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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006, 22:23 GMT
Climate: Action now or pay later
Yvo de Boer
Yvo de Boer

A week after the Stern Review warned of the costs of delaying action on climate change, delegates are gathering in Nairobi for the next round of UN climate negotiations. The new executive secretary of the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC), Yvo de Boer, argues in the Green Room that the talks can bring benefits for the environment and for the world's poorest societies.

Cracked soil (Image: AP)
Current global warming is the consequence of emissions decades ago, and the process will continue
Climate change is still widely treated as an environmental problem. Yet it is imperative that climate change be treated as a key element of any economic strategy.

The ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) states that the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations should happen within a sufficient time-frame "...to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner".

Hence, climate change policies have to be part of a strategy aimed at sustainable development.

The 2006 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi will provide fertile ground to tackle climate change effectively while ensuring sustainable development for the future.

It will help countries to work towards a long-term solution to bridge the gap between the North and the South.

The gathering will address a range of issues, including adaptation to climate change, progress in developing the Kyoto Protocol's market mechanisms, technology transfer and future climate change policy.

The conference will focus on agreeing concrete measures to step up adaptation to climate change, which will have benefits for people in terms of real action.

This includes agreement on activities which will assist parties, especially developing countries, to improve their understanding and assessment of climate change impacts, and so help them adapt.

Time lag

Over the last decade, the principal focus in international negotiations has been on reducing emissions.

Gibraltar Straits (Getty Images)
The talks hope to bridge the divide between rich and poor nations

But even the most rigorous mitigation efforts today will be unable to prevent climate change in the future, since changes in the climate occur only after a long time lag. Current global warming is the consequence of emissions decades ago, and the process will continue.

As a result, adapting to climate change will be inevitable.

"Adaptation" refers to taking measures to reduce the negative effects of climate change, or exploiting the positive ones, by making appropriate adjustments. However, those with the least resources have the least capacity to adapt; yet they are the most vulnerable.

In other words, developing countries will be the worst affected.

This poses the question of how to use international climate change agreements to mobilise resources, support sustainable development measures and gain resources for adaptation measures?

One of the answers lies in the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM now has more than 1,200 projects in the pipeline with an overall emission reduction potential of about 1.4 billion tonnes by 2012.

Carbon markets need long-term certainty in demand beyond 2012 if they are to continue to deliver

Whilst the CDM is gaining speed very rapidly, there is a major question of what happens to the price of carbon beyond 2012. That is when the current Kyoto Protocol targets run out.

Carbon markets need long-term certainty in demand beyond 2012 if they are to continue to deliver.

And this feeds back into adaptation, because the CDM generates money to be used by the UNFCCC's Adaptation Fund. Agreement on how to manage this fund is also anticipated in Nairobi.

Investment flows

Scientific findings suggest that bigger emission cuts by industrialised countries are needed; European leaders refer to reductions in the order of 60-80% by the middle of this century.

If half of these cuts could be met through investments in developing countries, there is a potential to generate up to $100bn (52bn) per year in green investment flowing into regions where help is most needed.

New York stock exchange (Getty Images)
The transfer of environmentally sound technologies, particularly to developing countries, is a crucial element of this agenda
None of the other types of financial resources available to developing nations can match this potential.

A long-term legal framework that provides security for both carbon markets and climate-friendly investments will enable a move towards a self-financing climate agreement, which will allow developing nations to benefit from carbon trading. This will be able to tackle climate change and help poorer citizens of the world.

What else can we expect? Further progress on the flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol is one area for progress; a key aim is to agree on steps to help developing countries, especially those in Africa, participate more extensively in the CDM. Besides the geographic reach, more diversity in the type of projects being funded would also be desirable.

Additionally, a decision is expected to bring Joint Implementation into full operation. This is a mechanism under the Protocol whereby developing countries work with wealthy nations on projects to combat climate change.

The technology agenda is vital to present and, even more so, future policy; the transfer of environmentally sound technologies, particularly to developing countries, is a crucial element of this agenda. We expect a decision strengthening the technology transfer framework.

Full steam

In terms of the future of the climate regime, the processes initiated at last year's UN climate summit in Montreal have had a good start and should keep up their momentum in Nairobi.

Firstly, an ambitious agenda was developed under the Kyoto Protocol, which focuses on a sound process leading towards science-based emission reduction targets on the part of industrialised countries within the next few years.

Secondly, "the dialogue" was launched under the Convention. Its second workshop in Nairobi will focus on how to advance development goals in a sustainable way and how to realize the full potential of market-based opportunities.

Taken together, these processes will need to look at how to lower the cost of implementing future commitments in order to use these savings for:

  • green economic growth
  • stimulating technology flows
  • building capacity and paying for adaptation

Together, these measures form the elements of the self-financing climate contract which can bring down emissions, help developing countries adapt to climate impacts and, indeed, help them develop sustainably.

Yvo de Boer is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Yvo de Boer? Should wealthy nations help poorer ones to deal with the consequences of climate change?

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