World to feel the heat, Vietnam more so

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H'Mong farmers harvesting rice on terrace fields in the northwestern province of Yen Bai  

A new World Bank report, "Turn Down the Heat", says if the global community fails to act on climate change, the world will be four degrees Celsius warmer at the end of the century.

Laura Altinger, Senior Environmental Economist for the Washington-based lender in Vietnam, spoke to Vietweek on the implications of this information for the nation: why it is more vulnerable and what it can do to mitigate the impacts.

Vietweek: The new report says the world is set to heat up by four degrees by the end of the century. How serious is this?

Laura Altinger:  While we cannot know the exact impacts, what is clear is that a large number of plant and animal species would be wiped out, resulting in a huge loss of biodiversity. We can expect large areas of arable land to dry out, greater acidity of our oceans, water shortages, higher frequency of extreme weather events, all of which will have a very negative impact on our food security, our physical security and our ability to achieve economic and human development goals.

One of the difficulties concerning raising global warming awareness, particularly in Vietnam, lies in the task of convincing people that this is real and is already happening now. Is there any example of critical environmental problems caused by global warming in recent years?

This is correct. From a practical standpoint, we are already experiencing the impact of global warming in Vietnam, with sea-level rise, higher average temperatures, wetter wet seasons and dryer dry seasons. At the same time, this is leading to Vietnam's natural resources being degraded and with it the value Vietnam derives from them, e.g. coastal erosion, loss of agricultural land.

There has already been a good deal of adaptation to these effects by people, e.g. building dykes, changing crop varieties, etc. However, as the temperature rises, adaptation by plant and animal species will become more and more difficult until their physical limit to adapt is reached. There are also plenty of impacts from the carbon-emitting activities in Vietnam that contribute to global warming, for example, higher incidence of respiratory diseases from pollution. Vietnam is already the 36th most carbon emitting economy in the world.

The report lists Vietnam as one of the few countries in the world whose cities will be "highly vulnerable" to see-level rises as a result of the heating up. Why so?

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Vietnam has a very long coastline and so remains particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Also, in a general way, poorer countries are much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise, because their settlements are much less resilient to climate impacts. This puts them at greater physical and economic risk. Poorer populations cannot insure themselves against such risks as richer populations can, and the source of their livelihoods is more often derived from the natural resources sectors, e.g. agriculture, which will endure higher impacts from sea-level rise than other livelihood sources such as services.

Environmental problems lead to serious consequences in all countries. However, the degradation of our natural environment will affect agrarian-based countries more than other countries. This is because poor populations rely to a much greater extent on nature as a source of livelihood. As forest, arable land, and fishing resources suffer from the negative environmental impact, this will affect the livelihood of large portions of the population reliant on these sectors as a source of income. These risks are mitigated by investing in adaptation actions.

Experts say countries should break the business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption to avoid heating up the world. Do you think it will be hard to sell this to developing economies like Vietnam, which rely heavily on strong production and consumption growth?

Indeed, this will continue to be a big challenge. At the same time, the government realizes that there are many co-benefits from breaking the business-as-usual pattern and shifting to low-carbon green growth and has defined both a Climate Change and a Green Growth Strategy. Green sectors are flourishing around the world and have helped countries create new jobs, new high-growth sectors, and increase competitiveness of their industries.

Today, being competitive means being resource-efficient, using the minimum of energy, raw materials and labor, and reusing materials from waste throughout the production cycle, in order to produce each unit of output. This allows industry to cut costs and increase productivity. The government also realizes that protecting its natural capital, i.e. its forests, minerals, fishery resources and the like, is important to ensuring sustainable growth, and has made this one of its green growth priorities.

When can we expect all the political deadlocks to end and the world to reach an agreement on global warming?

We should expect that there will be a new global agreement reached by 2015, which will be in place by 2020. Global leaders understand the urgency of global warming and know that they have an enormous responsibility to deliver a solution that is fair, not just for our generation but for our children and their children. Leaving them with a warming and polluted world is unethical.

However, ultimately, it is up to citizens to insist that their governments take appropriate action to protect the environment and limit global warming. In the meantime, progress (or the lack of it) at the global level should not hinder countries like Vietnam from taking steps at the national level to cut emissions and to maintain the quality of its natural resource base. There are many benefits for doing so, including cost savings, higher competitiveness, and an increased value of its natural assets.

How has the World Bank helped countries, Vietnam in particular, take action on climate change? Has it done anything to promote the emissions trading scheme in Vietnam?

The World Bank has a large climate change program in Vietnam. We have an ongoing climate change policy dialogue with the government under our US$70 million per year budget support Development Policy Operation, where the government of Vietnam develops its strategic vision for climate change and green growth and decides on actions it will take to further this vision. We have a $4.5 million trust fund, provided by DFID (the Department for International Development), which provides technical assistance and capacity-building activities in support of the government's priorities for climate change and green growth. We also have very large investment lending projects to develop hydropower plants, to develop green transport solutions in cities, to develop climate-friendly, green solutions for Vietnam.

We are also supporting the implementation of the Partnership for Market Readiness, which prepares Vietnam for the introduction of market-based instruments for low-emissions growth, and will explore the feasibility of sectoral crediting, a carbon tax or even an emissions trading scheme in Vietnam.

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