Global warming talks inch toward accord - 'adaptation' cash a sore point

At the Copenhagen global warming talks, high-level delegations have arrived to kick negotiations into high gear. But the question of money to help poorer nations grapple with the effects of climate change remains a sticking point.

Christian Charisius/Reuters
People leave a metro at an underground station in central Copenhagen, Tuesday.

Ministers from more than 190 countries gathered in Copenhagen Tuesday to throw their political weight behind negotiations over a new pact to combat global warming.

Over the next 48 hours, the ministers are expected to move toward an accord that brings the US and developing countries into a truly global pact on climate change.

In addition, countries party to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are trying to negotiate terms for a second commitment period, which would take effect in 2013.

The goal is to have something ready for heads of state and heads of government to agree to if they can, or compromise on if they must, to wrap up on Friday a political agreement on climate actions they'll take after Copenhagen.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged compromise in his speech at the high-level session's opening plenary.

"I understand that every leader coming to Copenhagen faces domestic pressures and domestic politics," he said. "No one will get everything they want in this negotiation. But if we work together and get a deal, everyone will get what they need."

One key to reaching an agreement is a solid commitment from developed countries to funnel significant amounts of cash to poorer countries to help them adopt cleaner and more efficient technologies, and prepare to grapple with the negative effects of a warmer planet. At this stage in the talks, however, draft text on the topic has one key gap: a specific number for long-term financing for that effort, often referred to as "adaptation."

The need for adequate adaptation efforts takes on additional significance when greenhouse-gas emission control offers already on the table are measured against Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change figures (IPCC). The IPCC formulation embodied in the Bali Action Plan, the road map for negotiations here, holds that wealthy countries must reduce their emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and by up to 95 percent by 2050 to stand a 50-50 chance of holding global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Emissions from developing countries must fall substantially below business as usual, as well.

But offers on the table so far are likely to lead to a 3.9-degree C (7 degrees F) warming, according to a recent analysis by the scientists behind the website

Disaster preparedness

Adaptation in many ways is disaster preparedness or resilience by another name. Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said during a severe-weather briefing earlier this week that in 1970, a tropical cyclone struck Bangladesh, killing more than 300,000 people. A "super cyclone" that hit the country in 2007 killed some 3,500, still a tragedy, but far less so than nearly 40 years ago. Among the differences: better warning systems.

Yet with projections of higher sea levels, the retreat of mountain glaciers vital to down-stream water supplies, and more frequent and intensified droughts, adaptation efforts will have to advance significantly to help people cope, many analysts agree.

In an interview, Guatemala's environment minister, Luis Alberto Ferrate Felice describes his country as the most vulnerable of any in the Americas. The country starts out with two strikes against it: it sits at the junction of three tectonic place, leading to active volcanoes and violent earthquakes; the country is also prone to damage from Atlantic and Pacific hurricanes.

As for global warming, Guatemala already is seeing the effects, he says. Some 18 centimeters of sea-level rise over the last 45 years has increased the area covered by coastal flooding by about 170 kilometers (100 miles). And salt-water intrusion from rising sea levels covers 50 to 70 times that area.

He also attributes an increasing incidence of disease among people who live in mountains to global warming. As temperatures become warmer at higher elevations, he says, mosquito habitat rises up the mountainside as well. Beetle infestations, similar to those striking the mountain West in the US, are attacking everything from pines to coconut trees.

The net effect? "Money we should be able to use for development we've already used for adaptation" as the government has been forced to build more hospitals at the expense of schools or critical improvements to the country's infrastructure.

This is one reason, he says, why developing countries are insisting that adaptation aid be over and above what rich countries already are contributing in development aid.

Raising up crops

International aid groups are already working to mitigate the damage done by higher temperatures. In Bolivia, for instance, Oxfam International is working with farmers outside of Trinidad to implement raised-bed gardening as a means of protecting their crops from floods. Crops are planted on large tracts of land raised as much as seven feet above the surrounding countryside. This protects crops during floods. During the dry season, canals at the bases of the raised growing plots help keep the plants irrigated.

In Ethiopia, the organization is working with the insurance firm Swiss Re to provide crop insurance to small-scale growers, with premiums paid either in cash or in-kind with labor.

"Working with communities to weather increasing climate impacts is a necessity, but it can also be exciting," says David Waskow, the climate change director at Oxfam America. "Communities are building their resilience in inspiring ways."

Yet turning individual projects into a global program requires a significant investment. By some estimates, countries need at least $10 billion a year in adaptation and other climate-related aid between 2010 and 2012. It's a touchy subject, even within the NGO community.

Today, France and Ethiopia suggested financing adaptation with a carbon tax on aviation, shipping, and climate-related financial transactions -- which they estimate could raise more tha $100 billion a year. The idea drew an approving nod from a group called ActionAid. But another group calling itself the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance called it a sell-out that enables rich countries to wiggle out of the tough emissions targets African countries insist on.

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