Climate Change – The last 30 years and the next 30

With COP21 currently taking place in Paris, the thoughts of UNU-WIDER Research Fellow Channing Arndt on the past and future of the climate change research and policy are particularly relevant.

Our climate is changing - but how much?

Over the last 30 years the existence of manmade climate change has become unquestionable, but Channing highlights that much uncertainty about the magnitude of these changes remains. We don’t know, for example, exactly how much warming a given amount of greenhouse gases will cause, and we further don’t know the level of greenhouse gases that we will continue to emit. This uncertainty means that we don’t know exactly what to expect over the coming years.

From uncertainty to risk – identifying the range of possible futures

While we can’t remove all uncertainty, Channing suggests that we can identify a likely range of climate outcomes. Temperature increases are likely to fall between 2.5 and 10 degrees celsius by the end of the century. The top end of that range would be disastrous and would mean a total transformation of the environment on the planet as we know it with grave consequences for human wellbeing. At the same time a billion people still live in extreme poverty. Channing argues that development in the context of a changing environment will be the major challenge of the next 30 years.

Extreme poverty and development vs. climate mitigation/adaptation

If extreme poverty is to be ended over the next 30 years, then affected countries will need to undergo a structural transformation. However, Channing points out that unlike the path followed by the developed countries of today, the path to a transformed economy is further complicated by increasing temperatures, increasing rainfall uncertainty, and the need to move towards new sources of energy. These things have not been done before.

Developing countries typically have more people concentrated in climate sensitive sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, and are predominantly situated in the geographic areas that will be most affected by a warming climate. Due to this Channing argues developing countries cannot simply ignore the threat of climate change. Instead they need to look for innovative ways to develop without greatly increasing their emissions of carbon.

Innovating on energy solutions one key avenue for mitigation

One such innovative idea is a pan-African energy grid based on hydropower. Hydropower is a clean, inexpensive form of energy and a big grid would complement solar and wind by creating the potential for a system with a more constant power output. This, and other ideas, are being explored as part of our project on Africa’s Energy Futures. Research of this kind is crucial if the story of the next 30 years is to be a story of successful sustainable development.

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