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OP-ED: Climate Talks: Voices of the Vulnerable Must Be Heard

Sam Bickersteth and Ali Tauqeer Sheikh*

LONDON/ISLAMABAD, Jun 6 2011 (IPS) - Last week, the world received a warning. A disturbing report from the International Energy Agency, the respected international authority on energy policy, found that CO2 emissions in 2010 were the highest ever recorded.

The IEA concluded that if the world is to keep global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, we’ve got very little time to act. Two degrees has long been an important threshold in the minds of climate scientists and policy-makers. Beyond this, the impacts of climate change could become catastrophic.

Against this background, the U.N. climate change talks starting on Monday in Bonn, Germany, take on a new urgency. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process allows every country to play a role in confronting the challenge. But, as so often in international negotiations, the voices of richer and more industrialised states threaten to drown out those of the least developed countries (LDCs).

Delegates in Bonn will discuss issues of major importance to LDCs. The meetings are a crucial milestone on the road to the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa in December. By then, developing countries hope for agreement on an ambitious, legally binding global deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol (the Protocol expires next year).

The likelihood of reaching such an agreement by December is already in the balance. For a credible and truly ambitious deal to be reached, it is vital that LDCs’ voices are given an adequate hearing now.

On the negotiating table in Bonn are a range of issues around mitigation (how to reduce carbon emissions); adaptation (how to deal with the effects of a more volatile climate) and climate financing (how to pay for measures to tackle climate change).

This last issue is particularly poignant for LDCs. Most are already experiencing documented impacts from manmade climate change, from sea-level rise in small island states such as Tuvalu, to extraordinary floods in Bangladesh, to extended droughts in the horn of Africa. Generous funding is urgently needed to manage disasters that aren’t not of such countries’ own making – and to set nations on greener, more resilient development paths.

In Bonn, members of a Transitional Committee will meet to hammer out progress towards creating a Green Climate Fund, one of the big commitments from last year’s U.N. climate talks. This Fund is intended to help developing countries shift to more climate compatible development. Achieving this will require resources from the Fund sooner rather than later.

It is also expected that the Bonn meetings will produce a committee to improve coordination and delivery of climate change financing. If achieved, this will be a big step in making donor aid more effective.

Parties to the talks will discuss the establishment of an Adaptation Committee to conduct vulnerability assessments and an agreement from developing countries to improve the way they measure emissions reductions. They will work toward establishing a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology transfers between the rich world and developing countries, and aim to finesse plans for reducing emissions from deforestation.

For a number of reasons, the least developed countries risk missing out on the potential benefits of a global deal.

First, LDCs have to rely on broad coalitions such as the Group of 77 to cover all the issues covered by the talks. This means that a diverse group of countries often has to find a common denominator when negotiating vital policy. Consensus-building may overlook the needs of individual nations.

Second, to stand a chance of getting their voices heard, LDCs need to assess complex scientific studies and reports. On many occasions, these studies originate from industrial economies or international think tanks and other non-developing country sources. Developing economies can find it hard to obtain alternative, more relevant, views.

Third, with the growing legal dimension to the talks, there’s a wide disparity between access to legal resources. LDCs struggle to mobilise legal expertise at the necessary speed to influence and direct proceedings. And lastly, the proliferation of meetings makes it difficult for least developed countries to maintain continuity and consistency in their negotiating strategies.

The risk is that crucial stakeholders end up with limited participation in the talks. Those countries that suffer the most from climate change are unlikely to get the help they need because their positions are not articulated clearly enough. Multilateral negotiations should be more inclusive; instead they’re a convoluted process. Delegates need strong communication, persuasion and other interpersonal skills to have real influence.

Success, then, requires strong capacity in all these areas, but this is exactly what many LDCs lack. To help counteract these structural disadvantages, CDKN will work to help LDCs interpret the language and mechanics of the negotiations.

The best outcomes will result from combining this short-term support with longer-term capacity-building for decision-makers. This will include efforts at the national level. CDKN is supporting countries to invest sufficient funds in research, explore policy options, and strengthen government and civil society institutions to influence the climate talks.

Why should industrialised countries be concerned about LDCs’ performance in the talks? If a climate deal is agreed that’s inconsistent with the needs of developing economies, everyone will lose out. Weak LDC capacity could mean an international framework that fails to account for the impacts of climate change on the poorest people, with significant consequences for global economic growth, migration patterns, and resource depletion.

LDCs will not achieve the negotiating might of the G20 countries overnight, and they alone cannot force a meaningful climate deal in 2011. However, giving LDCs the support and the space to intervene effectively in the climate talks is the right thing to do. It increases the chances of a global deal and international financial framework that will protect the world’s most vulnerable people, and will help protect us all.

*Sam Bickersteth is the Chief Executive of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN). Ali Tauqeer Sheikh is the Regional Director for Asia. CDKN is a five-year project to assist developing country decision-makers to design and deliver climate compatible development.

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