Conclusions implications for sustainable development

Sustainable development is largely about people, their well-being, and equity in their relationships with each other, in a context where nature-society imbalances can threaten economic and social stability. Because climate change, its drivers, its impacts and its policy responses will interact with economic production and services, human settlements and human societies, climate change is likely to be a significant factor in the sustainable development of many areas (e.g., Downing, 2002). Simply stated, climate change has the potential to affect many aspects of human development, positively or negatively, depending on the geographic location, the economic sector, and the level of economic and social development already attained (e.g., regarding particular vulnerabilities of the poor, see Dow and Wilbanks, 2003). Because settlements and industry are often focal points for both mitigation and adaptation policy-making and action, these interactions are likely to be at the heart of many kinds of development-oriented responses to concerns about climate change.

In most cases, with the Arctic being a notable exception (ACIA, 2004), these connections between climate change and sustainable development will only begin to emerge in the next decade or two (e.g., during the period embraced by the Millennium Development Goals) as a result of significant impacts that can be attributed to climate change. But industry, settlements and societies will be important foci of mitigation actions and adaptations involving land uses and capital investments with relatively long lifetimes. In the meantime, however, actions that address challenges of climate variability, including extreme events, contribute to environmental risk management as well as reducing possible impacts of climate change.

The most serious issues for sustainable development associated with climate-change impacts on the subjects of this chapter are: (a) threats to vulnerable regions and localities from gradual ecological changes leading to impact thresholds and extreme events that could disrupt the sustainability of societies and cultures, with particular attention to coastal areas in current storm tracks and to economies and societies in polar areas, dry land areas and low-lying islands, and (b) threats to fragile social and environmental systems, both from abrupt climate changes and thresholds associated with more gradual climate changes that would exceed the adaptive capacities of affected sectors, locations and societies. Examples include effects on resource supply for urban and industrial growth and waste management (e.g., flooding). As a very general rule, sensitivities of more-developed economies to the implications of climate change are less than in developing economies; but effects of crossing thresholds of sustainability could be especially large in developed economies whose structures are relatively rigid rather than adaptable. In the case of either developed or developing countries, social system inertia may delay adaptive responses when experienced climate change is gradual and moderate.

In general, however, climate change is an issue for sustainable development mainly as one of many sources of possible stress (e.g., O'Brien and Leichenko, 2000, 2003; Wilbanks, 2003b). Its significance lies primarily in its interactions with other stresses and stress-related thresholds, such as population growth and redistribution, social and political instability, and poverty and inequity. In the longer run, climate change is likely to affect sustainable development by reshaping the world map of comparative advantage which, in a globalising economy, will support sustainable development in some areas but endanger it in others, especially in areas with limited capacities to adapt. Underlying such questions, of course, are the magnitude and pace of climate change. Most human activities and societies can adapt given information, time and resources, which suggests that actions which moderate the rate of climate change are likely to reduce the negative effects of climate change on sustainable development (Wilbanks, 2003b).

At the same time, development paths may increase or decrease vulnerabilities to climate-change impacts. For instance, development that intensifies land use in areas vulnerable to extreme weather events or sea-level rise adds to risks of climate-change impacts. Another example is development that moves an economy and society toward specialisation in a single economic activity if that activity is climate-sensitive; development that is more diversified is likely to be less risky. In many cases, actions that increase resilience of industry, settlements and society to climate change will also contribute to development with or without climate change by reducing vulnerabilities to climate variation and increasing capacities to cope with other stresses and uncertainties (Wilbanks, 2003b).

Impacts of climate change on development paths also include impacts of climate-change response policies, which can affect a wide range of development-related choices, from energy sources and costs to industrial competitiveness to patterns of tourism. Areas and sectors most heavily dependent on fossil fuels are especially likely to be affected economically, often calling for adaptation strategies that may in some cases require assistance with capacity building, technological development and transition financing.

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