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With the global house on fire, there is no time to lose at the UN Climate Change Talks in Accra
By Yvo de Boer, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary
Yvo de Boer
UNFCCC Executive Secretary
International negotiators are presently preparing for the United Nations Climate Change Talks in Accra, Ghana, which will run from 21 to 27 August. The meeting is the third major UNFCCC gathering this year and is expected to draw over a thousand participants including government representatives, participants from business and industry, environmental organizations and research institutions.

An Ashanti proverb has it that “People in a burning house cannot afford to lose time in argument.” The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly stated last year that the global house has indeed caught fire. Climate change is not only unequivocal, but is accelerating and will above all impact the world’s most vulnerable communities to a degree hardly conceivable, unless the present growth in greenhouse gas emissions is halted over the next few years and drastically cut back by the middle of the century. Under a business as usual scenario, as many as 250 million people are expected to suffer from acute water shortages by 2020 in Africa alone.

With the scientific debate concluded and arguments over the seriousness of the challenge put to rest, a window of opportunity opened at the end of last year with the agreement to launch international negotiations on strengthened international action on climate change. These negotiations will be concluded in Copenhagen next year, to allow an agreed outcome to enter into force before the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

So where are we now in terms of putting out the fire, eight months into the negotiations? Another Ashanti proverb says that “No one tests the depth of a river with both feet.” Prudence is a healthy part of human nature, and no-one wants to jump head first into unchartered waters. That would explain the cautiousness when negotiators met in Bangkok in March this year, the first gathering since the Bali climate conference last December.

At the meeting in Bangkok, a work programme for the talks on long-term cooperative action was drawn up for 2008. Parties agreed on essential workshops that should take place, whilst also agreeing to take forward work on mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, finance and a long-term shared vision. The Bangkok meeting was followed by the Bonn Climate Change Talks in June, during which careful progress was made both in the talks on long-term cooperative action and in talks under the Kyoto Protocol.

In Ghana, work on the rules and tools that will be available to developed countries to meet future emission reduction targets is scheduled to be concluded. This work is essential because the rules and tools that rich countries can deploy will determine the level of ambition when setting their new targets. Only when the toolbox has been established can governments move on to the crucial issue of emission reduction ranges. In Ghana, work will also continue on the main elements of the Copenhagen agreement. Some of this work will be done in two focused workshops.

One workshop will be on policy approaches and positive incentives on issues relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries; and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries. Given that deforestation accounts for around 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions, this is an issue of huge importance not least for African countries.

The second workshop will be on cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions. The Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism presently only allows emission reductions from projects to be credited. This and other mechanisms could be expanded to engage important sectors of the economy, for example the steel, cement or power-generating sectors. Sectoral agreements are already in place in some countries and could be given a major boost if codified and credited as part of an international agreement.

For the fist time in the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen, the issue of mitigation will be discussed in Accra in relation to finance and technology in a special contact group, as will the debate on adaptation. This will create an interlinked discussion on a number of elements of the Copenhagen deal. Parties will look not only on what is needed in terms of funding, but also on how funding should be generated in the context of a new international agreement, and precisely what technologies are required. The debate will also give an indication of the infrastructure needed to implement the long-term shared vision in the areas of finance, technology and capacity building.

The Accra gathering is set to be much more than just a stop-over on the way to UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan in December 2008, and from there to Copenhagen in 2009. Governments have the opportunity to put concrete proposals on the table as to what can be written into the Copenhagen agreement. With the global house on fire, and the time for debate clearly limited, negotiators in Accra cannot afford to lose any of the precious time remaining.
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