As rising concern over climate change prompts the search for solutions, it is increasingly being recognized that in order to be effective, efforts to combat climate change will have to be integrated into the broader context of social and economic development. The greenhouse gas emissions from human activities that scientists believe are the cause of most of the recent observed warming originate from all sectors of the economy: power production and heating, industrial processes, transportation, agriculture, waste management. Therefore slowing and eventually reducing emissions presents a multi-faceted and complex problem. The core tenet of sustainable development is the integration of economic, social and environmental concerns in policy-making. Applying this mode of thinking — seeing climate change through a “sustainable development lens”— could help in tackling the climate change challenge.

The international community has recognized the link between climate change and development, as reflected in the outcome of the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in New Delhi, in 2002, as well as the Plan of Implementation adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002.

The sustainable development dimension of climate change is becoming better understood. At a basic level, the projected adverse impacts of climate change could slow or undo the achievement of social and economic development. It is well-known that it is those societies already grappling with socio-economic development that are most likely to be hardest hit by climate change. Although industrialized countries are generally regarded as less vulnerable to climate impacts, they too will bear higher costs resulting from extreme weather events and the necessary strengthening or relocation of infrastructure, particularly in coastal areas. At the same time, societies’ choices of development pathways will eventually also influence the rate and degree of climate change. In this respect, implementing sustainable development goals can lead to a development trajectory that combines economic growth with climate change mitigation. Existing synergies between climate change and sustainable development could be further exploited through policies and actions promoting cleaner energy technologies, more sustainable transport, and better land-use policies. In order to see what this approach means in more practical terms, consider development options such as improved energy efficiency and freshwater management, which also promote mitigation and adaptation, respectively.

There is broad agreement that international cooperation on the twin aspects of mitigation and adaptation should be promoted. Adaptation is recognized as a necessity for all countries, but particularly for those vulnerable due to their geographic location or level of socio-economic development, such as small island developing States (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs). Encouragingly, several funds have been established under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol to support adaptation activities. Although temporal and spatial uncertainty about the impacts of climate change at the regional level complicates adaptation responses, in many cases implementing development options could also reduce vulnerability to climate variability and climate change. For example, strengthening water management systems in arid countries, through measures such as water conservation, not only makes sense from a development perspective, but also enhances capacity to cope with possible variations in rainfall patterns related to climate change.

The Montreal COP/MOP in December 2005 saw significant progress. The Parties to the Kyoto Protocol decided to initiate a process in an open-ended ad hoc group to consider further commitments under the Protocol by Annex I Parties beyond 2012. In parallel, the Parties to the Convention agreed to engage in a non-binding dialogue on long-term cooperative action to address climate change focussing on sustainable development, adaptation to climate change, promoting access by developing countries to climate friendly technologies, and market-based opportunities. The Framework Convention recognizes that, in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, industrialized countries should take the lead in combating climate change. Similarly, the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period, from 2008–2012, applies only to industrializing countries. However, in order to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations it will eventually be necessary for all countries to undertake some form of commitment to control emissions.

While there is no consensus on what would constitute an acceptable GHG concentration, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and academic studies have mapped out illustrative emissions profiles for achieving a range of concentrations.1 According to these profiles, remaining below, or slightly exceeding, a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 concentrations generally involves rising emissions in the near- to medium-term, followed by a fall-off before or around the middle of the century. According to the IPCC, the deployment of technologies in operation today or in the pilot stages could achieve a range of stabilization levels.2 More recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has detailed a series of energy technology scenarios demonstrating that a more sustainable energy path could be achieved with technologies that already exist or are under development.3 Generally, studies of mitigation options have assigned an important role to energy efficiency improvements, especially in the residential and commercial sectors. Energy efficiency and conservation measures could also entail sustainable development co-benefits, in the form of a decrease in air pollution and improved public health.

At present fossil fuels underpin the modern energy system and are ubiquitous, supplying 85 percent of all primary energy, with the remainder derived from nuclear, hydro-electricity and renewables. The dominance of fossil fuels is not considered likely to change in the foreseeable future — at least in the next 50 years — even as alternatives like renewables grow rapidly, but from a low base. Energy demand is projected to rise significantly in the coming decades. Presently the electricity sector alone is responsible for roughly 17 percent of global GHG emissions. In this context, the rapid introduction of carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technology is of importance. The technology involves the capture of CO2 normally released when fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) are combusted for power generation and its compression and long-term storage underground in depleted oil reservoirs or deep geological formations. Carbon capture and storage can be regarded as a bridging technology until cleaner options become available. However, the deployment of CCS will require a combination of research and development (R&D) and incentives and policy support. In its technology assessment, the IEA estimates the cost of CCS at between $40–90 per tonne of CO2, which could fall to below $25 by 2030 if sufficient R&D and demonstration efforts are put in place. In order to ensure that CCS is deployed in developing countries, mechanisms would need to be established to lower or meet the additional cost of the technology. By enabling countries to use the abundant and relatively cheap supplies of coal to generate electricity — providing access and powering industrialization in developing countries — in a climate-friendly manner, CCS could make an important contribution to sustainable development.

As befits a multi-faceted issue, the articles in this volume address climate change from a range of perspectives and approaches. For example, one of the articles relevant to mitigation includes a model for the allocation of emission entitlements, while another examines the key contribution that could be made by energy efficiency improvements. Adaptation issues are also well represented. Several articles bring out the link between climate change and sustainable development.

Various analyses show that energy efficiency improvements could account for a very large part of carbon dioxide reductions. However, even where energy efficiency measures could be undertaken at no net costs, or even yield savings, their full promise has not been realised. The commentary by Richard Ottinger provides an extensive outline of available measures and, importantly, goes on to set out how they can be implemented, with reference to experience gained and lessons learned. The author covers efficiency measures in all the major sectors, including transport (which also happens to be the fastest-growing source of GHG emissions), appliances and buildings. Among the means to promote energy efficiency that are identified and discussed are the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels, the adoption of standards for minimum energy efficiency, and government procurement to stimulate market development.

The Kyoto Protocol and a range of other initiatives, foremost the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, have given rise to a global carbon market: a leading consultancy estimated that the trading volume in 2005 was worth 9.4 billion euros. Although the lion's share of the market is concentrated, for now, in Europe, the clean development mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol enables developing countries to participate by permitting developers to earn credits for projects undertaken in developing countries that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While much has been written about various aspects of the CDM, the article by Bruce Chadwick analyses the transactions costs associated with the mechanism. As he explains, the creation of CDM project credits — an essentially intangible property right — depends on a series of national and international administrative steps, with attendant costs. The author begins with an overview of the Kyoto flexibility mechanisms, before proposing a definition of transaction costs and then identifying the points in the CDM project cycle that generate transaction costs. A practical example is included for illustrative purposes. As Chadwick notes, high transaction costs could steer developers away from small projects that deliver local sustainable development benefits in addition to GHG reductions, towards projects that secure large reductions relative to costs. He concludes on a positive note, stating that over time transaction costs will be reduced as procedures are standardized and streamlined.

The question of binding commitments is a difficult topic, complicated by sometimes opposing issues of equity, efficiency, and development. A plethora of allocation schemes and targets have been put forward. In a contribution in this volume Eeva Kuntsi-Reunanen and Jyrki Luukkanen analyse the implications of one such proposal, known as contraction and convergence. Under contraction and convergence, per capita emissions of developed and developing countries converge over time, until they are equal. In practice, this means that emissions from developing countries can rise for a time, while developed country emissions would have to drop quite sharply in the near future. Kuntsi-Reunanen and Luukkannen examine the changes in emission intensity — measured as tons of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of economic output — that would be required by a selection of developed and developing countries under a contraction and convergence scenario. One conclusion they reach is that the development path followed by most developed countries, based on energy-intensive industry, is not compatible with their model of contraction and convergence.

International and regional legal regimes and institutions are having an increased effect in a range of areas, including energy and climate change. The article by Dalia Streimikiene, Remigijus Ciegis and Rasa Pusinaite gives an overview of the climate policy of three Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The authors note that the climate change mitigation policies of these countries have been primarily driven by the need to meet EU accession targets, with mitigation only a secondary consideration because the countries’ GHG levels are low in relation to their Kyoto commitments. Although similar in many respects, the three nations have different energy profiles — Lithuania obtains 80 percent of its electricity from a single nuclear plant, while Estonia's generation system is almost entirely fossil fuel based. In the analysis, the authors apply a number of energy indicators, including energy intensity and emissions per capita.4 Given the different energy profiles of the three countries, the authors conclude that although EU accession has lead them to implement similar climate policies, their impact will vary considerably.

Mitigating GHG emissions presents an enormous challenge, but the policies and tools required to do the job have been extensively studied and are well-established. The same could until recently not be said of adaptation. As Gina Ziervogel, Sukaina Bharwani and Thomas Downing argue in their article on adaptation, climate change is only one stress among many, and one that affects individuals differently, even in cases where the group may appear homogenous. They explore this point by means of a case study of farmers in Mangondi village, in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Interestingly, of the farmers interviewed, those with fewer resources were found to have employed more adaptation techniques, for instance staggering planting, than their wealthier neighbours, who instead focussed on increasing output to meet market demand. The authors note that appropriate use of seasonal forecasts could support adaptation strategies. Perhaps one of the key insights offered is that adaptation policy should be designed taking into account the complete context of climate variability, climate change, social and economic stresses, as well as poverty.

According to the IPCC, there is considerable uncertainty as to the effect of climate change on water resources, but it is likely that intra-annual and inter-annual variability will increase. Where and particularly when rain falls can significantly impact agricultural output, particularly in poor countries lacking dams for water storage and irrigation systems. In their article, Casey Brown and Upmanu Lall argue that water availability, in particular the variability of rainfall, has not been properly considered as an explanation for economic underdevelopment, which has favoured cruder geographical measures, or followed a different approach emphasizing the role of institutions. They demonstrate that the seasonal and inter-annual variability of rainfall is a statistically significant and measurable factor in the economic development of nations. Brown and Lall conclude that to the extent that the variability of water availability can be mitigated — through improved water infrastructure such as dams, as well as policies such as efficiency incentives — implementing such measures could promote economic development and also assist in adapting to the impacts of climate change. The article suggests that donor preference for strengthening policies and institutions over the building of physical infrastructure may have gone too far. Naturally, investment in water infrastructure entails risks and tradeoffs, as is evident from hydropower generation in countries experiencing drought.

  • Sustainable Development Officer, ETB/DSD/DESA, New York, Friedrich Soltau is USA.

  • 1

    See IPCC, Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Technical Summary of the Working Group I Report; J. Schellnhuber (ed.), 2006. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

  • 2

    IPCC, Climate Change 2001: Mitigation, Summary for Policymakers and Technical Summary of the Working Group III Report.

  • 3

    IEA, Energy Technology Perspectives 2006: Scenarios and Strategies to 2050.

  • 4

    These indicators have recently been outlined and defined in IAEA et al. (2005), Energy Indicators for Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies (2005).