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Rising Sea Levels

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

2. What help his Department is providing to help communities in developing countries threatened by rising sea levels. (110690)

We are providing assistance to improve climate monitoring in Africa and develop climate risk screening in both Africa and Asia. We are giving support to help Governments to reduce the risks when disasters happen, for example, in Bangladesh. The Department is also the largest donor to the United Nations adaptation funds, which help developing countries to assess and manage climate change risk, including rising sea levels.

The Secretary of State will know that a one-meter rise in sea level could make 200 million homeless, that the leaders of Tuvalu are already in the process of abandoning their homeland and that 300 Pacific atolls could disappear under water this century. That will cause a huge refugee problem. What will the Government’s response to that be? What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman held with his European Union counterparts on the matter?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the potentially devastating consequences, above all for the poorest countries of the world, if sea levels rise as predicted. First, we must support the Governments of the countries that will be affected to work out how they will manage that process. Secondly, we must get international agreement on a new climate change treaty, which will have to involve all the countries of the world, including some of the larger developing countries and China. Before long, China will become the largest carbon emitter in the world, although not in per capita terms, for obvious reasons. We must respond urgently to the problem, and all of us, globally, will have to consider the way in which we manage the movement of people. People will not stay where they live either to die of thirst or to drown because sea levels are rising.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the important role of the UK space industry in accurately mapping some climate movements, especially water levels, throughout the country? Will he ensure that some African countries get the benefit of the research and data that the industry provides?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the industry’s skill and expertise. One of the other practical things that we do is support countries in Africa better to understand the changing nature of their climate and its impact on them. Not only south and south-east Asia, which the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned, but parts of west Africa and coastal areas in east and southern Africa, including some large cities, would be similarly affected if sea levels rose.

Do the Secretary of State and his Department—or, indeed, the United Nations—distinguish between rising sea levels and sinking land masses? The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) described the circumstances in the Pacific, but those areas that are just 5m above the sea are in fact not influenced very much by climate change. It is a geological phenomenon in the Pacific that causes those atolls to sink. What really matters, of course, is what happens to the people, whether as a result of rising sea levels or of sinking land mass. However, there is an important distinction between the two phenomena, and it devalues the debate about climate change if people muddle them up.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as he acknowledges, the net result for the people who are living there is the same. It is important that we understand the nature of the changes that are taking place; but notwithstanding the phenomenon of sinking land mass to which he referred, the biggest global problem that we face is the impact of human activity on our climate, including the effect that it will have on rising sea levels.

The Treasury Committee is looking at climate change following Sir Nicholas Stern’s report for the Treasury. One of his conclusions was that it is the poorer countries—particularly in Africa—that will suffer if we do little or nothing about this. What strategy does DIFD have for a climate change element in its negotiations, particularly with African countries?

We are doing four things. First, we are providing support, so that better information is available about the nature of the change that is taking place. Secondly, we are providing help with adaptation. We are a significant contributor to the global environment facility, and we are also supporting United Nations funds. Thirdly, we are strongly backing the World Bank’s energy investment framework. One of the dilemmas that developing countries face is that they need, and will invest in, more energy—China is a good example of this—but they need to do so in a way that does not add to the problem. Fourthly, we are looking at our own programmes and asking ourselves what impact they will have on climate change and whether we could do things differently. At the moment, we are doing that specifically in four countries: Bangladesh, China, India and Kenya.

Rising sea levels create significant challenges, including conflict prevention, security, infrastructure degradation, water-borne diseases, soil salinisation and the potential for 50 million environmental migrants by 2010. The Department for International Development must provide assistance in incentivising environmentally sustainable technology transfers and building adaptive capacity in vulnerable communities. The Department has regularly and recently been criticised for not focusing sufficient time and resources on adapting to climate change. Despite what the Secretary of State has said, it is clear that his Department has much more to do. When will he make the interaction of climate change and international development spending one of his Department’s top priorities?

Being a fair-minded person, the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that that is exactly what we did in the White Paper that we published in July. A central theme in the White Paper was that we all need to take the challenge of climate change more seriously. I have already set out the practical steps that we are taking. We are building capacity, including taking on additional staff with expertise in this area, so that we can respond to the challenge. With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman’s strictures are a bit unfair.

Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), may I ask what work is going on between the Departments and British science to deal with catastrophic events that cause a rise in sea level, such as tsunamis? What work is being carried out to develop predictive science in this field?

One of the consequences of the terrible tsunami that struck recently is that arrangements are now being put in place for a system that enables countries to have reasonable warning that catastrophic events of that kind are likely to occur. The second practical step that we are taking is to set aside 10 per cent. of the money that we put into disaster relief to enable countries better to prepare to deal with the consequences of any subsequent disaster. In that way, we can help them not only to deal with the immediate consequences, but to prepare for the consequences of the next disaster, should it occur.