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Time is running out for African countries to ensure that a global climate deal addresses their needs, says Linda Nordling.

Africa is failing to benefit from global initiatives to help developing countries deal with climate change.

The continent houses just 32 of the nearly 1,800 projects funded by the Clean Development Mechanism, a programme under the Kyoto Protocol whereby rich countries pay developing ones to run emission-reducing projects.

This could change with discussions on new funding taking place as part of global climate negotiations that will culminate in a climate summit in Copenhagen in December. The summit is intended to set out binding agreements to curb global emissions after 2012, when current obligations under the Kyoto Protocol come to an end.

But Africa faces a race against time to make sure its unique challenges — including endemic poverty and a lack of skills and resources — are reflected in the new agreements.

Common goal

The continent's poor track record in influencing past climate negotiations has led its leaders to adopt a common negotiating position for Copenhagen.

The position, adopted in July this year, emphasises the need for rich nations — whose contributions to climate change exceed Africa's — to support adaptation and mitigation in poor countries.

It shows that although African states are willing to minimise their contribution to climate change, they want the international community to fund their mitigation efforts to the tune of US$67billion per year by 2020.

Adopting a common position may help to get Africa's needs into any future climate deal, but the overarching themes must be translated into detailed proposals if they are to reach the negotiating table.

No new propositions will be considered in Copenhagen, so African countries will need to put their proposals forward at one of the two preparatory meetings ahead of the summit — in Bangkok in late September and in Barcelona in early November.

This leaves African countries with little time to work out the details of their requirements and to lobby the rest of the world.

Shared benefits

One opportunity for doing this will be a meeting on 3 September between African dignitaries and representatives from several countries from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to promote the continent's position on climate change.

African delegates at the meeting will not only have to state their needs, but also offer concrete proposals for meeting them.

For example, one key issue for Africa is the mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), which proposes to compensate landowners for not logging wooded areas (see Reducing forest emissions).

However, the form of REDD favoured by industrialised countries applies mainly to dense forests such as rainforests.

This would benefit heavily forested countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, but those dominated by sparser woodland, such as Tanzania, would fall by the wayside — clearly an undesirable outcome for the continent as a whole.

In addition, it is not clear how to ensure that compensation from REDD is distributed fairly in countries where many people are subsistence farmers.

"There is a possibility that rich people would buy up land in order to claim the compensation," says Pius Yanda, director of the Institute of Resource Assessment at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Such buy-outs could have devastating effects on poor communities, he adds.

There are likely to be similar accessibility issues with other funding instruments aimed at developing countries, including programmes to help transfer climate-saving technologies and the African Climate Fund, which is being promoted by some African governments.

Gathering evidence

Attempts to address such concerns — and indeed the effectiveness of Africa's negotiating position as a whole — will be hampered by the continent's lack of data on the likely local effects of climate change. This is not a problem that Africa can solve in the short term, but it is critical to preparing for the future.

For example, the international community is seeking to limit the increase in global temperature to two degrees Celsius, but even this may be too much for Africa, experts say.

"We do not know enough about the local effects. Perhaps even two degrees is too much for critical systems, such as shared river basins in Africa," says Belynda Petrie, chief executive of OneWorld Sustainable Investments, a company in Cape Town that runs the Southern African Regional Climate Change Programme (RCCP).

The RCCP is carrying out impact studies in three river basins in Southern Africa — the Zambezi, the Limpopo and the Okavango — to gauge the impact of climate change. But the data are unlikely to be ready in time to influence Africa's contribution to the Copenhagen summit.

It is up to African countries and regions to make sure they produce the evidence they need to make up their own minds about emissions control and sustainable development, Petrie adds.

"We should not sit around and wait for the international community to do this. We need to commit our own resources too," she says.

Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.

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