THE UNDP DEPUTY REGIONAL DIRECTOR ON THE RESPONSE TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Small is beautiful: the case for local development

THE RECENT environmental disaster in Hungary that killed nine people and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes has served as yet another reminder that environmental catastrophes are felt most profoundly at the local level. The dam that cracked and burst at the aluminium factory released a flood of toxic sludge, forever altering the lives of villagers nearby.

Houses damaged by the toxic red sludge in Hungary. Houses damaged by the toxic red sludge in Hungary. (Source: TASR)

THE RECENT environmental disaster in Hungary that killed nine people and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes has served as yet another reminder that environmental catastrophes are felt most profoundly at the local level. The dam that cracked and burst at the aluminium factory released a flood of toxic sludge, forever altering the lives of villagers nearby.

The image of a cracked dam is a useful metaphor for our environment under the weight of climate change. On a global level, fissures have emerged between what is required for our consumption-driven economy and what is required for a sustainable future. We need to keep an eye on the cracks, repair what we can, and take the pressure off the walls. And, if all else fails, prepare for the sludge to come.

We are feeling the effects of climate change most profoundly at the local level. The science is clear that the planet is warming – but not as a smooth increase everywhere. How climate change affects us depends on where we live. For example, rising temperatures are killing pristine forests in Belarus, creating drought in the Mediterranean, and giving rise to extreme floods, storms and heatwaves.

How to deal with this extreme environmental volatility? We need to monitor trends globally and act locally. To avoid catastrophe, our behaviour and economics need to change. As E.F. Schumacher argued in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, “The aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well-being with the minimum amount of consumption”.

Locally, we can start by using energy-efficient light bulbs. One step further, we need to understand what alternative energy sources are available, how much emission reduction is possible, and what are the cost-efficient ways of making our houses better insulated. This has already started happening in some countries, where local governments are formulating a strategy for sustainable public service delivery in partnership with the private sector and other civil society actors.

Croatia has taken a lead in implementing energy efficient measures at the local level. After four years of work with UNDP, 80 out of 127 cities, 19 out of 20 counties and 13 out of 16 ministries are now actively reducing their carbon footprint. Some 8,000 public buildings – 80 percent of the total – are now part of a nationwide energy management system. The number of citizens who understand that they can reduce their energy consumption by implementing energy-efficiency measures increased from 27.9 percent in 2007 to 45.1 percent in 2009.

The case for going local is both logical and practical. The impact of changing weather depends on where you live. You would react differently to a decrease in the water supply if you lived in the countryside (as a farmer) than if you resided in a large city. As we can see from many countries, action at the local level is practical, possible and will create considerable savings.

These local efforts will need to be complemented by coherent global action against climate change, including by pricing energy in a way that reflects the impact on others of burning fossil fuels. But while we wait for countries to unite and take coordinated action, we need to hold on to the human development gains by acting locally. Once global action is taken, these local initiatives will remain optimal.

To paraphrase Schumacher, ‘Local is beautiful’. I might add, it is also practical. We should move now to put in place a sustainable local development process to ensure that our children will not have to seal the cracks we leave behind.


Jens Wandel is Deputy Regional Director and Bratislava Centre Director, UNDP

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