dec. 7 to 18, is expected to produce a far-reaching climate agreement that will spell out legally binding emission targets, particularly among the world’s major economies.

“Global warming can be reduced through mitigation or adaptation. We cannot mitigate (because the rich countries won’t do it). Thus we can adapt to the conditions, but that, too, is not being done,” she said.

Like most of the developing world, Sri Lanka, alongside other island nations like Maldives, Seychelles and Madagascar, faces the brunt of greenhouse gas, in particular carbon dioxide, emissions. Experts say emissions trigger sea- level rise that in turn threatens life and property, particularly in areas most vulnerable to climate change such as low-lying island states.

“For climate change to be minimised, western lifestyles must change (in conformity with the developing world),” said Piyal Parakrama, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies. But that is not happening, he rued.

Parakrama cited car production in the developed world as a case in point. Cars that were previously produced with a life span of more than 25 years are now made to last a much shorter period so that more cars could be sold to the developing world, thus raising incomes and reinforcing lavish western lifestyles, he alleged.

But instead of bringing down their carbon emissions, “they buy credit (carbon trading) from us and continue (to produce and pollute) as before.”

Carbon trading is a mechanism designed to control pollution through the grant of economic incentives for reducing carbon emissions. Under this scheme, companies are issued emission permits and corresponding allowances that cannot exceed the cap. Should these business entities require additional credits, they can buy from those that are able to reduce emissions below their allowances.

Small towns near rivers going under water during flash floods and salt water getting into rivers affecting populations are some of the climate change issues that Sri Lanka is struggling to cope with, said Athukorala.

She said Sri Lanka is still not prepared for the dire consequences of climate change. “Weather patterns have changed. One month’s rainfall now takes place on a single day, with high-intensity rain, while flashfloods are occurring all the time,” noted the water expert, who has been working on climate change issues for the past five years.

Sri Lanka, for instance, has two cultivation seasons for its main rice crop, but because of the changing weather patterns, the four-month crop season has been reduced by half.

“Yet, no attempt has been made (by the government) to provide enough seed to farmers (suited to) a shorter crop season. Everyone blames the weather but does nothing about it,” she said. “We need to adapt fast or we would be facing a serious food security issue.”

Then, too, there is the issue of buildings being erected on mountainsides and river reservations, which the government should forbid. Yet this is not happening because “corrupt officials” are allowing it, she added.

In an earlier interview with IPS, Prof Mohan Munasinghe, one of the foremost experts on climate change and currently vice-chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, painted a frightening picture of the impact of climate change on Sri Lanka.

The co-laureate of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize said the global environmental problem would have serious consequences on water, agriculture, health and the coast.

“A major part of Jaffna (the main coastal town in the north) will be submerged when the sea level rises. So people are fighting and dying over areas that may soon not be there,” Prof Munasinghe, a key participant at the Copenhagen climate conference, told IPS.

In mid-2009, government troops crushed the rebels, ending a near 30-year- long battle with the Tami Tiger rebels who wanted an independent homeland for their minority Tamil community.

The most worrying aspects of climate change’s impacts, he said, would be seen in agriculture, saying a half-a-metre sea level rise in Sri Lanka over the next two decades will make dry areas drier and wet areas becoming wetter. “With higher temperatures and less water, paddy-field farming output will fall by 20 to 30 percent in the next 20 to 30 years.

He had also predicted that in the hotter areas, mosquitoes would be more rampant and even expand into the more hilly areas.

Still another concern among experts is the ongoing construction of two coastal power plants in Sri Lanka, raising doubts on its efforts toward mitigating the impacts of climate change.

“We don’t have a proper energy policy and planners are not prepared to invest in huge solar and wind power plants when there is enormous scope for this energy in Sri Lanka. Without any other renewable source, the authorities are looking for coal as a quick option to the energy shortage,” ecologist Parakrama said.

He said Sri Lanka is building two coal power plants when the rest of the world is moving away from this energy source because of its environmental risks. Based on established global data, carbon dioxide emissions from coal are slightly higher than from petroleum and nearly double the amount from natural gas.

Sri Lanka imports oil and gas for its thermal power stations, which, along with hydropower, supply the country’s energy needs. But the shortage and high cost of fuel has prompted the government to harness what is said to be a cheaper energy source – coal. A power plant, financed by the Exim Bank of China, is already being built on the north-western coast and due to be completed in 2015, with the first phase expected to be ready by 2011.

Construction of another power plant, a joint undertaking with the Indian government, has been approved and is expected to commence next year.

The world’s largest coal producer is China, followed by the United States, Russia, India and Australia.

“Because they (rich countries) can’t have coal power plants (due to global warming) and have to utilise these resources, coal power plants are promoted in countries like Sri Lanka,” Parakrama said.

Prof Munasinghe believes local mitigation measures should complement those of the industrialised countries. “Unfortunately, if the developed world doesn’t do anything to mitigate the impact (of climate change), there’s little Sri Lanka can do,” he said.

*This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online daily published for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen.

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