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  • Guest Editor collection: 15 Dec 2014 Reid Basher
    Adjunct Professor
    New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute

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The 2014 UN Climate Change Conference and what it means for disaster risk reduction

A new level of cooperation and commitment on climate change is emerging ahead of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held this year in Lima, Peru, over 1-12 December. Substantive progress is expected toward a new agreement hopefully to be settled at next year’s conference in Paris. This is good news for disaster risk reduction. Governments are clear that climate change and disasters must be dealt with as separate issues, under different international policy instruments, but this does not prevent synergies between the two. The Climate Change Convention’s focus on climate risk management is closely aligned to disaster risk reduction concepts and practice and it also contributes to sustainable development goals. UNISDR argues for coherence and mutual reinforcement among these three policy areas. Disaster risk advocates can help by informing national delegations on risk reduction approaches and how these can serve the needs of the Convention.

Presentation: The Climate Change Conference season

In December, leaders of almost 200 countries have met in Lima, Peru to once again face up to the tough problem of climate change. The United Nations Climate Change Conference is held annually, to forge international agreements and understandings on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the effects of climate change. The outcome of the Lima meeting, which is held over two weeks from 1-12 December, will be important for disaster risk and its reduction.

At this time of year, there is always a sense of excitement and potential for action as countries gear up for the debates and negotiations on climate change. A flurry of media attention highlights the key issues and the points of agreement and conflict. Organisations and leaders around the world present new initiatives or call for greater urgency to address the problem.

This year, in a surprise move on 12 November, President Xi Jinping of China and President Barack Obama of the United States jointly announced new pledges on greenhouse gas emissions, as part of their talks in Beijing. Mr Obama set a new goal of reducing US levels to between 26%-28% by 2025, compared with 2005 levels, and while China did not set a specific target, Mr Xi said China’s emissions would peak by 2030. This is a significant move for the two countries, which together account for about 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It signals a welcome new level of cooperation and commitment that will put other leaders on notice and raise expectations for the Lima meeting. It will do much to dispel the dashed hopes of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, which Mr Obama attended five years ago.

Equally important is the recent release of a UN “non-paper” that sets out elements for a new climate change agreement. Most countries want to get a binding agreement in place at the next United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, 30 November – 11 December 2015.

Prepared by a working group of the Framework Convention on Climate Change with the obscure title “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”, the 23 page non-paper proposes draft language and a range of options distilled from the current views of countries. It is called a non-paper because it has not been debated or agreed by countries. Nevertheless, it has reached this stage only after great scrutiny and close input by countless bureaucrats and technocrats in national capitals. It represents solid progress and serious commitment on the long path toward a new global agreement on climate change.

How does disaster risk reduction fit in the climate change agenda?

A constellation of difficult issues is being considered and debated in the climate negotiations. How can the world’s economies be decarbonised while also allowing developing countries to grow? How can forests and agriculture be managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also ensuring food production and environmental protection? How can technology transfer be accelerated to do these things and how can we generate the vast funds needed to help developing countries? How should poor countries be compensated for loss and damage from climate change? How can we monitor key factors like greenhouse gas emissions and damage from climate change, as well as actual progress by countries to meet their legally binding commitments?

In the debate on these difficult questions, will the lessons of disaster and disaster risk reduction be heard and included in the new agreement? Experience to date indicates that indeed these lessons will be considered, insofar as they are relevant to climate change concerns, though they will be couched in different language from that normally used by advocates of disaster risk reduction. Vulnerable developing countries are especially conscious of the threat of disaster risk and will not let it be forgotten.

One thing has become very clear over the last decade - governments want the Framework Convention on Climate Change to be the sole vehicle for dealing with climate change, and to deal only with climate change. This means that while agreements under the Convention will address risk-related impacts arising from climate change and risk-related matters that affect the achievement of mitigation and adaptation, the policy objective of disaster risk reduction is not a direct concern for the Convention and must be dealt with elsewhere, principally in the ISDR/HFA arena.

We should not regard this as a problem. Firstly, disaster risk reduction is closely and well addressed in the ISDR and post-2015 Hyogo Framework for Action process. Secondly, climate change policy already makes good use of the ideas of disaster risk management. For example, if one searches the recent non-paper, the word “disaster” does not appear. But the language of risk is extensively used, such as in “a comprehensive approach to climate risk management”, “risk management strategies”, “early warning systems and risk management plans”, “insurance and risk transfer”, and “financial risk management instruments.” Many, if not most, of the techniques of disaster risk management are therefore directly applicable to climate change.

It is also important to recognise a critical policy difference between disaster risk and climate change. Disaster risk is primarily a matter for sovereign states to address, as a problem within their own borders. Voluntary international cooperation on disaster risk is valuable, but no binding commitments are required. In the case of climate change, however, the source of the problem and the impacts that arise do not neatly coincide within individual countries, but span the whole globe. Climate change can only be solved by legally binding international agreements among virtually all the countries of the world. The underlying approach of international efforts on disaster risk reduction – voluntary cooperation – is not sufficient for addressing climate change.

