By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
United Nations negotiations on climate change have opened in Nairobi, with the focus expected to be on helping poorer countries adapt to a changing climate.
Reaching agreement on reducing emissions may be impossible
A UN report released on the eve of the talks forecast dire climate impacts on parts of Africa.
Yields of crops will fall, it said, while rising seas could engulf cities.
This is the 12th set of UN climate talks since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, but data released last week shows greenhouse gas levels are still rising.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said carbon dioxide concentrations rose by half a percent during 2005, and will not start falling unless a stronger agreement than the Kyoto Protocol materialises.
Kenya's Vice-President Moody Awori opened the Nairobi talks, the first in the long UN series to be held in sub-Saharan Africa.
"We are all gathered this morning on behalf of mankind because we acknowledge that climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the most serious threats humanity will ever face," he told delegates.
Crops and floods
The new report from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) certainly paints climate change as a serious threat to Africa, and produces a cogent argument for why measures to help African countries "climate-proof" their societies, economies and infrastructure are now widely seen as vital.
Yields of major crops such as maize, millet and sorghum will fall, it concludes, while large portions of cities including Lagos, Dar-es-Salaam and Cape Town could disappear under rising seas.
"There are also major impacts in highly elevated areas like Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro whose glaciers, ice caps and run-off are important for water supplies," said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the WMO which contributed data to the report.
Last week a review issued by British economist Sir Nicholas Stern also warned of a disproportionate impact of climate change on the poorest countries, while a number of development agencies have made the same argument.
Potentially, "climate-proofing" poorer nations could include such measures as:
- sea and river defences
- boosting water supply infrastructure for drought-prone regions
- planting of natural defences such as trees and mangroves
- development of new crop strains resistant to higher temperatures or drought
- public education on issues such as saving water
In a piece for the BBC's Green Room series, the new secretary-general of the UNFCCC Yvo de Boer argues that money for adaptation can be raised through some of the convention's internal processes, such as the Clean Development Mechanism.
Britain's climate minister Ian Pearson told a parliamentary committee last month that he was hopeful of reaching a deal on adaptation at the Nairobi meeting, including financing.
In comments made during a news conference two weeks ago, the European Union's environment commissioner Stavros Dimas agreed.
But he hinted at another reason why adaptation is top of the Nairobi agenda: it is politically possible, certainly more feasible than aiming for a new deal on restricting greenhouse gas emissions when the current targets for richer countries under the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.
"Discussions on the vital issue of post-2012 global action to combat climate change will continue in Nairobi," he said.
"This process started in May and we expect to make further progress at this meeting, but it is too early to expect any breakthroughs."
Officially European Union countries and Japan are aiming for stringent long-term targets; and Britain has just proposed that the EU adopts a medium-term goal of 30% reductions by 2020.
But the US and Australia, among the developed countries, remain resolutely opposed to any talk of targets; and there is no prospect of a deal including developing nations while those two countries, among the highest per-capita polluters in the world, maintain their opposition.