Podium: The poor need a cleaner future

From a speech by the UN development director to the Buenos Aires world climate conference
THE RECENT catastrophe in Central America, which claimed over 10,000 lives and left more than 1 million homeless, has shown the world once again the disastrous consequences that can befall humanity when poverty and extreme weather conditions collide.

You have all seen the grim news reports, the expressions of shock and profound loss on the faces of so many. Beyond the tragic loss of life, years of progress and development in Central America were quickly erased. Early estimates put rehabilitation costs at $3bn to $4bn [pounds 1.9bn to pounds 2.5bn].

Whatever the cause of Hurricane Mitch, extreme weather events are predicted by many to be one consequence of global warming, the challenge now before us. We have already come a long way. The Kyoto Protocol includes the commitments for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. I urge all parties to ratify this landmark agreement. There are no sound reasons for costly delays.

It will take some 100 years before the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries equal those of industrialised countries. Yet changes in the earth's climate will hit developing countries first - and hardest. We have already seen, with phenomena such as hurricanes, typhoons and El Nino, the vulnerability of development to climate events. Generations of poverty and deforestation for fuel and farming have left many areas barren and more vulnerable to the destructive forces of floods and mudslides.

The poor have a right to development; it is a fundamental human right to be free of poverty. Some 2 billion people still cook with traditional fuels. More than 1.5 billion do not have electricity. Precious time is expended in poor communities to gather firewood. Developing countries in general, and the poor in particular, urgently need modern energy services. As long as poor communities lack access to these services, development will suffer, and poverty will be perpetuated.

Industrialised countries, responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions, have recognised that it is in everyone's interest that they assist developing countries in the implementation of sustainable energy strategies.

The problem is that the promises of greater assistance made at Rio and elsewhere are not being fulfilled. Development finance, sound technology choices, technology transfer, environmentally-conscious pricing and trade policies, technical assistance and new partnerships with the private sector are all needed. And no mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol can substitute for the need for an urgent reversal of recent declines in development assistance.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is determined to support developing countries' efforts to combine implementation of the climate convention with poverty eradication and sustainable development goals.

UNDP supports the efforts of over 100 developing countries to prepare their initial national communications under the climate convention. We have mobilised donor support to provide additional technical assistance to respond to the immediate needs of developing countries to implement the climate convention.

An increasing number of countries are now including sustainable energy and forestry management among their national priorities for the UN support programme.

The clean development mechanism will contribute significantly to reaching the dual goals of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable development.

Climate change could affect the long-term development prospects and security of all nations, rich and poor. Working together through international instruments such as the climate convention, we can help ensure that the aspirations of all countries for continued growth and for poverty eradication are enhanced, not limited, by our growing concerns for the environment. As many in the private sector have realised, responding to the climate change challenge can also provide an important impetus for growth, can create new jobs and industries and can enhance competitiveness.

We have the ingredients before us to turn an ominous environmental challenge into a win-win situation. What we need is sufficient resolve and political will, together with a sense of urgency. The stakes for future generations could not be higher.

The recent financial crisis has shown the importance of political leadership in addressing global challenges together. The long-term stakes here are even higher, and the importance of far-sighted leadership even more important.