The wider context of sustainable development

Disaster risk reduction and climate change are themselves only part of the broader international concern for sustainable development. This links issues of poverty, health, security and environmental protection and the needs of developing countries. Disaster risk and climate change are felt very differently by different countries and communities. Successive editions of the UNISDR Global Assessment Report have made this very clear, elucidating the processes of risk and their damaging role on the achievement of economic and social development.

As tools to focus attention and action on priority development tasks, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have achieved considerable success over their lifetime of nearly 15 years. Successor goals, to be called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are under development, coordinated under the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. The group’s report to the UN General Assembly in September  proposed seventeen goals and a total of 169 subsidiary targets.

Disaster risk reduction is not one of these goals, but it is represented among several subsidiary targets. For example, Goal 1, the call to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”, includes the subsidiary target 1.5 “by 2030 build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations, and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters.” This linking of disaster risk to povery eradication is a very significant step, acknowledging the central role of risk processes in development. It has to be admitted, though, that the target is rather wordy and general and almost impossible to measure.

The goals and targets are still in draft form and will be subject to debate and revision by governments over the next year. The final list will become a key guide for development policy and funding for many countries for the next decade. Some leaders have stated that there are too many goals in the draft list and that a shorter list would result in more effective focussed action. If so, vigilance will be needed to make sure that disaster risk is not dropped from the final list.

Role of advocates of disaster risk reduction

What strategies and action should advocates of disaster risk reduction take to advise their national delegates for climate change and on sustainable development?

The UNISDR secretariat faced this question with its 6-page April 2014 paper “Coherence and mutual reinforcement between a post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction, Sustainable Development Goals and the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC.” The title gives the answer – coherence and mutual reinforcement. In other words, please make sure that each policy area sings a similar song on matters of risk and disasters, and please sing together to produce better music.

The UNISDR document sets the scene by pointing out commonalities among the three policy areas and outlining previous understandings such as the agreements made at the UN conference marking the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Summit). It then sets out suggestions for promoting coherence and mutual reinforcement in three main areas (a) political recognition; (b) monitoring and reporting, and; (c) supporting partnerships for national and local action. These are messages for national and local attention and not just for international processes.

Lastly, for disaster risk reduction advocates, there remains the permanent task of educating each new crop of policymakers and their advisers on the basic facts of disaster risk, disaster risk reduction, and disaster management. This applies whether or not the details can be incorporated into their particular policy instruments. Concepts and tools such as risk assessment, early warning, construction codes, land use planning, and disaster preparedness, along with supporting action on legislation, political commitment and community action, should be presented as natural ingredients of sustainable development and addressing climate change.

Conclusion and personal reflections (Author’s conclusion and viewpoints)

The United Nations Climate Change Conferences are bewildering events, especially for newcomers. In the public mind, there is just one huge hall where delegates make sober speeches and come to agreements. But in fact there are hundreds of meetings scheduled in dozens of meeting rooms, morning noon and night, as well as a continual stream of private meetings and one-on-one consultations. Thousands of people jostle in crowded venues and corridors, desperate to keep up with their chosen schedule of events, snatching conversations with colleagues en route, escaping to quiet spots to check email and draft text and views, and somehow trying to find time for quick meals at on-site food outlets. Even for Ministers, who have multiple advisors and minders to constantly guide, the experience can be unusual and pressured.

Participation in the event is limited to country delegations and accredited organisations, with pre-registration done many days or weeks beforehand. When you first arrive at the venue, you establish your identity, are photographed and entered into the participant database. A personal photo-badge is issued to you, which allows entry to the venue. A colour strip identifies your status as a government delegate, UN staff, NGO or UNFCCC secretariat staff – this is used to control entry to certain meetings where only delegates or secretariat staff are welcome. Each time you pass through the barrier to the venue, your photo appears on a screen for security staff to validate your identity.

Security at the site is closely managed by the United Nations security service. Interestingly, during the period of the conference, the whole site is deemed to be under the total control of the United Nations. When the venue is first taken over by the UN prior to the conference, a thorough search and scanning of the premises is undertaken. If problems arise during the two weeks, they are dealt with by the UN security staff, who are very well trained in security and conflict situations. Local police are only called in when a matter needs to be passed over to the local authorities.

The experience of the new participant on the first day is a daunting one. First the process to get badges, operated by a row of maybe six to ten staff, then the queues to pass through one of perhaps eight personal and baggage scanners, and the photo ID check. On busy days, the morning queues may stretch a long way, a frustrating process for some important people who ordinarily expect to have doors opened for them!

With about 200 countries represented, there are dozens of languages, possibly hundreds, in use throughout the venue. The work of the sessions is mainly undertaken in English, but delegates can use any of the UN six official languages - Arabic, Chinese, English French, Spanish and Russian – and their speech will be translated to the others by shifts of UN interpreters. Delegates fluent in English have a big advantage in expressing themselves and getting specific language subtleties included in meeting documents.

