No Need to Sacrifice the Planet's Arteries to Save Her Lungs

Photo: Zachary Hurwitz via International Rivers

No Need to Sacrifice the Planet's Arteries to Save Her Lungs

From the flood-prone coastline of Bangladesh to East Africa's drought-stricken farm lands, climate change hits people hardest who have least contributed to it. World governments have agreed to mobilize $100 billion a year for climate mitigation and adaptation projects by 2020, most directly through the new Green Climate Fund (GCF).

The People's Climate March will hopefully set some official pants on fire and speed up the capitalization of the new fund. At the same time, we need to be vigilant that the powers that be don't abuse the GCF as honey pots from which they can fund business-as-usual or outright destructive projects. Using large dams as an example, governments need to heed the following lessons of experience with climate finance as they commit new funding to the GCF:

Take a holistic view of ecological threats: Large dams have helped turn freshwater ecosystems into the ecosystem type most threatened by species extinction. Tropical reservoirs are also a major source of greenhouse emissions in the form of methane produced from decomposing organic matter. In spite of this, the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism has registered more than a thousand hydropower projects for selling carbon credits. The projects that are already benefiting from CDM credits include the Rampur Dam in India, which diverts the Satluj River into a tunnel, leaving behind a dry river bed, and is based on a flawed environmental assessment. Coming up in the CDM pipeline are projects such as the proposed Teles Pires Dam in the Amazon, which would destroy important ecosystems and generate massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

The ultimate goal of climate finance is to protect the ecosystems that make our planet livable. Just as we would not sacrifice our arteries to save our lungs, we should not be forced to choose between the world's remaining rivers and the atmosphere. The member governments of the GCF need to take a holistic view of the environmental sustainability of their projects.

Take climate resilience into account: Climate finance projects not only need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they need to strengthen societies' resilience to deal with the climatic change that is inevitably occurring. Dams are vulnerable both to the floods and the droughts that are becoming more extreme under global warming. A diverse portfolio of wind, solar and micro-hydropower projects is more climate-resilient than putting all eggs into the basket of a large dam. The GCF needs to consider climate resilience in all the projects it funds.

Human rights are part of the deal: It goes without saying that UN-sponsored financing mechanisms should not condone human rights abuses. Yet the Clean Development Mechanism lacks any kind of human rights filter. As a consequence, the CDM board approved several projects with serious human rights abuses, including the Barro Blanco Dam in Panama and the Santa Rita Dam in Guatemala. In each of these projects, three indigenous activists were killed and scores were injured when they tried to defend their ancestral lands. Projects that violate human rights should have no place in the GCF.

Will the Green Climate Fund heed these lessons of experience? According to its initial investment framework, the new fund "will finance projects and programmes that demonstrate the maximum potential for a paradigm shift towards low-carbon and climate-resilient sustainable development," taking into account what it calls "social, economic and environmental co-benefits" of such a shift. In the energy sector, solar, wind, geothermal and micro-hydropower projects fit this bill. They are affordable, widely available, resilient, and effective at expanding energy access and creating jobs.

While the GCF language is encouraging, climate finance can easily be diverted into business-as-usual projects by powerful interests. The new fund will after all have to work with the same governments, corporations and banks that have created the existing energy infrastructure. Already, the governments of Southern Africa have suggested that the giant Inga dams on the Congo River and the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam on the Zambezi should be considered for support by the GCF.

The Green Climate Fund is currently our best hope at supporting poor countries as they struggle to adapt to a changing climate and funding climate-smart projects at a massive scale. World governments should capitalize it quickly. At the same time, they should be explicit in excluding dirty energy projects - particularly large dams, coal, oil and gas projects - from support by the new fund.

Erica Carvell of Mount Holyoke College contributed research to this blog post.

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