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Torii gates in Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto, Japan
Credit: lkunl/Shutterstock
RISK AND ADAPTATION
18 March 2015 18:00

Why is a disaster risk reduction deal important for climate change?

Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo

03.18.15
Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo

18.03.2015 | 6:00pm
Risk and adaptationWhy is a disaster risk reduction deal important for climate change?

In Japan today, representatives from 186 governments signed a new UN framework on disaster risk reduction.

It is the first in a triad of 2015 agreements that will determine how the world deals with development in the face of climate change, inequality and rising urbanisation. This is likely to include the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals in September, followed by a new climate change agreement in December.

Carbon Brief explains why today’s deal is important for climate change, and how it fits in with the two deals expected later this year.

More disasters

The deal signed today replaces the Hyogo Framework for Action, the UN’s previous disaster risk reduction deal, which expires this year.

Since this agreement was signed in 2005, disasters have killed more than 700,000 people, and made 23 million homeless, and caused total economic losses of more than $1.3 trillion, the new treaty points out.

Not all disasters relate to climate change, though. For instance, some are attributable to, say, earthquakes and volcanic activity. However, a new UN report calculates that 87% of disasters are caused by hazards of the air and oceans, including cyclones, floods, heat waves and storm surges.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that many of these events are exacerbated by the higher temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels, although science still largely falls short of being able to attribute them directly.

The real-life consequences of this made frontpage news this week, as Cyclone Pam swept through Vanuatu, killing dozens and displacing thousands. President Baldwin Lonsdale brought the issue of climate change front and centre to the Sendai negotiations by saying that it had “contributed” to the disaster.

The new UN deal acknowledges that disasters will only get worse as temperatures rise. It says:

“The effects of disasters, some of which have increased in intensity and have been exacerbated by climate change, impede their [small island states] progress towards sustainable development.”

Targets

The new deal has five specific aims. These are:

Within these overarching goals, a number of more specific targets are outlined.

These targets are less transformational than many of those contained in the mishmash of options currently contained within the draft of the UN’s climate deal, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to have adecent chance of limiting warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Indeed, the new disaster risk deal is intentionally vague about how to tackle climate change as an underlying contributor to disasters – a politically toxic subject, as two decades of fraught UN climate negotiations have demonstrated.

While the deal stresses the need for coherence with the UN’s climate talks, it is also careful not to step on its toes. So, how can a deal that stops short of talking about curbing climate change effectively talk about reducing risk?

Quantifying success

Tom Mitchell, head of climate change at the Overseas Development Institute, tells Carbon Brief that he would have liked to see “clearer recognition” of the role of greenhouse gases in driving disaster risk. But this did not mean that the parallel work of the UN climate negotiations is missing from the text. He says:

“It’s in there as a subtext throughout. They’re not quite mentioning climate change, but the climate negotiations are liberally sprinkled throughout what’s going on here.”

On the other hand, the targets are more specific and quantifiable than those contained in the draft of Sustainable Development Goals, which contain aspirational lines such as: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”; and “Promote actions at all levels to address climate change”.

Setting measurable targets – in some cases, with baselines provided as a point of comparison – to reduce disaster deaths, economic losses and damage to infrastructure, for instance, will help countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.

These impacts of global warming are not felt uniformly. The vulnerability of nations and groups depends not only on their geographical susceptibility, but also the wealth, governance and equality of the society, each of which will affect its ability to cope when disaster strikes.

The UN’s 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction says that, every year between 1980 and 2012, disasters caused the loss of 42 million “life years”, and that over 80% of these were spread across low- and middle-income countries – a setback comparable to tuberculosis. This is at its most extreme in small island states, such as Vanuatu, and is being exacerbated by climate change.

To a certain extent, the new agreement recognises this disparity by referencing the “respective circumstances and capabilities” of countries when it comes to combating disaster risk.

It also goes some way towards tackling these vulnerabilities, acknowledging that “risk-informed public and private investments” can be more effective than relying on post-disaster recovery, and contribute to sustainable development to boot.

Targets for better education, improved technology, early-warning systems and tougher infrastructure will, therefore, strike a pre-emptive blow at the disasters that could be caused by climate change in the future.

A crucial sticking point is that this depends on governments choosing to implement them. The deal is voluntary, and unlike the UN climate negotiations has not prompted ten billion dollars of cash. Nor is it likely to do so, as quantified financial demands are absent from the final document.

Overkill?

The Sendai deal will not act alone. The UN’s Paris deal in December is expected to impose further action and financing on climate adaptation.  Meanwhile, the Sustainable Development Goals will also tackle the main causes of vulnerability, including the reduction of inequality, the empowerment of women, and the attainment of sustainable economic growth – and climate change.

So there is the question of what more this new deal can really contribute towards global development which is not already in the pipeline.

Ilan Kelman, a reader in risk, resilience and global health at University College London, co-authored a recent paper which accused the strands of “tribalism” and called for them to be completely integrated as a “subset of wider development and sustainability processes”.

He tells Carbon Brief:

“To me, the challenge is indeed that there are three separate processes. They should not be separate, because if we don’t solve these root causes, we’re not tackling disaster risk reduction. If we’re not tackling these root causes, we’re not doing climate change mitigation or climate change adaptation.”

The new text does nonetheless address the need for coherence between the three strands, stressing that credible links between the three processes will help towards “achieving the global goal to eradicate poverty”.

2015 will leave the world with an invariably messy jigsaw for sustainable development. But the Sendai agreement offers practical guidelines that can help to reduce the impact of climate-related disasters before they strike.

These should be supported by the broader aspirational goals of the Sustainable Development Goals, while the UN climate talks will attempt to strike at the root cause of rising greenhouse gas emissions. That, at least, is the plan.

Main image: Torii gates in Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto, Japan.
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