UN prepares for disaster deal to address climate change risk

Proposed new UN-backed framework to help countries prepare for future extreme weather events in a warming world

An increase in extreme weather events is likely to severely impact financial institutions, says new discussion paper (Pic: NASA/Flickr)

An increase in extreme weather events is likely to severely impact financial institutions, says new discussion paper (Pic: NASA/Flickr)

By Ed King

In just over two weeks nearly 160 countries will sign off a UN deal to prepare for future climate change impacts.

The World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in Sendai, running from 14-18 March, should be huge news.

The 22-page draft negotiating text is packed full of ambitious goals, building on the last DRR deal, agreed in the Japanese city of Kobe in 2005.

It will require countries to draw up tougher plans to cope with future natural or human influenced disasters, investing in education, early warning systems and emergency plans.

It could set seven global targets, which include reducing per capita deaths from disasters, controlling economic losses, protecting critical infrastructure and enhancing international cooperation.

And it will commit countries and the private sector to address “underlying disaster risk factors through disaster-risk informed investments.”

INTERVIEW: Development goals at stake in disaster risk deal 

But compared to a planned UN climate change deal in Paris this December, or the Sustainable Development Goals process, this is not making headlines.

In part that’s because the proposals – which are still under negotiation – are non-binding and will not require countries to make any financial pledges.

It’s also due to the decision by the UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) – conscious or otherwise – to delink the talks from global warming, instead focusing on wider “natural disasters”.

This UN body is desperate to avoid the toxic clash of developed and developing countries its climate cousin has suffered from since the early 1990s.

Even mentions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body which has a number of publications on disaster risk, are omitted from the draft text.

Presenting the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR15) on Wednesday, its head Margareta Wahlström appeared at pains not to mention the ‘c’ word.

“Small island states have a perennial struggle on their hands to survive intense cyclonic wind and storm surges driven by warming rising seas,” she said.

“Disaster risk is undermining the capacity of many countries to make the capital investment and social expenditures necessary to develop sustainably.”

The report revealed that economic losses from disasters are costing an average of US$250-300 billion every year.

And it suggested governments are too focused on managing disasters as they happen rather than managing the underlying risks, calling for $6 billion a year to be invested in risk management.

Ban intervention

Not all of the risks covered by the DRR deal can be linked to warming global temperatures.

Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are major hazards where early warning systems are the best defence.

But in his remarks alongside Wahlström, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon made the explicit connection between a DRR deal and what he suggested was the growing threat of climate change.

“We are playing with fire,” he said. “There is a very real possibility that disaster risk, fuelled by climate change, will reach a tipping point beyond which the effort and resources necessary to reduce it will exceed the capacity of future generations.”

Countries “must find solutions by reaching agreements on disaster risk management, long-term sustainable development goals and climate change,” he added.

It’s this new emphasis on preparing for future climate impacts – otherwise known as adaptation – that will make Sendai worth watching.

The meeting will be the first play in a series of major international environment and development events that will stop off in Addis Abba, New York and Paris this year.

And the tension is building due to its close links with the climate talks and SDGs, according to Ursula Antwi-Boasiako, a key member of the UK Department for International Development negotiating team for Sendai.

Talks spillover

Speaking at an event hosted by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) this week, she said officials had already noticed a change in the tone of DRR talks.

“There is a degree of inevitability that because we’re not the only country looking at the full arc of negotiations over the next 12 months, it’s unrealistic to think there won’t be a rehearsal of arguments and positions in Sendai,” she said.

“That has presented some challenges for us in the UK, particularly around finance.”

As in the tortuous UN climate talks, she expected some all-night negotiating sessions in Sendai.

The scrutiny over finance is no surprise. It’s a key bone of contention between rich and poor countries, who say they are not to blame for most of the world’s environmental degradation, and want help to invest in a cleaner and greener future.

For some in civil society, the DRR talks are a valuable forum for advancing their claims for clearer and more defined streams of funding for poor countries that need to adapt to climate impacts.

ActionAid’s Harjeet Singh told the ODI event he wanted to see closer links between the goals of a DRR deal and a Paris climate pact, which is likely to focus heavily on efforts to slow emissions.

The draft text for Sendai should include explicit references to the UN’s new Green Climate Fund, which opened last year and could offer billions to poorer countries.

“It’s shocking – you talk about different institutions but you don’t give reference to the Green Climate Fund which is now active,” he said.

“You have $10 billion being put into the system and you still don’t talk about it.”

He said he wanted to see a bolder and louder UNISDR, a “a champion of how-to” when it comes to helping countries build towns and cities that are resilient to the worst nature can throw at them, citing the need for early warning systems, cyclone shelters, protection for water supplies.


What now seems increasingly clear is that Sendai will set the tone for the UN climate and SDG talks that will follow it throughout 2015.

Its voluntary nature means it will place few burdens on countries, but it will test the willingness of governments to take future threats  posed by global warming seriously.

Tom Mitchell, head of climate at the ODI, described it as a “lens” through which the other processes will be looked at.

Its value, his colleague Lindsey Jones said, would be to set out a list of technical principles for governments to follow when delivering on their SDG and climate pledges.

And as this week’s GAR15 report makes clear, climate change is projected to be at the heart of future DRR challenges. Take the Caribbean, where island losses are set to rise to $1.4bn by 2050 due to a projected increase in storms.

So the scene is set for a potentially critical yet politically invisible conference to deliver.

The UN’s climate chief will not be there. Few heads of state or ministers have Sendai booked into their diaries. David Cameron, Francois Hollande or Barack Obama are unlikely to mention it in any public addresses.

But it’s clear from Ban Ki moon’s words this week that he sees this as a key step towards addressing the impacts of global warming.

The world will have to wait a few more months to find out if there’s a solution to its causes.

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