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Understanding climate change

Important climate talks taking place in Bali next week underline the importance of understanding global warming and how to tackle it, especially in developing countries where it will be felt the most. Saleemul Huq sets out some key terms.

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[This article was first published on April 4, 2007]

 

 

Climate change is a reality whose effects will be felt most by the world's poorest countries and communities; ironically, those that have contributed least to causing the problem.

It is necessary, therefore, for all the key stakeholders in these countries, including government ministries and agencies, the media, civil society and NGOs, as well as the private sector, to learn about the problem in order to deal with its adverse impacts, which will affect almost all sectors of society and particularly the poor.

This article explains twelve key terms and acronyms and provides some facts for those who may not yet be familiar with climate change but are interested in learning about the problem and how to tackle it.

Cause and effect

We have known since the 1980s that humans are affecting the global climate through the emission of greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas for energy and transport.

Since then, and despite efforts to cut emissions, the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere has increased to a level where some degree of dangerous climate change is now inevitable and unavoidable, at least in the next couple of decades for some countries, ecosystems and communities. The effects will include both more floods and droughts, along with long-term salinisation of coastal regions and possibly more severe (but not necessarily more frequent) cyclones.

The fact that some climate change is now unavoidable in the medium term does not mean that we should passively accept the impacts but that we must learn to live with them. The emphasis here is on learning, which is not a passive act but an active one. By proactively learning more about the problem and how to tackle it we can reduce the adverse impacts considerably.

We can achieve this by taking precautionary measures as well as building on our considerable indigenous knowledge and experience of coping with climate-related hazards such as floods and droughts. In order to learn how to deal with the problem we need to acquire familiarity with some new terms and acronyms.

Greenhouse gases and greenhouse effect

The first term that should be learned is the greenhouse effect. This is a well-established physical process through which gases in the atmosphere absorb heat from the sun’s rays. These ‘greenhouse gases’ include carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These terms take their names from the glass greenhouses that have been used in temperate climates for several centuries. Carbon dioxide released by plants inside such greenhouses absorbs the sun’s rays and increases the temperature, enabling vegetables to grow even when the outside temperature is too cold. The carbon dioxide being emitted into the global atmosphere is acting in a similar manner and turning the entire planet into a greenhouse.

Mitigation

This refers to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation is the main response measure to prevent future impacts of climate change and consists of acts such as switching from using coal to petroleum to natural gas (the least polluting fossil fuel) or, better still, switching from fossil fuels altogether to renewable energy (such as solar or wind), as well as generally reducing energy use and increasing energy efficiency.

Adaptation

The third term to learn is adaptation, which entails efforts to deal (or cope) with the unavoidable impacts of climate change (due to the failure of mitigation efforts). In recent years, adaptation has gained in prominence as an important response measure — especially for poor and vulnerable countries — since it became clear that some impacts are now unavoidable in the short to medium term.

IPCC

This acronym refers to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The United Nations set up this body of the world’s leading scientists to assess the state of scientific knowledge with respect to emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as well as potential impacts around the globe. The IPCC produces periodic reports (every five years or so) that are highly credible statements of the state of knowledge on the subject (which is constantly being improved and refined). The panel produced its first assessment report in 1990, the second in 1995 and the third in 2001. It will publish the fourth in April 2007.

UNFCCC

This is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (often referred to in short as the ‘Framework Convention’). It is a global treaty that nearly all countries (including the United States) have signed and ratified because they have recognised climate change to be a global problem requiring collective action by all countries. The treaty states that the rich countries (listed in Annex-I of the convention and so often referred to as ‘Annex-I countries’) are the ones primarily responsible for the bulk of emissions and hence have a responsibility to take action first as well as to help the more vulnerable countries to adapt. The countries that signed the treaty agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to the level they emitted in 1990 (termed the ‘bench-mark year’).

CoP

This refers to the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. This is an annual event (usually in November or December) where all the countries meet to review the progress made in meeting their obligations under the convention and also agree on any new actions needed. The location of the CoP rotates from continent to continent with the last one (CoP 12) being held in November 2006 in Nairobi, Kenya and the next one (CoP13) to be held in December 2007 in Indonesia.

