Letters from Sendai – No 1: 2015: A pivotal year for global climate risk management?

The United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) continues in Sendai, Japan this week. Swenja Surminski writes from the conference…

2015 could become a milestone year. A number of international policy processes culminate this year, offering a chance to integrate disaster risk reduction, climate change policy and poverty reduction more closely.

In September, world leaders meet in New York for the Special Summit on Sustainable Development. Now that the Millennium Development Goals are reaching their deadline, this conference is expected to agree the post-2015 development agenda. Climate and disaster resilience are likely to be integral to that agreement.

December, of course, will see the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Climate risk and preparedness are expected to be on the agenda, and there will be discussions about how those who suffer losses and damages due to climate change are compensated.

But the first major climate change policy event of the year is the third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan (14-18 March). The venue, not far from where the Fukushima disaster unfolded almost exactly four years ago, is a sobering reminder of the global risks we face.

The case for climate risk management

Some disasters may have natural causes, but what determines the extent of damage and destruction is predominantly of our own making. The decisions we make (how we assess risks, what conclusions we draw, what we build and where) determine our current and future resilience.

The economic case for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction is robust. We know how disruptive extreme events can be. We know that climate change is posing a great risk to poverty reduction efforts and economic resilience. We know that acting on climate change now is cheaper than waiting. And we know that there are clear opportunities arising from economic growth that is compatible with action on climate change. Yet it remains unclear how policy makers will address these facts.

Disaster risk reduction is rarely an easy sell. Handing out emergency relief in the aftermath of a disaster is often more politically attractive than spending money on prevention measures. Only a fraction of the amount that goes into global relief efforts is spent on pre-disaster mitigation.

This is not just a problem in low-income countries. For every $10 Australia spends on post-disaster recovery they only spend $1 on pre-disaster prevention. Across the world, this is the norm rather than an exception.

Agreeing a disaster risk reduction framework

More than 5,000 government officials, ministers and leaders from over 160 countries are currently gathered in Sendai, Japan, at the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. They are joined by thousands of representatives from business, NGOs and universities for numerous workshops, forums and other sessions. Good networking, no doubt. But what else can be expected from the conference?

The main purpose is to agree on a new global framework for disaster resilience. This builds on the Hyogo-Framework for Action (HFA). Agreed ten years ago the HFA has supported disaster risk reduction efforts globally, regionally and at a national level.

Most delegates heading to Sendai this year expect to come home with a ‘post-2015 disaster risk reduction framework’ to guide decision-makers in their efforts to minimise existing risks and avoid the creation of new risks. The current negotiation text places a strong emphasis on tackling the underlying drivers of risk, including: poverty, climate change, ecosystem decline, poor urban planning, land use and risk governance.

For some, the recognition of climate change is not strong enough. Others want to see more involvement of the private sector. And then there is the challenge to convince those in ministries of finance that disaster prevention is a valid strategy and not a sunk cost.

This is the first in a series of commentaries by Grantham Research Institute members attending the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan.