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Different development paths will affect both the impact of and reactions to climate change, according to a report unveiled this week summarising the last five years of climate change research. Indeed, the report concludes that the impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately upon developing countries.

The report was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the body charged with assessing climate change research — following a meeting in London last week involving delegates from 124 countries. It emphasises development issues and the need to address the question of equity between developed and developing worlds.

Robert Watson, chairman of the IPCC, said at a press conference after the meeting that we should place climate change centrally within the development framework. And the report itself notes that the uneven impact of climate change will exacerbate inequities in health status and access to adequate food, clean water, and other resources. It also highlights threats to human health, potential displacement of people in low-lying areas, reduced crop yields and water scarcity as particularly affecting poorer parts of the world.

Of major concern is the issue of food security. The report states that warming by a few degrees is likely to increase food prices globally. Models of cereal crops indicate that most tropical and sub-tropical regions will suffer decreased agricultural yields. Watson implied that genetic engineering of heat- and pest-resistant crops might be necessary to counter these effects.

As expected, the report also confirms that there is a growing body of scientific evidence for the link between human activity and accelerating global warming, and increasing confidence in predictions of climate models. It states that there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.

While Watson acknowledged that the report contains no new information, he explained that it serves as a practical digest of current knowledge. Narasimhan Sundararaman, secretary of the IPCC, said that "this report is more than a cut and paste job — it is a synthesis of the available information from 1988". The report includes a summary for policymakers, which provides a policy-relevant, but not policy-prescriptive integration of the information.

Other issues highlighted by Watson were the need to understand links between climate change and factors such as biodiversity; the importance of recognising the inertia inherent in climate, ecological and socio-economic systems; and the fact that international co-operation could bring mitigation and adaptation costs down.

The IPCC is committed to further investigating links between climate change and sustainable development. Last week’s meeting also saw the proposal of a new report to address this issue, and it seems likely that the IPCC will be involved in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next year. The IPCC report will also feed into the next major focus for climate change, the seventh session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 7) that opens in Marrakech later this month, when key decisions on the implementation of the Kyoto protocol must be made.

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