LDC

This acronym refers to a group of 50 of the world’s least developed countries, most of which are in Africa with a few in Asia. Article 4.8 of the UNFCCC recognises that the LDCs are especially vulnerable to climate change (along with the small island developing states, or SIDS). The convention obliges rich (i.e. Annex-I) countries to help the LDCs to adapt to the potential adverse impacts of climate change. Hence, at the seventh conference of parties (CoP7) in Marrakech, Morocco in November 2001 a new fund (called the ‘LDC Fund’) was created to provide support for the LDCs to do adaptation activities. This LDC Fund was to be filled by voluntary donations from the rich countries.

Kyoto Protocol

This is one of the more familiar terms relating to climate change. It refers to the agreement made at the CoP3 in Kyoto, Japan in 1997. The Annex-I countries agreed on a country-by-country basis to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by a certain percentage (compared to 1990 emission levels) by the end of 2012 (the ‘First Commitment Period’). At that time, the United States was part of the treaty and also agreed a target for reducing its emissions. However, soon afterwards, with the election of the Bush administration, the United States (along with Australia) withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol had to be ratified by each country’s national parliament and could only come into force after at least 55 countries had ratified it and also when the total emissions of those countries accounted for over 55% of global emissions. This process took a long time  (especially after the United States, which alone produces 24% of global emissions, withdrew). However, since February 2005 (when Russia ratified and the 55% threshold was finally achieved) all signatory countries are now implementing the Kyoto Protocol.

CDM

One element under the Kyoto Protocol is the opportunity for developing countries (which did not have to set any emissions-cutting targets) to do mitigation projects and sell the carbon reductions to countries that have targets through a market-based trading mechanism called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Already a number of CDM projects have been negotiated and approved (they must be approved at the national level by a Designated National Authority as well as at the international level by the CDM Executive Board). The pipeline of CDM projects from all developing countries totals around US$1 billion already and is rising fast (most of the projects are being done in the larger developing countries such as Brazil, China and India).

NAPAs

The first activity that the LDC Fund supported was for every LDC to carry out a National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA), which identified and prioritised adaptation actions and projects to be undertaken in each country following a common, agreed methodology. The NAPAs were also meant to be done in a participatory manner with all relevant stakeholders. So far about eight countries have submitted their NAPAs, with the rest expected to complete and submit theirs this year.  Once the NAPAs are completed and submitted it is expected that the priority adaptation projects in each LDC will be supported from the LDC Fund. However, so far the total amount pledged to this fund is about US$100 million, so there will not be much for each LDC unless the rich countries contribute much more money.

SCCF

At CoP7 in Marrakech, Morocco (as part of the ‘Marrakech Accords’) another new fund was also created. Unlike the LDC Fund, the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) was not only for LDCs but for all developing countries and not only for adaptation but also for other activities (such as technology transfer). This fund is also based on voluntary contributions and currently has around 400 million dollars pledged and has started to support some adaptation projects in a few developing countries (mainly small island states).

Adaptation Fund

This fund is the only one with the word ‘adaptation’ in its title. Unlike the LDC Fund or SCCF is not based on voluntary contributions from countries, but rather from an ‘Adaptation Levy’ of 2% on all CDM transactions. It is also the only adaptation fund under the Kyoto Protocol (the other two funds are under the UNFCCC). This fund is meant to support ‘concrete adaptations’ in developing countries. The amounts generated for this fund will, of course, depend on the volume of CDM transactions, but it has already generated several million dollars (even though the fund has not yet been made operational).  

Beyond the jargon

The above twelve definitions give what is very much a summary guide to the climate change issue, which can be extremely complicated and sometimes arcane. However, it is not necessary for everyone to become an expert on each aspect of the issue, but rather to keep abreast of developments that are most relevant to them (as things are changing rapidly). One of the problems in trying to do so, is not the lack of information, but rather the excess of information, which is hard to sift through to find what is relevant and what is not.

