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COP 26, ‘Climate Change Emergency’ and Poverty

SHEILA BUNWAREE

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The PM has, at the inter-ministerial council meeting of 28th September 2021, decided to declare Mauritius as being in a ‘state of climate emergency’. This announcement comes just a few days prior to International Poverty Day-October 17th, and in the run up to COP 26.

Professor Sheila Bunwaree

Last year, in the wake of the Wakashio oil spill, Mauritius was declared as being in  a ‘state of environmental emergency’. The Wakashio ecological disaster came on the heels of the Covid 19 pandemic, impacting on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of Mauritians, giving rise to new forms of poverty and inequality. The decreed ‘state of environmental emergency’ at the time, has not done much to alleviate the hardships of the community.

Is the now declared ‘state of climate emergency’ a reason for hope? Hope that the climate issue and its implications for fellow citizens will be addressed more efficaciously, thus contributing to build Mauritius’s resilience, to promote climate justice as well as meet fundamental human rights of people, particularly the right to a safe environment, the right to food, the right to good health and well being. Meeting these rights is absolutely essential if poverty eradication is to be meaningful.

That environmental policy-making, climate change and poverty are inextricably linked has been well documented, but is the Mauritian state sufficiently appreciative of this linkage is a question worth posing particularly when one observes the disjuncture between official discourses and ground reality? That impacts of climate change such as severe droughts, flooding, storms, heatwaves, wild fires, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and erosion, are becoming more intense and frequent and that the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change is well established.  Science deniers and/or politicians with an agenda other than promoting human welfare, often fail to see the deepening inequality and poverty and persist with models which reproduce the same economic and social divides. Doing so implies resistance to seeing development as freedoms – freedom from illiteracy, from disease, from homelessness, from hunger, as  aptly described by Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen. Economic growth does not equate development but it is certainly essential for the progress of humanity. However, when it is achieved by means which shake the very foundations of human development, it is highly problematic.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings approved by 195 member states is the starkest warning ever about the deepening climate crisis; it has been described as the ‘code red for humanity.’ Commenting on the current climate crisis, Prof Hawkins, one of the IPCC report’s authors, notes:

‘…It is a statement of fact, we cannot be any more certain; it is unequivocal and indisputable that humans are warming the planet…’.

But can we change the course of history by averting the climate change disaster? This can only happen if we, humans, are ready to embrace an alternative development paradigm – one which is in harmony with nature and which is immersed within a philosophy of the greater good for All, leaving no one behind.

The global warming of the planet will get progressively worse since human beings across the globe, have for years now, continued to engage in ‘unsustainable modes of production and consumption’ and delayed in curbing green house gas emissions. While it is true that Mauritius is an extremely low emitter, it remains one of the most vulnerable countries, according to recent World Risk reports. The country is therefore prone to disasters with huge implications on the poor. Mauritius will soon make public its Nationally Determined Contribution report. How does the latter speak to the complex forms of climate change – related poverty, particularly its gendered forms? Are we as a nation sufficiently geared towards mitigation and adaptation to climate change and to protecting the poorest segments of society?

‘A brutal act of injustice towards the poor’

Whether it is heatwaves like the ones recently seen in Greece or flooding as in Germany and China, their attribution to human influence is increasingly recognized.  What is it that we, in Mauritius, are doing?  We continue to build on wetlands, to fell endemic trees and reduce forest acreage, to expand the concrete and built up area, to burn coal and subsidise fossil fuels, to encourage and allow use of fossil dependent cars without a sustainable mobility/transport plan, to turn a blind eye to the greater use of pesticides, to pollute the air. This perhaps explains the dismal picture of the  environment as captured by Environment Statistics 2020. Little wonder then that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 15) which is to do with the protection of our terrestrial ecosystems and the reversal of land degradation and halting of biodiversity loss, SDG 14, to do with the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean, seas and marine resources and SDG 13 whose official wording is ‘to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’ are seen as confronting ‘significant challenges’, as highlighted by the Borgen report in its discussion of Mauritius. These 3 SDGs should be at the heart of any development paradigm which is serious about reconciling the economy with the environment and ensuring food security for all. Will Mauritius be able to address these ‘significant challenges’ and ensure that the most vulnerable do not fall in a poverty trap?

We can only hope that this recent admission of Mauritius being in a state of climate emergency, is not a mere response to the UN Secretary General’s call to countries to declare ‘climate emergency’ nor is it simply guided by the debt distress that the country finds itself in. Is Mauritius getting ready to take its begging bowl to Glasgow, while letting our scarce resources being siphoned away by the very many corruption cases, albeit alleged?

COP 26 presents an interesting opportunity for some green climate finance and other potential funds. Being an upper middle income country, Mauritius has been deprived from ‘concessional finance’ in the past, and thus said to be a ‘victim’ of its own success. Will the declaration of being in a ‘state of climate emergency’ assist Mauritius in deploying a well worked out ‘climate diplomacy’, using an amalgam of its vulnerability and smallness to bring home the much needed assistance, in the same  way that it used its ‘smallness’ as an effective tool of economic diplomacy in the past? But if funds are to be yet again pumped into development projects which are not climate proof, not environment friendly and not geared towards employment creation, poverty will inevitably grow. To what extent do the projects approved by the Mauritius Investment Corporation and the Economic Development Board, for instance, fit the above-mentioned criteria?

Pope Francis has in fact called the global failure to act on climate change ‘a brutal act of injustice towards the poor’.  At a local level, inequality and poverty, exacerbated by COVID 19, is rapidly growing, impacting on people’s ability to feed themselves. Hunger Statistics 2020 and a recent study by Ranzani and Cheung Kai Swet testify to this. When a government remains indifferent to its citizens going hungry, governance needs to be challenged.

Ensuring a resilient, poverty-free Mauritius however, demands more than simply raising our voice against injustice and immorality. It requires a development paradigm infused with a circular economy and in tune with regenerative and distributive economics instead of wealth accumulation, environmental destruction, waste, greed and indecent profit. The time is NOW!   

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