Poor need more than hot air from Copenhagen

Bangladesh remains one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change

In Bangladesh, experts and ordinary people alike say the country ought to anticipate little from the United Nations climate conference currently underway in Denmark.

This content was published on December 8, 2009 - 12:02

Already vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, Bangladesh’s population of 160 million, many of whom are among the poorest in the world, are responsible for a scant amount of the world’s carbon emissions.

The South Asian country contributes 0.3 tons of carbon dioxide per capita annually. In the United States, it’s 22 tons. In Switzerland it’s about six tons.

Developing countries like India and China want hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for emissions cuts. Switzerland and the rest of Europe propose reducing their emissions by 20 per cent compared with 1990 levels.

Days before the Copenhagen talks began on December 7, China and other big developing nations rejected core targets such as slashing world greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. India has refused to take binding steps to cut emissions.

The United Nations believes a one-metre rise in sea level would cause Bangladesh to lose 17 per cent of its coastal area, but the country, which may have a moral case for emissions cuts, has little to barter away.

Urs Herren, Switzerland’s ambassador to Dhaka, says Bangladesh has done well in pressing its case, even if it’s a difficult one to make.

“Bangladesh has taken a fairly active role in the group of least developed countries to push for additional financing and an adequate international recognition of its case,” he told “But the leverage Bangladesh has is rather limited, and on the decisions regarding financing and on CO2 reduction targets, it has a very limited influence.”

Along with the Maldives and a handful of small islands in the Pacific Ocean, Bangladesh has been the poster child for climate change.


“We now seem to be a serious actor in this broad global forum,” says Niaz Ahmed Kahn, a professor at Dhaka University and country representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an intergovernmental organisation.

“I think people now take Bangladesh seriously. We have a voice, we have a fairly mature civil society group.”

At the same time, experts point to a massive disconnect between Bangladesh’s political elite and its poor. The country will send 86 people to Copenhagen although none will be farmers or fishermen.

“People about the grassroots level are not aware of Copenhagen. They are totally in the dark,” says Aminul Islam, assistant country director and head of disaster management at the United Nations Development Programme. “They are saying it is a curse of the gods. They are blaming their fate.”

Across town, Shantana Halder, a senior programme specialist at another UNDP office, says that climate change could force an additional six to eight million people to migrate into cities. Dhaka, population 12 million, adds 5,000 new names to its ranks each day.

Kahn accuses the international community of staging grand conferences without the requisite legwork, including actually listening to the poor and to local scientists.

He acknowledges world leaders must meet “but more when we have already done the background work. That should be the ceremony trying to recognise this regular, extensive groundwork we have done all over the ground.”

Copenhagen questions

About 100 world leaders are expected to attend, and Yvo de Boer, the UN’s global climate chief, has said that rich countries “must put at least $10 billion a year on the table”.

Switzerland wants to see a global CO2 tax, following the principle of “polluter pays”. Japan says it needs a “green tax” on fossil fuels to fight global warming. But Australia’s parliament defeated a bill intended to stop global warming. Britain’s Prince Charles has announced he will address the conference and a Swiss adventurer who plans on flying a solar-powered plane says he will attend too.

But with no agreements negotiated in advance, Copenhagen’s veneer has been dulled by a lack of clarity over just what it will actually accomplish.

“I think we are dramatising Copenhagen quite a bit,” says Kahn of the UN’s 15th major global warming conference. “We are raising all sorts of expectations and I heavily doubt it will be delivering to the level of expectations that has been raised. I don’t think we have done enough to justify this level of pomp and grandeur.”

While the rest of the world talks, Bangladeshis will continue building up the embankments that protect their communities from floods, reclaim their mangrove forests and plant more wind-breaking trees – all part of their own struggle against climate change.

Halder has trouble hiding her dismay. “They are the emitters,” she says of the developed countries. “We are the victims. Because we are very weak, nobody is listening to us.”

Justin Häne in Dhaka,

Special report

This is the second of a three-part reportage on climate change in Bangladesh. While the world’s political elite debate climate policy in Copenhagen, we explore life on the ground in one of the world’s most vulnerable countries.

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UN Climate talks

The first UN climate conference, popularly known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It produced an international environmental treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

A follow-up conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 produced the Kyoto Protocol, with binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. The 178-nation accord is a 1997 annexe to the 1992 treaty that requires 37 industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2010.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen from December 7-18, 2009 is expected to lead to a post-Kyoto climate agreement. Negotiations will focus on reducing human causes of climate change (mitigation) and adaptation as well as the needs of developing countries (financial, technological, institutional).

The Kyoto Protocol's targets for reducing emissions apply only to a small set of countries and expire in 2012. Governments want a new treaty that is bigger, bolder, wider-ranging and more sophisticated than the Kyoto agreement.

In June, the G8 and a number of large developing countries agreed that the average temperature rise since pre-industrial times should be limited to 2°C.

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Bangladesh shares most of its border with India and a small section with Myanmar. The country’s population is more than 162 million.

The Muslim-majority country also has Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and animist minorities.

Bangladesh’s GDP per capita is around $520 but that is growing. Poverty has been falling dramatically in the last decade.

The country is recognised as one of the most vulnerable to climate change in the world.

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