By Ambika Opal

Sleepwalking through climate action

Every day a single copy of the local newspaper the Phnom Penh Post makes a long journey through my office at UNDP Cambodia. It arrives on the Resident Representative’s desk, is then passed to the Deputy Resident Representative, then to me, then to a colleague in the neighbouring office to fill out the crossword, and beyond. In Cambodia there are no formal recycling systems, so we must be very mindful of creating waste.

It is refreshing to be a part of an organization that recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis and is willing to take difficult steps forward. At UNDP Cambodia, the largest share of our carbon emissions come from air travel. Air travel is often neglected in climate discussions — it’s regularly dubbed an impossible-to-solve transboundary issue, assumed as a necessity, or considered neutralized by carbon offsets. But in the office we are tackling this challenging issue by having discussions on not hosting international workshops, no longer using domestic flights for field missions, and providing financial incentives to employees who forgo international events. UNDP Cambodia also has a rooftop solar system (although it has yet to be turned on, as the office negotiates some regulatory issues), is in the process of buying bicycles and electric motorbikes for staff to use, and has banned single use plastics at all events sponsored or supported by UNDP.

Cambodia is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, particularly river flooding, droughts, and irregular weather patterns. The majority of Cambodians work in climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, so climate change poses a significant threat to their livelihoods. Cambodia is one of the most biodiverse countries in Southeast Asia, and many species are being threatened by climate change impacts. Climate change is also a great health risk, as lives are claimed from rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and increased transmission of infectious diseases.

Alongside UNDP Cambodia’s internal efforts to address climate change, we also have a number of projects designed to strengthen Cambodian institutions in the fight against climate change. The Cambodia Climate Change Alliance, supported by the European Union and Sweden, project supports climate change governance in Cambodia. The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility project is helping reduce emissions from deforestation by working with communities to build sustainable forestry practices, monitoring deforestation through remote sensing, and helping the government prepare for REDD+ implementation. The Early Warning Systems, a Global Environment Facility project, is supporting Cambodian institutions in installing 54 online climate and weather monitoring stations across Cambodia, which will be used to make more reliable weather, climate, and disaster predictions. And UNDP Cambodia has many more projects dealing with solar energy, waste management, natural resource management, and beyond.

As much as I am heartened by the successes and mindset of the UNDP, I continue to be disappointed by many other global actors who seem to be ‘sleepwalking’ through the climate crisis, as one colleague aptly put it. The UN Climate Action Summit this past September was the most recent instance of compelling words but lukewarm commitments, at what was intended to be the time to bring forward radical and urgent plans to address climate change. It’s time to wake up to the climate crisis — having difficult conversations and building local capacity, as we’re doing in UNDP Cambodia, are two important steps.