Douglas Alexander: We need to creat a global low-carbon economy

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The Independent Online

Each of us has a shared interest in tackling dangerous climate change. Yet it is the world’s poorest people who find themselves most vulnerable to the impact of a warming planet.

For many people in developing countries, climate change is not just a future threat, but a present reality. And while we cannot ascribe individual events to climate change, forecasts suggest that the impact of natural disasters, droughts and floods will increasingly threaten lives and livelihoods.

As International Development Secretary I have met people who have shown me the connection between poverty and climate change in the clearest personal terms.

In Bangladesh I met children made orphans by Cyclone Sidr. In Kenya, I visited a camp of 350 families forced from their homes by flash floods. In Ethopia, I met women who had been forced by drought to walk further each day to collect water, until they were walking for five hours simply to drink from a watering hole shared by people and animals alike.

Unless we tackle climate change, generations of people could be condemned to poverty. Beyond preventing further climate change by cutting emissions, we need to help developing countries to adapt to the changes that are now inevitable.

That is why the Department for International Development is helping people in Zambia to protect their crops against the damage caused by flooding. In Lesotho, where a severe crop failure two years ago left a quarter of the population in need of food aid, we are helping people to grow their own small gardens so they have another source of food to fall back on in hard times. In Bangladesh we are helping people to raise their homes on plinths – to protect what little they have from being washed away with the rains each year.

Yet while climate change poses a clear risk to the world, it also offers an opportunity for economic growth – at a time when it is much needed. The United Nations estimates that investment in zero-carbon energy will reach $1.9 trillion by 2020.

The opportunities for low-carbon growth exist here in the UK and abroad. India is now home to the world’s fifth largest wind turbine manufacturer, and China invested over $12bn in renewables during 2007. Other emerging economies could do the same, and green growth could provide a better future for those ‘bottom billion’ who have so often in the past been left behind.

The UK’s Department for International Development is already supporting renewable energy projects in twelve developing countries, such as in Zambia, where we are helping local schools, clinics and households to install solar panels that will provide a sustainable source of cheap energy.

We are also supporting the Lighting Africa initiative which aims to provide up to 250 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa with low cost, safe and reliable lighting by 2030.

Last month Gordon Brown announced a £25m funding package to provide renewable energy in some of the world’s poorest countries. By producing renewable energy on a bigger scale, this investment will bring a triple benefit: reducing those countries’ exposure to volatile oil prices; helping businesses to grow; and reducing fossil fuel emissions.

Four years ago, millions of people in Britain campaigned to make poverty history. If the world ducks the challenge of climate change, it could make poverty the future. But if we tackle climate change with ambition, we can use the creation of a global low-carbon economy as a path to creating a better life for millions of our neighbours around the world.

Douglas Alexander MP is Secretary of State for International Development