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Adaptation to climate change will cost plenty

by Haruhiko Kuroda

Rising, warming and increasingly acidic seas threaten the very survival of Pacific island countries.

The retreat of glaciers and snowfields in the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau jeopardize these “water towers” on which 1 billion Asians depend for flows during the dry season and drought years. More than 450 million Asians live within the low-elevation coastal zone, including almost 20 percent of the region’s urban residents.

There’s no question that the scale of climate challenges facing Asia and the Pacific is daunting — especially since the fallout of regional climate-related calamities can be felt around the world.

Thailand’s floods are a perfect illustration. Regional and global supply chains suffered, affecting production in the car manufacturing and electronics sectors and causing an estimated 2 percent drop in the country’s GDP growth in 2011.

Multiply that impact by the potential for climate-related ruin in other major low-lying coast cities in Asia — Jakarta,Manila, Ho Chi Minh and Kolkata, even the recent floods in the Philippines caused by tropical storm Washi — and one gets a clearer sense of why we can no longer do business as usual.

Public lenders and private investors cannot continue to channel billions of dollars into massive infrastructure projects — to costly new road networks, sewer systems, bridges and gas pipelines — without factoring in the realities of warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms.

More than a decade after the Asian Development Bank (ADB) first began distributing loans and grants to projects designed to help cope with changes in climate, we are convinced that we cannot hope to reduce poverty, let alone increase sustainable and inclusive economic growth in Asia and the Pacific, without addressing head-on the impacts of climate change.

In recent years ADB has been ramping up its climate change mitigation program with increasing levels of investments in clean energy and sustainable transports among others. These efforts will need to continue and intensify.

At the same time, starting in 2012, ADB will accelerate its climate adaptation efforts. As a crucial part of this, we will seek to mobilize significant funding to help close regional gaps in knowledge, capacity and finance.

Resources to collect climate data, build early warning systems and “climate proof” roads, sewers, bridges and pipelines are grossly inadequate.

Recent estimates suggest that effective adaptation will require around $40 billion per year from 2010 to 2050 to neutralize the impacts of climate change on the region’s development. By contrast, estimates for 2009-2010 indicate that only $4.4 billion was available for adaptation activities globally.

This amounts to roughly 10 percent of the estimated annual regional demand, which itself excludes consideration of the “adaptation deficit” — the investments required to support sustainable development under current climate variability.

Recent discussions at the climate conference in Durban have been promising in setting up a green climate fund; progress is needed to achieve targets of $100 billion annually by 2020 for climate mitigation and adaptation.

The resources we do have should be spent wisely. We know infrastructure is crucial to development. But spending billions on massive infrastructure without knowing whether a project will deliver its intended benefits or be lost to the impacts of climate change is simply irresponsible.

We owe it to the region’s poor, who have long experienced a disproportionate share of the deaths, displacement and economic damages associated with weather-related disasters.

Forced by poverty to inhabit the low-lying coastal deltas, river banks, flood plains, steep slopes and degraded urban environments where the impact is most severe, they are the least able to rebuild when their homes and communities are washed away.

Special attention must be given to protecting the most vulnerable in society from this new set of risks. Addressing key adaptation challenges — including managing the risks of climate-related disasters, ensuring food security and expanding access to education and health care — is integral to the region’s economic development.

We cannot hope to move millions out of poverty without it.

Haruhiko Kuroda is the president of the Asian Development Bank.