So to provide some guidance on sources of information on specific aspects of the issue types here are a few web sites worth visiting regularly: for information on science of climate change www.ipcc.ch; for information on COP decisions and global policy www.unfccc.int; for climate change and development linkages www.iied.org; for adaptation activities www.lca.org, for information on LDCs and climate change www.clacc.net. Also for regular news about climate change and developing countries, see SciDev.Net and Tiempo.

Saleemul Huq is head of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development. He is Coordinating Lead Author of the chapter on Adaptation and Mitigation in the IPCC's fourth assessment report (in preparation).

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

路透的新闻

我刚看到路透社的一条新消息,今天有新的警告发布。

里面说“气候变化将给非洲带来农作物的急剧减产和亿万人群的饥饿。它将使喜马拉雅的冰川迅速消融汇入印度到中国的河流,并将为欧洲和北美带来热浪。”

最贫穷的是最受罪的。是时候行动了!

Reuters news

I just came across a piece of news from Reuters that a new warning had been announced today.

It says "climate change could cause hunger for millions with a sharp fall in crop yields in Africa. It could rapidly thaw Himalayan glaciers that feed rivers from India to China and bring heatwaves for Europe and North America."

The poorest will suffer the most. And it's time to act!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

这个世界是公平的

大自然会对人类的破坏行为狠狠的回应.

The world is fair

Nature will respond to humans' destruction, fiercely.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

在大自然面前人是渺小的

以及既成的事实,只能适应,无法再改变

Smallness in front of nature

Fait accompli! We can only live with it. It can't be changed.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

既成事实

对不起,但你的评论实在让我恼火。这不是在大自然面前人多渺小的问题,而是人类的行为影响自然——破坏自然——忽略自然带给我们的教训的问题。你知道吗,在未来的10到20年世界上可能有百分之四十的物种要灭绝。这不是自然的,这是人为的。说我们没什么可做的是推卸历史责任,是告诉我们的孩子们,对不起,我只是太懒太自私了,我没能花心思去传给你们一个值得生存的世界。我们是有很多事情可做的。只是你不愿意做其中的任何一件事情罢了。

fait accompli

Sorry but your comment made me angry. This is not a case of smallness in front of nature, This is human activity affecting nature -- destroying nature -- ignoring the lessons of nature. Do you understand that 40 per cent of the world's species could be lost in the next 10 t0 20 years.. this is not natural, this is man made. To say there is nothing we can do is to wash our hands of history, to say to our children, sorry, I was just too lazy and selfish ..I couldn't be bothered to leave you a world worth living in. There are many nthings we can do. I just don't think that you are going to do any of them.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

温室的原理?

挑个毛病,“温室中的植物释放出的二氧化碳吸收太阳射线,使温度升高”,这句话有原理上的错误。植物在夜间的确释放二氧化碳,但是总的来说释放的氧气多(这个大家都知道)。温室的温度相对室外较高的原因是,太阳光有很大一部分是短波长的光,容易透过玻璃等透明物质,被地表吸收后,再释放出来的热量大多是长波长,红外到远红外,大家可以参考在电影里能看到场景,某些特殊眼镜可以在夜间显像出生物的形体,那就是红外眼镜对散发热量的生物的作用。这些长波长的光不容易透过玻璃,从而保持在温室内部。二氧化碳等温室气体的作用就和玻璃等透明物质的作用一样,阻止了地球向宇宙空间散发自身的热量,从而导致地球温度的缓慢升高。
- Aturen

Greenhouse Theory?

I pick a hole here. Carbon dioxide emitted by plants in greenhouse absorbs solar radiation to increase temperature – this sentence has theory mistake. Plants emit carbon dioxide at night, but in general they emit oxygen more than carbon dioxide (everybody knows it). The temperature in greenhouse is higher than outside because shortwave solar light is very easy to be absorbed by the earth though glass or other transparent materials and then emits longwave light, from red light to far-red light. For example, when we are watching a movie through special glasses which can develop a shape of biological body, it is the red light glasses taking effect on biological body emitting heat. Hardly going through glasses, these longwave lights stays inside the greenhouse. Effect from greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide acts like the effect of transparent materials such as glass, prohibiting the Earth from emitting its heat energy to the universe to slowly raise the Earth’s temperature. Aturen