For solutions to climate change, look at grassroot activists
A leading campaigner for climate justice says helping them would be not charity but enlightened self-interest
in the past three years, global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have levelled after rising for decades. More encouragingly, these emissions stayed flat while the global economy and the gdps of major developed and developing nations grew. This is good news, a promising indication that our work in climate mitigation is starting to pay off. But despite these positive signs, an unprecedented global effort is still required to hold warming to well below 2 degree c above preindustrial levels and save Kiribati and the lives of millions of vulnerable people along the world’s coastlines. even if all countries met their targets set out by the indcs in the Paris agreement, scientists predict that we would still experience a global temperature increase of more than 2.7 degree c.
We face difficult truth: While Paris remains an unprecedented success, it is also a fragile foundation for action. The movement to address climate change – and to promote climate justice – must now shift to a new stage, with urgency and determination. All of us – governments, both powerful and small, prosperous and impoverished; cities, communities, business leaders, and individuals – bear responsibility. The threat to our planet may be dire, but the potential opportunity is also historic – the chance to stop an existential threat, to conquer poverty and inequality, and to empower those who have been left behind and neglected.
as we pursue this new stage of bold action, we will succeed only if we recognize that the struggle to combat climate change is inextricably linked to tackling poverty, inequality, and exclusion. if we keep that link foremost in our minds, our solutions will be more effective and more enduring. Economic growth built on sustainable energy and land use will safeguard the lives of the most vulnerable from the effect of climate change and offer best chance of lifting more communities out of poverty. if we give voice to those who have been marginalized and shut out, our policies and projects – both public and private – will tackle the root causes of both climate change and inequality. if we follow the example of those individuals on the front lines of climate change, we can find silver linings of resilience and hope in the belief that we can effect change. Such as Constance okollet, who plants mango, avocado, and orange trees in her village in eastern uganda to stop topsoil erosion and to prevent flooding. Or Natalie isaacs, who brings her kitchen-table movement into homes across the world, inspiring women to change their lives in small ways that will make a big impact on our global carbon footprint. or sharon Hanshaw, the accidental activist, who used her voice to highlight the injustice that her marginalized community felt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
i often think of my father, a family doctor, whose life was transformed by the introduction of rural electrification across Ireland. I can still remember the awe in my father’s voice as he described the revolution that the mere flick of a switch brought to his daily practice. Thanks to electric light, my father no longer had to deliver babies or tend to broken bones and wounds by candlelight. electric pumps provided fresh water directly into his patients’ homes, lightbulbs replaced dull and dangerous oil lamps, rural industry flourished, and the radio ended social isolation, bringing news
and entertainment to rural families across the country. But the harsh reality is that as many people across the world today live without electricity as existed in the world when Thomas edison first invented the lightbulb. Without reliable access to electricity, doctors cannot provide clinical services after sunset. Patients in the developing world cannot benefit from X-rays, ultrasound, or incubators. Vaccines and medicines cannot be stored, and doctors cannot communicate with other health-care professionals. nearly three billion people still live without access to clean cooking. instead, to cook they rely on high-polluting solid fuels – wood, charcoal, animal dung, and crop waste – with fumes that kill more than four million people every year, mostly women and children in africa and asia, sicken millions more.
Providing electricity to the 1.3 billion who lack access across the developing world remains one of the biggest challenges on earth. development is not possible without energy, but we must follow the goals set out in the Paris agreement and create access to clean, affordable, and sustainable electricity. inspiring examples of countries in the developing world spearheading solutions in renewable energy already exist. india, the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, where 240 million people still lack proper access to electricity, has the option to use coal to rapidly expand the country’s electrical grid, but the indian government has committed to providing electricity to all its people by 2030 by becoming a global leader in solar power. This includes an ambitious target to generate 160 gigawatts of wind and solar power by 2022. Thanks to $1 billion in support from the World Bank, the indian government will work to place rooftop solar panels on houses across the country, which will provide energy for indian children to study at night and for families to refrigerate and cook their food.
in india’s westernmost state of gujarat, women cook with clean fuel and power their cell phones using solar roof panels. rachel Kyte, chief Executive Officer of Sustainable Energy for all, and a special representative of the un secretary-general, says the traditional way of connecting people to the grid – via electrical poles, copper wiring, and cheap coal – no longer applies in this age of solar and clean power. “The cheaper, faster, and easier way to provide people in the developing world with energy is with off-grid renewable systems,” rachel says. once villages are electrified and have access to clean cooking, they will have access to better health care and schools with electric light where children can study for longer.
empowering individuals without access to basic services is the goal of sheela Patel, who works to provide water, sanitation, and electricity to the more than one billion people living in slums around the world. sheela is chair of the slum/shack dwellers international (sdi), a network of communitybased organisations of the urban poor in thirty-three countries and hundreds of cities and towns worldwide. given the shoddy construction of buildings in slums and informal settlements, these areas tend to be hardest hit by extreme weather events and face extra urgency when it comes to climate resilience. in 2014, to help these communities better prepare for the inevitable onslaught of climate change, sdi launched Know Your City Campaign to profile and map slum settlements and to use the data to upgrade the cities and manage climate risks. The data and mapping allows slum dwellers to “reblock” their towns by physically rearranging themselves to create new streets and public spaces that allow for the introduction of electricity and sanitation, and that provide each residence with an address. To date, sdi has mapped approximately five hundred cities and more than seven thousand slums. across east, West, and south africa, sdi has helped introduce twenty-one energy-service hubs across eight countries that now provide solar power to 15,000 households. across the sdi network, the federations have extended clean water to approximately 185,000 households and built toilets for 220,000 more. By helping slum dwellers in Monrovia to remap their settlement, or village women in Gujarat to fix solar panels to their roofs, rachel and sheela demonstrate that many climate change solutions can be found in the developing world. We will all benefit if the peoples of the developing world are supported with incremental finance and greater access to technology, on a scale that the international community has often promised but has rarely managed to deliver. This isn’t aid or charity. In the fight to tackle climate change, it is enlightened self-interest.
Mary Robinson Former president of Ireland
Climate Justice By Mary Robinson Bloomsbury Publishing, 176 pages, ₹599
Dharavi in Mumbai