In-depth: Gathering Storm - the humanitarian impact of climate change

GLOBAL: What we are doing about climate change

Photo: UN Library
Years of poorly regulated emissions have made the earth warmer
Johannesburg, 5 August 2008 (IRIN) - In developing countries, where survival is often a daily struggle, people cannot afford to wait for their government to bail them out. Many are living in the grip of climate change, coping with frequent droughts, heavy flooding, intense cyclones and other extreme weather events, and have found ways to adapt:

- In Bangladesh, women farmers faced with frequent floods are building 'floating gardens' — hyacinth rafts on which to grow vegetables in flood-prone areas.

- In Sri Lanka, farmers are experimenting with rice varieties that can cope with less water and higher levels of salinity in the water.

- In Malawi, some small-scale farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture have begun planting faster maturing maize to cope with more frequent droughts.

But, on a global scale governments continue to be deadlocked on the issue of reducing the emission of dangerous greenhouse gases, such as water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone and methane, which are making the earth warmer. According to the UN World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the decade from 1998 to 2007 was the warmest on record.

The IPCC is formed

Governments began to sit up and take notice of the environment more than 30 years ago, in 1972 in Stockholm, where the decision to set up the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was taken.

Seven years later, the first World Climate Conference, organised by WMO, noted the impact of man's activities on earth and called for global cooperation to explore the future of the earth's climate.

UNEP, WMO and the International Council for Science, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), called a meeting in 1985 to discuss an "Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and of Other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts".

The conference concluded that "as a result of the increasing greenhouse gases it is now believed that in the first half of the next century [the 21st] a rise in global mean temperature could occur which is greater than in any man's history."

In 1987 the WMO's 10th Congress recognised the need for a scientific assessment of the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment, as well the socio-economic implications. WMO and UNEP coordinated an intergovernmental mechanism for drawing up these assessments, and realised that besides the scientific investigations, strategies to help countries and the world respond to the crisis would also be needed.

A year later the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up, comprising three working groups to look at the science, the environmental and socio-economic impacts, and the response.

The UNFCCC

The findings of the first IPCC Assessment Report in 1990 played a decisive role in the formulation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This Convention was the first global attempt to tackle climate change. It recognised that the climate system is a shared resource whose stability can be affected by industrial and other emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Convention, which enjoys near universal membership, with 192 countries having ratified it, came into effect in 1994.

The 192 Parties to the Convention are divided into groups:

Annex I countries are industrialised countries - the 24 original Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members, the European Union, and 14 countries with economies in transition. (Croatia, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Slovenia joined Annex 1 in 1997, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia replaced Czechoslovakia.)

Annex II countries have a special obligation to provide financial resources and facilitate technology transfer to developing countries; they include the 24 original OECD members plus the European Union.

Non-Annex I countries have ratified or acceded to the UNFCCC but are not included in Annex I of the Convention.

A number of institutions, set up under the Convention, facilitate and monitor its implementation. These include the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI) and a financial mechanism, entrusted to the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Kyoto Protocol

While the UNFCCC encouraged members to stabilise the emission of greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol committed them to do so.

The Protocol sets binding targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European community - called the Annex-B parties - for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, which must be reduced during the five-year period from 2008 to 2012 by an average of five percent below the levels in 1990.

The Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and came into force in 2005. It has been ratified by 180 countries so far.

The agreement recognises that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, and places a heavier burden on them under the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities."

Tools for reducing emissions

The protocol provides three tools to help the developed countries reach their targets:

- international emissions trading between countries with targets

- joint implementation of emissions-reducing projects

- the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

This mechanism allows industrialised countries to earn and trade emissions credits by implementing projects in other developed countries or developing countries, and put the credits towards meeting their targets.

Non-Annex I countries do not have legally binding targets to reduce or limit their greenhouse gas emissions during the first commitment period.

The fight

The first commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, and countries have begun talks to negotiate the reduction targets for the next phase. But the process has been deadlocked, as the United States, often identified as one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, has yet to ratify the protocol.

The US has objected because the protocol excluded China and India, two of the world's fastest growing economies and among the world's biggest polluters, from making mandatory commitments to cut.

The world has until the climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009, when a new post-2012 agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions is expected to be approved, to implement the current agreed cuts.

None of the leading industrialised nations is on target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid the threshold level for unacceptable risk of catastrophic climate change, according to several environmental NGOs.

The IPCC has suggested cuts of between 25 and 40 percent by 2020 to avoid a 2°Celsius increase in global temperature, which is expected to destroy 30 to 40 percent of all known species, generate bigger, fiercer and more frequent heat waves and droughts, and more intense weather events like floods and cyclones.

Most scientists, including members of the IPCC, have suggested that some developing countries should agree to take on cuts by 2020, and that all countries should take on cuts by 2050.

The big developing countries, such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil, have said they are willing to take on mandatory 50 percent cuts in emissions by 2050, if the rich countries agree at least to take on 25 to 40 percent cuts in emissions below 1990 levels by 2020.

Adaptation, technology transfer and financing

Developing countries require international assistance to support adaptation, including funding, technology transfer and insurance, as well as resources to reduce the risk of disasters and raise the resilience of communities to increasingly extreme events.

The Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF), controlled by the GEF, is one of two funds set up by UNFCCC to help these countries adapt to global warming.


Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
People in developing countries are learning to adapt
The Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) finances projects related to capacity building, technology transfer and mitigation, and helps countries highly dependent on income from fossil fuels to diversify, but the UN Development Programme's annual development report in 2007 noted that little of this money had actually been delivered to the developing countries.

The UNFCCC has pinned its hopes on an Adaptation Fund, set up under the Kyoto Protocol, to support adaptation to climate change in developing nations. It is financed by a 2 percent levy on the value of credits resulting from emission reduction projects under the CDM.

The UNFCCC estimates that the fund will raise up to $300 million a year by 2030, depending on the level of demand in the carbon market. However, development agency Oxfam has pointed out that Ethiopia's immediate climate adaptation needs alone will amount to US$800 million.

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Sources:

Sixteen years of Scientific Assessment...(IPCC)
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
The UN Human Development Report 2007/2008


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Links and References

2011 Disasters in numbers
Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX)
International Institute for Sustainable Development
International Institute for Environment and Development
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
World Meteorological Organisation
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
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