why it makes cents to pay for adaptation

Last month the 150 mph tropical cyclone Sidr hit the coast of Bangladesh claiming at least 2000 lives. More than 1 million people fled and took refuge at cyclone shelters heeding the calls of the recently set up early warning systems. This system operates with a high tech satellite tracking system on one hand, and a group of volunteers carrying bullhorns on motorbikes in the other. The deaths and losses are indeed saddening but the fact that a similar cyclone in 1991 took away at least 140,000 lives gives us some perspective on the immeasurable benefits of early preparedness. This example was given yesterday by one of the panelist at a side event on the ‘economics of adaptation’ at the on going UNFCCC conference in Bali. On this panel sat Nicholas Stern (former chief economist of the World Bank), Bert Koenders (Netherland’s Minister for Development and Cooperation), Phil Woolas (UK’s Minister in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-DEFRA) and Kevin Watkins (Director for the UNDP Human Development Report).

Several numbers have been offered as the cost of adaptation ranging from US$ 3-50 billion per year within the short term. If the Bangladesh’s example is anything to go by, then we need to pose and ask whether this is really a cost or an opportunity. Nicholas Stern is clear that it will cost far much less to not only mitigate, but also adapt to climate change. Unlike Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), which is really a goodwill gesture from the North to South, it is imperative for the developed countries according to article 16 of the Rio declaration to pay for the immediate impacts of climate change. This article is clear on the responsibility of the polluter to pay for any harmful effects as a consequence of their activity; in this case green house gases in the atmosphere.

Rumors in the corridors of the conference suggest that the developed countries intend to mix the ODA issue with the compensation for adaptation-an atrocious sin if pulled off! Development assistance is and has always been optional; after all, the non-climate related problems of the poorer countries are by and large their problem. However, based on the polluter pays principle of article 16, the compensation for adaptation should not be mistaken for a favor to the developing world. No one is politely requested to pay after running over their neighbor’s fence-they are obligated to.