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Home » Climate Change, COP21, Water for Development

Amplifying the voice of water in COP21 climate talks

Submitted by on 30 Mar 2016 – 10:19

Hydro-climate disasters account for nearly 95% of all people affected by disasters, and have caused over 60% of all damage incurred worldwide by such disasters. Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director, Stocholm International Water Institute (SIWI), says there are significant commercial opportunities both in the mitigation and adaptation to climate change, especially when viewed through a water lens

Torngy SIWILate last year, I travelled to Paris for COP-21, the climate change conference – where one of the world’s most inclusive agreements (195 countries) providing a framework for the global response to climate change, was signed.

My colleagues and I were in Paris to raise awareness among actors at all levels about the centrality of water to climate change adaptation and mitigation. An increase in global temperatures of 2 degrees or more will dramatically impact the hydrological cycle leading to the increased melt-off of glaciers, decreased permafrost, more intense rainfall, floods, droughts, and changing water quantity and quality.

Hydro-climate disasters already account for nearly 95% of all people affected by disasters, and have caused over 60% of all damage incurred worldwide by such disasters (UNISDR 2012).

In Paris, I observed two things:

Actors beyond national governments are not just engaged, they are leading the way

Things have changed since COP-15 in 2009. Unlike the process leading up to the Copenhagen Accord, business, cities and civil society are no longer waiting for direction from national governments. While the Paris Agreement helps to provide the necessary level playing field upon which progress can be made, these actors are now taking the lead towards becoming carbon-neutral.

A major part of this shift is consumer-driven

There are significant commercial opportunities both in the mitigation and adaptation to climate change, especially when viewed through a water lens.

The Paris Agreement sets the global direction for (1) emission targets to keep the temperature increase below 2 degrees and (2) resilience building by 2030, including adaptation to climate change impacts. Many efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will depend on reliable access to water resources, and the expansion of renewable energy will also, to a large extent, depend on access to water at all levels.

Even without the increased risk imposed by climate change, global water demand is expected to increase by some 55% by 2050 (OECD). This is largely due to additional water requirements for manufacturing and electricity generation due to the growing world population and increased income levels in many countries.

Huge investments in infrastructure for water provision and treatment will be required to accommodate this growth. However, since freshwater resources are finite, we will need to be better at managing what we have – and all parts of society, including business, will need to  contribute.

The financial markets are key for change to take place

A great deal of finance will be needed for both supplying water and treating waste water.

Beyond international financial mechanisms like the recently established Green Climate Fund, consideration should be given to how existing investment funds can be redirected towards more green (blue) investments. According to the World Economic Forum, some USD 5 trillion per year needs to be invested in global infrastructure over the next two decades to support the growing population. Redirection towards green investments would change the game dramatically.

A good example is the significant increase in the use of green bonds in recent years, with some USD 36 billion worth being issued in 2014, and some USD 100 billion in the next few years (CBI, 2015). SIWI is currently working with the Climate Bonds Initiative to label water standards for green bonds.

In fact, the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risk Report stated that of all the risks facing the globe in the next ten years, water crises would have the most damaging impact on countries and industries. Water scarcity and variability pose significant risks to all economic activity, and in many cases, water stress actually implies a considerable financial risk.

Looking forward: local-level implementation

To achieve the targets set out in the Paris agreement, climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies will need to be implemented at the local level. In this process, water should be viewed as a connector – not a sector – joining policy areas, economic sectors, ecosystems, and societies. Its importance to both climate adaptation and mitigation cannot be underestimated. It is also a key channel through which opportunities for cooperation can grow.

Government leaders and policy makers can use water to drive local level engagement by illustrating the impact climate change can have at the local level. This is especially true for already vulnerable communities that face an increased risk of floods and coastal inundation.

It was encouraging to see water being discussed more intensely among business, civil society, and governments in Paris, than at earlier climate change conferences – especially by the COP 20-22 presidencies of Peru, France, and Morocco. However in order for the Paris Agreement to really leave its mark, local level decision-makers, such as mayors, CEOs and civil society leaders  around the world are most crucial and will need to take even more action. The implementation strategies outlined in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) will serve as a good starting point for this to happen. As a truly local resource, water can help to engage a broad range of actors, connecting the global agreement to the local level actions needed to tackle the impacts of climate change that we will all face.

Torgny Holmgren is the Executive Director of SIWI. He is a former Ambassador at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs heading the Department for Development Policy. He is an economist from the Stockholm School of Economics, having served at the World Bank in WashingtonDC, and the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi