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Andrew Mitchell: A silver lining in the climate talks cloud?

Mitchell_andrew_nw_2 Andrew Mitchell MP, Shadow International Development Secretary, reflects on his visit to the UN climate change talks in Poznan and what the outcome of the talks means for the world's poorest people.

The world's very poorest people are already being hit hard by the effects of climate change.  For millions of poor people, the effects of global warming are not just an abstract concern but a daily peril.  Farmers in Uganda who used to plant their crops by the seasons can no longer predict when the rain will come.  Families in the mountains of Nepal face floods on an increasing and ever more devastating basis. Communities in Bangladesh – and, in fact, whole island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu – risk seeing their homes literally submerged for good as temperatures and therefore sea levels rise. Desertification in Sudan has, many argue, contributed to the tensions in Darfur.  Put bluntly, climate change threatens to drown, starve or kill many people in developing countries in the years ahead.

Most developing countries have hardly contributed to climate change and won't be doing so for the foreseeable future.  Alongside the Chinas and the Indias – whose growth is pulling millions of people out of poverty but also pouring millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year – are the Zambias, the Malis and the Nigers, whose economies are rooted in subsistence farming or small-scale agriculture.  Countries like these have the right to expect support from those that have polluted the most

So while progress is essential on agreeing emission reductions targets for industrialised and industrialising nations, world leaders also needed to get closer at this week's UN climate change conference to an effective and equitable deal for those on the other side of the problem.  A new UN Adaptation Fund was approved in principle in Bali a year ago.  The Fund was designed to help developing countries prepare for the current and future effects of climate change and, provided leaders could nail down agreement over the details, be up and running fairly quickly.  It would then provide the starting point for a bigger fund in a post-Kyoto treaty.

The challenge this week in Poznan was to turn aspiration into reality.  And as the conference drew to a close, management of the Adaptation Fund was, indeed, eventually agreed – meaning that money can now be disbursed to poor countries who urgently need it as early as next year.  But real progress will now be essential over the next 12 months on fleshing out the details of a bigger fund for the longer term.  Solid agreement will be required on the true scale of the need, how much it will cost, where funds should come from and how they should be spent.

Andrew_mitchell_at_poznan_talks The negotiating capacity of poor countries is, though, heavily constrained.  When I visited the negotiations in Poznan I was struck by the demographics of those gathered in the Polish city.  In the meeting rooms and corridors of the comfortably-heated international-standard conference centre, negotiators mingled with NGOs, lobbyists mixed with academics and industry groups worked alongside multilateral organisations.  President-Elect Obama sent a big delegation to scope the ground ready for when he takes office – a cause for optimism, as it is a signal that the USA is beginning to engage for the first time in many years.  But walking around this gathering of the 192-member United Nations, I saw far fewer people from the world's poorest countries than I would have expected.

It is clearly impossible for poor countries to come close to recruiting, let alone affording, the legions of expert lawyers and negotiators that the industrialised countries can bring to negotiations like this.  Some even find themselves asking representatives from local NGOs who have been lobbying them to cross over and join their official delegations.  Although some training and advice is available to developing country delegations in advance of the plethora of complex meetings and official documents, the governments of developed countries have a clear responsibility to provide more support.  The Department for International Development should consider adopting the Conservative proposal to establish an advocacy fund to help support poor country delegations get their voices heard throughout international negotiations like these.

And if the world's poorest countries are the David to the rich world's Goliath, then we must also bear in mind that their official grouping, the G77, brings them together with the emerging powerhouses of the industrialising world.  If EU countries have such difficulty agreeing their own position amongst themselves – witness the laboured hammering out of a common EU position in Brussels at the very same time as the UN negotiations were taking place – then that is dwarfed by the divergence of positions between Chad and China, Burkina Faso and Brazil, Sierra Leone and Singapore.

Of course, agreement over the Adaptation Fund is a small island in a sea of manoeuvring over the complex question of reducing carbon emissions.  And with participants waiting for Obama to take office and for the EU to clarify its position, this week's Poznan gathering was always going to be essentially a caretaker conference, the halfway point between Bali and Copenhagen where countries could put their cards on the table ready for negotiations to really get under way in 2009.

A groundbreaking, overarching pact was never to be expected by the time the Poznan World Trade Centre closed its doors and locked up at the end of the week. But a functioning Adaptation Fund at least marks an important step towards a bigger deal that addresses both the causes and the consequences of climate change.


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