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Climate change diplomacy: Challenges and opportunities


Saleemul Huq*

Climate change is growing in importance as a significant new arena of global diplomacy at the very highest levels. As a developing country that is particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change this presents a challenge for Bangladesh. At the same time, as the country gains in knowledge about the issue and starts to tackle it in earnest, it also represents an opportunity for it to play a leading role in the international diplomatic arena as well.

In order to make the most of such opportunities different ministries of the government will need to enhance their capacities on the issue of climate change diplomacy. Some suggestions for action are described below.

As the lead ministry dealing with climate change the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has been playing a leading role on behalf of the country at the meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the annual Conference of Parties (COP), including the recent COP17 held in Durban, South Africa.

Over the years the minister and officials of the ministry as well as expert advisers have gained considerable knowledge of and expertise in the different negotiating tacks and Bangladesh has been playing a leading role at the COPs within the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group to which it belongs. Bangladesh has an opportunity to take over as chair of the LDC group from next year as the chairmanship will move from Africa to Asia at COP18 — to be held in Doha, Qatar in December 2012. This gives Bangladesh a year to lobby amongst the Asian LDCs to gain the chairmanship of the LDC Group.

As international finance for climate change from global to national level begins to flow in earnest, the Ministry of Finance, and particularly the Economic Relations Division (ERD) will need to enhance its knowledge of climate change finance, which is different from Official Development Assistance (ODA) with which they have traditionally been familiar.

One significant difference between ODA and climate change finance is that ODA is given by developed countries to developing countries under a paradigm of “charity” (or “solidarity”) while climate finance is under a treaty obligation under the paradigm of “polluter pays.” Thus, the relationship of Bangladesh’s officials when dealing with their counterparts from the same developed countries needs to be very different when discussing ODA (where Bangladesh has to accept what is offered on the terms on which it is offered) from discussing climate finance (where Bangladesh can dictate some of the terms). A good example is the position of the LDCs that only grants are acceptable and not loans (even on soft terms) for climate finance.

The MoFA has a critical role to play in global climate change diplomacy at the international level through the Bangladesh ambassadors around the world as well as in other fora. It is already clear that almost every significant bilateral meeting between the foreign minister and her counterparts, such as Hilary Clinton, includes climate change diplomacy as an important topic.

The recent ministerial level meeting of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) hosted by Bangladesh and jointly organised by the MoEF and the MoFA was an excellent example of cooperation between these two ministries.

The foreign ministry needs to provide regular briefings on climate change diplomacy to its missions abroad and in the longer term should send some junior officers for higher studies in climate change diplomacy.

The prime minister is already finding that climate change is a regular topic on the agenda of her meetings with other heads of state and she is quite knowledgeable on the topic. However, given the importance of this topic for Bangladesh in future, she should consider appointing a personal “Special Climate Change Envoy/Adviser” to represent her at important high level international meetings.

A number of both developed as well as developing countries have appointed such “special climate change envoys/advisers.” The skills needed for such a position are those of diplomacy, especially within the UN system, rather than scientific expertise. So a current, or former, senior diplomat who has been posted to either New York or Geneva would be a suitable candidate for such a position.

It is often forgotten how critical a role a single individual, who is both knowledgeable and respected by others, can play at the international level, even if the country he or she comes from is not the biggest or richest. A good example of such a person is the former Indian diplomat, Chandrashekar Das Gupta, who was involved in the pre-UNFCCC negotiations which took place in Geneva when he was a relatively junior diplomat based in Geneva and would represent India. Subsequently, he became an ambassador, but no matter where he was posted the Indian government would bring him to lead their delegation to the COP every year due to his historical knowledge and contacts. Even after he retired a few years ago, the government of India would still bring him to the COP in an advisory capacity — such was the respect in which he was held by negotiators from other countries.

If the prime minister and the government are willing to be proactive on this issue it is quite possible that in a few years time Bangladesh may also produce such a universally respected individual in climate change diplomacy at the global level.

*The writer is Senior Fellow at the London based International Institute for Environment and Development and Director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development, Independent University, Bangladesh.

E-mail: Saleemul.huq@iied.org

Published in The Daily Star.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


1 Comment

  1. Shahzada Mohiuddin says:

    Many negotiators still say they will fight on for legally binding targets for all major economies that go well beyond their Copenhagen pledges. Evidence such as Japan’s success at Cancún suggests strongly that such targets will never be applied while specific countries resist, as some—America, China and others—always will. And treating hard targets as a make or break issue would surely lead to another, perhaps final, breakage. The UN climate process did quite well out of Cancún.

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