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As governments prepare for the next round of negotiations on combating global warming, the need to keep the issue high on the international political agenda is greater than ever.

Last week, a team of US researchers reported that the ice caps on Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya are melting rapidly, and are likely to disappear completely within the next 20 years (see Kilimanjaro's ice record 'wasting away'). One of the consequences, they point out, is that this will directly affect livelihoods of those who currently depend on water from melting glaciers on the mountain to irrigate their fields, particularly during periods of low rainfall. Others will be deprived of the electricity that the melt water provides through small hydropower stations.

The news is a timely reminder, in two senses, of the seriousness of the need to address the threats posed by global warming. Firstly, it comes at a time when the attention of much of the international political community is focused elsewhere, namely the prospect of armed conflict in the Middle East. In such circumstances, there is a danger that other global challenges will not get the attention they deserve. It was noticeable, for example, that global warming was not significantly addressed at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, partly because of the political divisions it was feared this could create.

Secondly, the Kilimanjaro news coincides with the opening in New Delhi this week of the latest round of international negotiations over the implementation of the climate treaty agreed at the WSSD's predecessor meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Much of the attention at this eighth meeting of the so-called Conference of Parties — known as COP-8 — will be directed at obtaining the final ratifications, namely from Russia and Canada, needed to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol (which places numerical targets on the goals agreed in Rio) comes into force.

Kyoto is only a first step

Whatever the celebratory noises likely to be heard when this stage is reached, however, it is only the first step on a long journey. Much remains to be done in equipping countries that are likely — just as those living on the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro — to face major consequences of climate change long before the impact of the Kyoto Protocol?s implementation are felt.

That is why, for example, much of the debate at COP-8 will revolve around a topic that has received relatively attention in international negotiations so far, but is coming rapidly up the agenda: the need to develop strategies to adapt to global warming, not merely to try to prevent it.

At the same time, however, there is a danger that international agreement on the implementation of the Kyoto targets will be seen as an end in itself. This would distract attention from the even greater political challenges that lie in agreeing on new measures at the end of the period initially covered by the protocol (2008 to 2012).

The temptation to remain blinkered will be particularly strong for developing countries. These are not required to take any avoiding action, for example through limiting carbon dioxide emissions, under Kyoto. In the longer term, however, it is essential that such nations temper their legitimate concerns to pursue economic growth with an awareness that they must be key members of any global coalition to prevent global warming from getting out of hand. In other words, they cannot continue to portray the process as one for which the developed world is solely responsible.

Responsibilities of the developed world

This is not to say that the developed world, the main consumer of the carbon-emitting fossil fuels that are largely responsible for the 'greenhouse effect', should not shoulder a large part of the blame for the current situation. Indeed, one issue that is already high on the agenda in Delhi is the fact that — even though three news funds have been set up to help developing nations cope with the effects of global warming, in particular to address the needs for adaptation in responding to extreme weather conditions — so far, relatively little money has been pledged by developed countries.

The need of developing countries, particularly the Least Developed Countries, for money to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change is urgent. So is the need for financial assistance through the Global Environment Facility to help them diversify their economies and raise public awareness in order to make them more resilient — moves that have both medium- and long-term implications. In all such areas, much could be done with only a fraction of the money that it would cost to finance an invasion of Iraq.

On the more scientific side, much also remains to be done to clarify the extent to which so-called carbon 'sinks' — forests and other forms of vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide — should be included in assessments of whether a country is meeting its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (see Carbon sinks: what are they and why are they important). A final decision on this is not expected until the next round of negotiations (COP-9) that will be held next year. But there are still many contentious aspects of this issue to be ruled on — for example, whether or not plantations can be included in such estimates, a move being strongly opposed by many environmental groups.

Where next?

Finally, at the back of everyone?s mind will be the question: where next after Kyoto? One of the legitimate criticisms of the accord made by the United States — which announced last year that it had no intention to sign the treaty — is that the targets being agreed upon, namely a reduction of carbon emissions to their levels in 1990, will in the long-run be relatively insignificant. It is already recognised that the level of reduction needed to prevent a disruptive — and potentially disastrous — rise in global temperature will have to be much greater than this.

This is where developing countries can come in. It is entirely appropriate for them to point out that the major contributors to global warming have, up to now, been the developed world (and therefore to claim financial assistance from these countries in attempting to mitigate and adapt to its impact). But the same logic means that, in the future, it will be the fastest growing economies, particularly those in countries such as China and Latin America, that will be responsible for the rate of growth in the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Not all of this can, or should, be addressed by external assistance. Such countries, backed by their scientific communities, need to develop their own strategies for reducing carbon emissions, and moving towards the type of sustainable economies envisaged at the WSSD in Johannesburg. In the long run, it will be the success of their own efforts at doing so — and not just the effectiveness of measures taken by the developed world — that will determine how much of an impact human-induced global warming will have on their inhabitants. But for those those living at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, even this may come too late.

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