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Climate change: the big picture

Updated Monday, 7th December 2009

Saleemul Huq, Senior Fellow, Climate Change at the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) talks about the climate conferences and what happens next.

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Saleemul outlines the outcomes from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, which took place in December 2007.

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Saleemul: I was quite happy with the results in Bali. I think we achieved two major outcomes. Firstly the countries agreed to set themselves a deadline or time line for agreeing the post-2012 agreement, and they didn’t set it too long away. They set themselves a two-year deadline, which is December of 2009, at the 15th conference of parties which will take place in Copenhagen. So that was a good outcome.

The second good outcome was that they also agreed on what the main outlines or building blocks of that post 2012 agreement need to be. And there are four of them – one on mitigation, which is reducing emissions from all the countries, major countries; and then the second one on adaptation, which is new, they didn’t have that in Kyoto, so that was a useful new dimension; and then the other two building blocks that cut across both mitigation and adaptation are technology, particularly technology transfer, both for mitigation as well as adaptation; and the fourth is innovative or new financing for mitigation as well as adaptation and for technology.

More about the Adaption Fund and what else has been happening since Bali in preparation for the Copenhagen conference.

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Saleemul: The Adaptation Fund is something that was set up under the Kyoto protocol and it took several years until Bali for the governance structure for that to be agreed. And Bali did achieve an agreement on that where there was a new governance board set up for the fund with representation from different countries, different regions of the world.

The fund Board has now met since Bali, several times. I think they just had their fifth meeting in Bonn recently where they’re coming up with procedures for operationalising the fund.

The fund is based not on donations of money from rich countries like many of the other funds in development assistance are, but is based on something called an adaptation levy. It’s 2 per cent of all transactions that are made under the clean development mechanism which is a mechanism that enables rich countries under Kyoto to meet some of their targets for mitigation by investing in projects in developing countries through the clean development mechanism.

And they’ve only just done the first tranche. So they finally have some money in the fund and the board of the fund has come up with the procedures for countries to access the fund. That’s taken some time because one of the other issues that developing countries raised, with respect to previous mechanisms that existed, was the difficulty of accessing the funds because they had to be done through intermediary organisations. So developing countries argued for and finally they got agreement on direct access to the funds so they could apply directly and get funding. So we hope that within a few months the fund will be operational and countries will be able to access it.

Voiceover: During the Bali conference, Saleem ran a workshop on negotiating skills for delegates from least developed countries. The aim was to help them find more effective ways to work together. Has that paid dividends?

Saleemul: It’s always very complicated getting people to work together. The least developed countries as a group are nearly 50 countries, from Africa and Asia primarily. Within the group there is a big division between a large group of Francophone countries particularly in western and central Africa, who have an additional impediment in that their English is very poor and they find it very difficult to follow the negotiations as a result. So getting agreement within them has not always been easy but over time they have been getting much better. The least developed countries group has evolved into a fairly cohesive group.

They are currently chaired by Lesotho who has been very good at gaining consensus across the group and in Poznan at the 14th conference of parties which was the last occasion where proposals would be made they actually made a proposal for the first time which is the international air passenger adaption levy, which is a levy on all international air travel to be levied by the airlines and put into the adaptation fund for supporting adaptation in the least developed countries. And this is something that they have discussed and agreed and put forward. So they are getting better at coming to common positions and arguing them.

So, if you like they have upped their game in Poznan with a substantial proposal, which will have to be examined with everybody else’s proposals out there, and that’s not something they’ve done before.

Voiceover: And more generally what else has been happening since Bali to prepare for Copenhagen?

Saleemul: So what has happened since then is that countries and groups of countries have come forward with their proposals for what should go into those building blocks in the Copenhagen agreement, and the last conference of parties, which was in Poznan in Poland last December, was where countries were given a sort of deadline for coming up with their proposals. And there were lots and lots of very good proposals.

What is happening now is that the various proposals that have been put forward by countries are being melded into a proposed Copenhagen agreement text. So now begins the real hard negotiations to agree on what the final text needs to look like, which will involve throwing some of the proposals out and maybe merging some of the others. And that’s where the real negotiations begin.

And because it going to be so intense they’ve scheduled a number of additional negotiating meetings. In addition to the June regular meeting, they are scheduling another on in August in Bonn, another one In late September in Bangkok, and then a third one in November in Barcelona, before they get to Copenhagen in December, so it’s almost a non stop back-to-back negotiation session from now to Copenhagen. But I remain hopeful that we will get a good agreement in Copenhagen but there’s still a long way to go.

