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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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’).


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.


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.


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).


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.


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; for information on COP decisions and global policy; for climate change and development linkages; for adaptation activities, for information on LDCs and climate change 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).

Homepage image by hilary