Just the beginning

Camilla Toulmin's picture
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12 December 2008

Yvo de Boer, who runs the UNFCCC secretariat, laid out clearly where we are with agreement on the text in his inimitable laconic style: ‘We are near to the end of putting things in and near to the beginning of taking things out.’ His imprecision has a purpose. The end of putting things in would normally be the end of this week, when the Poznan COP closes. But that is a month before the new US administration takes office – a very significant month if we are to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of the global deal. This needs to move beyond the Bush approach to playing games, involving the Monopoly set. Shifting the end date to 31 January 2009 gives Obama’s new adminstration a chance to play Diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the EU has abandoned its ambition to be leader of the pack, bogged down in squabbles about how much the climate plan will cost and how to distribute the burden. If we don’t get our act together, Obama may be tempted to sort out bilateral deals with China and India, rather than have to turn tricks at the next COP. Ultimately, it’s the big emitters who call the shots in this game: they’re the ones with something to trade.

Adaptation, by contrast, feels the Cinderella of the piece. It’s the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the NGOs who have taken it up. An Adaptation Fund (AF) was set up at COP13 in Bali, and now needs recognition as a legal entity. As chairman of the AF Board, Tanzania’s Richard Muyungi explained that agreement is still pending on whether countries will be able to access the fund directly, rather than having to go through the World Bank.

In any case, funds for adaptation are still scant. The AF will get the proceeds from a 2 per cent levy on transactions under the Clean Development Mechanism. Others propose topping this up with a tax on airline flights, or a Tobin tax on foreign exchange flows.

But LDCs and SIDS argue, rightly, that this is not aid but compensation for the damage caused to them by those responsible for emissions. So rather than have to follow the cumbersome procedures laid down by aid agencies and development banks, the funds should be made available in much simpler ways, with minimal red tape. Each LDC has a set of adaptation projects lined up for funding, yet only one of these has as yet received any support. So the AF is much needed. Amjad Abdullah from the Maldives, chair of the LDC group, says it’s very difficult for him to go back home at the end of the COP with nothing to show for his pains.

IIED’s cohosted weekend event, the Development and Climate Days, brought in more than 600 people from 72 countries. These are heartening figures. At one of our sessions, Martin Parry, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, argued that adaptation is being seriously underestimated. Because costings for adaptation have been ‘back of the envelope’ calculations, people discount them and focus instead on the price of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and moving to a low-carbon economy.

These figures look big, though much less than has been spent on propping up the banking sector. But do we know how much adaptation will really cost, and how much adaptation we can honestly manage before it gets impossible? By setting adaptation costs too low, you encourage people to think that we can afford to delay on cutting back carbon emissions. But, as Parry warns, every year’s delay in cutting back puts up the price of adaptation and increases the risk of devastating impacts. With emissions rising around the world, the possibility of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius looks increasingly remote. We have to focus harder not on the costs of action, but on the horrendous costs of inaction.

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