"The glue that will hold it altogether": money – how much is needed and how the current economic problems may actually have helped put things in perspective. And finally, looking beyond Copenhagen.

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Saleemul: We have proposals for all the major building blocks: mitigation, adaptation, technology etc. The glue that will hold it altogether is money. All of them are going to need money. And that money will have to come primarily from rich countries, it can come from a variety of sources, from public purses, or from taxation, or from levies or even private sector activities but funding in the order of hundreds-plus billions of dollars a year are going to be needed.

And that amount of money needs to be at least pledged early on, it can’t be pledged at the last minute in Copenhagen because it will be too late for the other things to be done then. So the pledging of money has to come early in the process now.

The big final piece of the puzzle, which in my view will not be resolved until the last minute in Copenhagen, because that’s the nature of how these things happen, people don’t give in until the last second, is what the significant levels of emission reductions the rich countries are prepared to do. And in particular here, it’s the U.S. that’s going to have to step up to the plate.

Voiceover: But, in terms of the money available, Saleem thinks that recent global events may have helped their cause.

Saleemul: I think the chances of bridging the gap now are actually better than they were even a year or two ago or even at the time of Bali. And paradoxically, one of the reasons is the economic collapse which has given a very new and different spin on the notion of what a large amount of money is. When we used to talk about tens of billions of dollars for adaptation in the past it sounded like outlandishly large amounts of money but when trillions of dollars can be conjured up out of nothing to save banks, a few tens of billions to save the world doesn’t sound outrageous anymore. Saving the planet is surely in that order of magnitude, requiring that kind of effort and is so more likely I think now to be possible.

So it’s not a shortage of money, it’s a shortage of political will and a recognition of the magnitude of the problem requiring those sorts of funds.

Voiceover: And will that political will be found in time for Copenhagen?

Saleemul: I think that the situation is not absolutely bleak. We still have a long way to go but I am hopeful that between now and Copenhagen, in the few months that we have remaining, people will realise the magnitude of the problem and the fact that we have to move fast - the urgency of the problem as well, and that particularly the political leaders of the world and the major countries of the world will realise this, and take the requisite actions that are needed.

So far they’ve shown some interest and understanding but they haven’t shown the level of political will to move on it with the magnitude of the effort that is going to be needed. In fact, the level of ambition is effectively the kind of transformational policy changes a country would have during war time – it's really a war against the planet or against climate change and putting economies on a war footing to deal with it and convincing the electorates that this is the equivalent of a war economy, that people need to chip in and do things. They haven’t done that yet.

And that’s where political leadership comes in, in terms of convincing the electorate to accept that this is necessary and, and my own feeling is that, by and large, in most of the developed countries, certainly in Europe, to a large extent also in countries like Canada and Japan and increasingly now in the U.S., the people are ready to be led. They are quite willing, if the leaders actually impose the regulations and say this is such a big problem we’re all going to have to do our bit and impose rations on travel, on carbon emitting fuels and so on. As long as they are applied uniformly and everybody is doing their bit, then I think there will be a great deal of consensus amongst people to be willing to do their share.

Voiceover: But, of course, Copenhagen is not an end in itself. It’s another step on a long journey. And, for Saleem, there are issues that are only now coming to the fore that we will have to deal with beyond Copenhagen.

Saleemul: So far, we’ve been thinking of adaptation primarily helping communities to cope with the impacts of climate change where they are. It’s now becoming increasingly evident that, over the next decade or two, in some parts of the world, people will simply not be able to continue their livelihoods there. And so we are going to have to think about helping them to relocate, as, if you like, a second order, a second generation of adaptation. And this is new. We had not discussed this before.

And one of the problems in addressing it under the framework convention is that the framework convention, as designed, was premised on the notion that we will be able to prevent harm from happening. First by mitigation, by reducing our emissions so that we don’t have global warming. After we realised that we will have a certain amount of warming that’s evitable, by adaptation, to help people to cope with those impacts. Now we realise that even adaptation has its limits and will not be able to cope with everything. And so we are going to have to think about planned relocation of populations as a second order, a second generation of adaptation, which, under the framework convention, we hadn’t envisaged would happen and so we’re not able to deal with it.

So it’s unlikely that that’s something we’ll deal with immediately in Copenhagen but it will be something we have to deal with after Copenhagen.

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