UN climate summit to lay all cards on table

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The high-level climate change meeting at the United Nations next week will help shape two-years of negotiations on an international treaty by stressing just what is at stake, a high-ranking UN official told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview.

Cheick Sidi Diarra, the UN secretary-general's special advisor on Africa and the high representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (OSAA/OHRLLS), said the Sept. 22 summit will provide the political impetus to attempt at a comprehensive climate deal in Copenhagen in December.

"This is an event which has a very big political impact," he said. "The summit is aimed at mobilizing the political will and getting the attention of decision makers ... to tell them what is at stake, what are the current obstacles and in which ways can they help push forward the process."

More than 90 heads of state are expected to attend the one-day event, convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who told Xinhua on Tuesday that progress in the negotiations had been slow and the summit was his attempt to galvanize world leaders to come to an agreement in December.

At the summit, only a few heads of state will speak at the opening session, including Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barak Obama, while the majority of national statements will be delivered via pre-recorded video messages.

After the opening session, national leaders will engage in four small roundtable sessions in the morning and four in the afternoon. Each participant is allowed to bring one adviser.

Despite the high number of those attending, the format of the summit has been criticized by the Group of 77 (G-77) for its lack of inclusiveness -- not all members of the UN will be allowed to speak at the opening session and a limited number of representatives of government were invited to a "working lunch" with members from businesses, civil society and high-ranking United Nations officials.

But Diarra said the G-77 should not be concerned. Representatives from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Africa account for almost two-thirds of the G-77, and they will most likely make their voices heard.

"One of the raison d'etres of the G-77 is to support the most vulnerable, so if the voices of the most vulnerable members can be heard, there is no reason for G-77 to be upset," he said.

Diarra's office is mandated to advocate for the world's most vulnerable countries -- 49 landlocked developing countries, 37 island developing states, 49 LDCs and Africa, which is home to many countries with those characteristics.

In his office on the seventh floor of the United Nation secretariat building, Diarra told Xinhua about the dire effects climate change will have on these countries -- from small island states, whose mere existence is threatened from rising sea levels, to landlocked countries, whose geographical position often prevents economic diversification needed to adapt.

Take Mali for example, where Diarra is from -- a landlocked developing country in Western Africa that ranked 169 out of 177 countries in the 2008 UNDP Human Development Index.

After Egypt, Mali is the second largest cotton producer in Africa but its lack of access to the ocean puts it at a competitive disadvantage, said Diarra.

"The challenge of landlocked developing countries is that the cost of products they export and import is exponentially higher because the cost is added on to the transportation of those goods," he said.

At the same time, roughly 70 percent of the country's population is employed by an agricultural industry that is environmentally feasible in only 40 percent of the country.

The other 60 percent of land mass is desert or semi-desert, according to the World Food Program.

"So all these factors together make Mali very vulnerable to climate change," Diarra said.

Tasked with mobilizing resources and implementing country-specific action plans, Diarra has a lot on his plate. In 2007, amid some controversy, the secretary-general placed OSAA and OHRLLS under the same leadership. Many in the General Assembly questioned whether the move would deprioritize African countries or change the offices' mandates.

But Diarra said it would be a mistake to think that the two offices had been "merged," as that would take the consent of the General Assembly. Instead, what the secretary-general did was simply to make the two offices more "efficient."

"The secretary-general wants to create synergy between the two offices to create more efficiency and more effectiveness," he said.

Diarra noted that looking at the LDCs, 33 out of 49 are African; looking at small island states, seven out of 37 are African, and looking at landlocked developing countries, 15 out of 31 are African.

"The secretary-general thought, and I agree with him, that there is a lot in common between the two offices so if we cannot merge the two mandates (and) we cannot merge the resources -- human or financial -- let us at least create some kind of synergy at the level of the helm to report back directly to the Secretariat," he said.

Looking forward, Diarra said he is especially looking forward to the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries to be held in 2011. The high-level meeting will undertake a comprehensive review of the 2001 Brussels Program of Action.

In particular, the summit will take a look at new challenges that have emerged since 2001, among them being climate change, the food crisis, and economic and financial crisis.

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