The Conference can be thought of as a small city, with three broad layers of operation. Governments are at the top, followed by the supporting UN bodies and intergovernmental organisations, and thirdly by the civil society organisations such as science institutes and NGOs. A brilliant achievement of the Conference is the way it allows participants from the three levels to mingle and interact within the Conference venues. A high level of exchange of information and views is achieved in this way, which is especially valuable given the technical and political complexities of climate change.

In addition to the formal sessions under the Convention, there are numerous side events organised collaboratively by UN agencies, institutes and NGOs. These provide expert briefings on dozens of critical issues, such as IPCC reports, agricultural emissions, industry trends, insurance options, and risk management, and also country experience on key matters. The government delegates try to attend many of the side events to update their knowledge and understanding of issues.

Some side events are targeted at advocacy, for example to examine the plight of poor communities vulnerable to climate change, or the dramatic effects of temperature rise on polar regions and their indigenous communities. Organisations like Greenpeace coordinate demonstration events, sometimes even with the walls of the venue. I recall with delight at Copenhagen in 2009 a group of Greenpeace activists dressed up as trees carrying out a dance routine in one broad corridor, a crush of delegates passing by, and only metres from the offices of some heavyweight national delegations.

It is governments that represent the countries as Parties to the Convention, and that are solely responsible for the substantive decisions and outcomes under the Convention. They have the sole right to speak at the formal sessions but at times may allow or even invite inputs from UN agencies and selected leading NGOs. The work of the Convention is organised under a number of subsidiary bodies and working groups, in particular the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI). All countries sit on these bodies. Each body has an elected chair and co-chair who control proceedings and each body meets in full session twice a year, one of these meetings being part of the December UN Climate Change Conference.

Risk issues are dealt with by SBSTA. The UNISDR has made statements on the role of disaster risk reduction approaches at SBSTA sessions over the years. It has also organised side events on particular themes, such as the synergies between adaptation and disaster risk reduction and reducing the humanitarian cost of disasters. These are usually run as joint efforts with ISDR partners such as UNDP, the World Bank, the Red Cross Red Crescent and various development and aid NGOs.

The conference negotiation sessions ordinarily start with a draft document that has been worked on by the Subsidiary bodies over many months beforehand. Additionally, further development takes place over the early days of the conference. There will always be sticking points, in both substance and language, that draw long interventions and argument from some delegations. Sometimes the chair of the session may break the session and invite certain countries to seek a solution, to be considered by the body when it reconvenes. At other times the chair may use their authority to close discussion on an issue – this may be necessary for example when the session runs out of time and the interpreters need to stop work.

The government delegations range from large multidisciplinary teams from the bigger countries to just one or two people from some small countries. Some delegations comprise only government officials while others may include representatives from research institutes, NGOs and the private sector. Most will be working to policies agreed in the national capital prior to the meeting, but sometimes the departmental composition of the delegation may influence their contributions. For this reason it is desirable that the delegation includes officials who are very familiar with the concepts and practices of disaster risk reduction and risk management. Small island countries and vulnerable developing countries are often the strongest advocates for risk management.

There are also several key groupings of countries that address specific common interests, for example small island states, regional economic entities such as the European Union, or countries reliant on agriculture. These groups meet often during the two weeks and are important vehicles for discussing and consolidating common positions and finding ways through negotiating problems in the main sessions.

The UNFCCC secretariat plays a fundamentally important role in supporting the work of the sessions, especially on the agenda, supporting documents and schedule. Secretariat staff also help the chairs to solve problems of content and process and may be used as a go-between between delegations on difficult issues. As knowledgeable and trusted servants of the process, and having wide access to government and other delegations, they are often in a powerful position to influence directions and help shape solutions. It pays to get to know the secretariat staff and to assist them when possible in their demanding work.

If the first stages of the climate conference are seen as a set of 100 metre sprints, the final plenary is clearly a full marathon. It typically extends well beyond the scheduled time, on occasion carrying on over the whole night until the following day. Delegations with many staff can rotate their staff on shifts to maintain vigilance and pressure on the session, but for countries with smaller delegations it is a very trying time. Entrenched positions are deliberately worn down by exhaustion and lack of sleep. Most delegates have planes to catch and have no wish to extend their fortnight stay. UNFCCC secretariat staff likewise face a gruelling time supporting these final proceedings especially on top of two weeks hard work and months of arduous preparation effort.

By the end of each Climate Conference, the participants are pale shadows of the energetic people they were at the start of the event. But whether they achieved success or failed, or learned a lot or a little, they will for certain be able to depart with the satisfaction of having done what they could, and of having been part of a piece of climate history in the making.

Further information and publications on climate change and disaster risk reduction can be found on the UNISDR web site at and on PreventionWeb.

Related Sections on Preventionweb

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