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Climate Talks: 2005 Weather Disasters Most Costly Ever

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, December 7, 2005 (ENS) - The largest financial losses ever due to weather-related natural disasters occurred in 2005, the United Nations climate change conference was told Tuesday.

Preliminary estimates presented by the Munich Re Foundation, part of one of the world’s top re-insurance companies, put the economic losses at more than US$200 billion with insured losses running at more than US$70 billion.

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Residents of Biloxi, Mississippi view family photos saved from Hurricane Katrina, which swept away their home August 29, leaving endless mounds of debris. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. (Photo by George Armstrong courtesy FEMA)
This compares with 2004, the previous most costly year, when economic losses totalled around US$145 billion and the insured losses reached about US$45 billion.

“There is a powerful indication from these figures that we are moving from predictions of the likely impacts of climate change to proof that it is already fully underway," said Thomas Loster, chief executive of the Munich Re Foundation and a member of the Finance Initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“Above all, these are humanitarian tragedies and show us that, as a result of our impacts on the climate, we are making people and communities everywhere more vulnerable to weather-related natural disasters,” he said.

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Thomas Loster heads the Munich Re Foundation. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB))
The Munich Re Foundation was set up this year to help people minimize the risks of disasters in all forms. Initiatives include promoting micro-insurance so that poorer parts of the world can afford cover against disaster-related losses, including those from climate change.

Loster, a climate expert, said that economic losses related to atmospheric disasters showed a far stronger trend than those related to earthquakes for the years 1950 to 2004.

“We do not want to underestimate the human tragedy of earthquakes like the recent one in Pakistan which can kill tens of thousands of people a year. But our findings indicate that it is the toll of weather-related disasters that are the ones on the rise,” he said.

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Delegates listen to a presentation in the plenary hall at the Palais de Congrès, Montreal. (Photo courtesy ENB)
This year’s figures, partly a result of the highest number of hurricanes or tropical storms ever seen since records began in 1850, contribute to a climbing trend being linked by many in the industry with climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Insurance industry experts point to growing scientific evidence, including studies, reported in the journal "Nature" this year, that indicate that major tropical storms in the Atlantic and Pacific have increased in duration and intensity by about 50 percent since the 1970s.

The year was also marked by recordbreaking events. The highest ever rainfall in India was recorded in Mumbai on July 26 when 944 millimeters of rain in 24 hours poured down upon the city.

The first ever hurricane to approach Europe happened in October when Hurricane Vince made landfall in Spain. It was also the most eastern and northern hurricane ever seen.

Hurricane Wilma, which formed in the Caribbean in October, was the strongest hurricane ever, causing devastation in Mexico's Cozumel and Yucatan. Economic losses have been calculated at US$15 billion with insured losses of US$10 billion.

Hurricane Katrina, the sixth strongest since records began, has been the most costly weather-related disaster ever, with economic losses totalling more than US$125 billion and most likely more than US$30 billion insured losses.

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UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer participates in Arctic Day Tuesday at the climate change conference. (Photo courtesy ENB)
“We are here in Montreal for the 11th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Climate Change Convention," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "It is vital that, before this meeting ends, Governments send a clear signal to business, industry and the people of the world that they are determined to continue the battle to curb global warming."

Scientists estimate that greenhouse gases must be reduced by 60 percent or more in order to stabilize the atmosphere.

“We must find the political will and the funds necessary to help the most vulnerable people on the planet adapt to the climate change that is now underway," Toepfer said. "But in the end the best form of adaptation is to reduce the world’s emissions by embracing a revolution in the way we use rather than abuse energy and by dramatically boosting energy efficiency and using technologies and techniques already available or at our fingertips."

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U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman addresses media in Montreal. (Photo courtesy ENB)
U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, a Democrat, held a press conference Tuesday to tell conference delegates of a December 5 bipartisan open letter by 24 U.S. senators which reminds the Bush administration of its "legal obligation to participate in the COP negotiations in a constructive way."

But the attitude of U.S. senior climate negotiator Harlan Watson has been anything but constructive, in the view of environmentalists. "The United States is opposed," Watson said of continuing to negotiate about international targets for greenhouse emissions, even though the United States is a signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which requires Parties to reduce emissions to 1990 levels.

The U.S. also would object, said Watson, to "any discussions" about a post-2012 regime.

Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada said, "The U.S. even objected to any discussion of its pet techno-fix, carbon capture and storage - a hugely controversial technology to bury carbon dioxide below ground and hope it stays there. The U.S. is still pushing carbon capture and storage — it just does not want to allow that discussion to happen in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention or Kyoto."

"The Bush administration is not merely dissatisfied with Kyoto. It is here to derail action," said May.

The political will to battle climate change was evident in Montreal at the two day Climate Leaders Summit, which concluded Tuesday with a declaration signed by heads of regional governments around the world to utilize new and emerging initiatives to build a sustainable economy while reducing harmful greenhouses gases.

"There are many individuals, organizations, businesses and governments who have embraced this challenge and we have many positives upon which to build," said Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, who co-chaired the Summit. "By recommitting ourselves to this fight, we can continue to support private and public sector investments and innovations that reduce emissions and build our economies for the benefit of our citizens."

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Québec Premier Jean Charest highlighted his province's support for emissions reductions and the need for strong action to address climate change. (Photo courtesy ENB)
Co-chair Québec Premier Jean Charest said global warming is a collective challenge that mobilizes all levels of government and all economic players, from everyday citizens to corporate executives. "The Leaders Summit Declaration shows that regional governments are prepared to invest more to fight climate change and to share their knowledge," Charest said in closing.

Regional governments from all over the world, including Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom signed the declaration. "Working together, in a spirit of cooperation, and with a commitment to achieving real reductions in GHG emissions, we will leave future generations a healthier, stronger and more closely connected planet," said the Vermont Governor James Douglas.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former U.S. energy secretary, said that "no issue has more impact internationally today than how we develop trade and use energy. It is directly related to foreign policy, the growth of the world economy and, of course, the environment."

During the summit, leaders of local governments and the heads of major international corporations such as Dupont, Swiss Re, HSBC, Alcan, and Catalyst Papers outlined the economic benefits of implementing new measures and cutting-edge technologies that reduce and prevent greenhouse gas emissions in both the public and private sectors.

In a side event on Monday, Stéphane Dion, Canada's Minister of the Environment and president of the UN Climate Change Conference, confirmed hydropower's contribution to fighting climate change. "There is no doubt that hydropower can play a significant role in meeting many environmental goals, including climate change," said Dion. "In our increasingly carbon-constrained world, renewable energy forms, such as hydropower and wind power, have the potential to meet the economic, social, environmental and sustainability criteria demanded of our times."

"In Canada, hydropower provides 60 percent of our electricity, displacing at the same time millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions," explains Canadian Hydropower Association President Pierre Fortin. "We are pleased that Canada's climate change plan will recognize hydropower's contribution to reducing emissions in provinces such as Québec."

"Hydropower is a clean and renewable source of energy that can contribute to fighting climate change and air pollution in countries around the world, as well as providing electricity and water in areas where it is most needed," said International Hydropower Association president Dogan Altinbilek. "And in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, only a third of the hydropower potential has been developed."

Altinbilek believes it is crucial to move full speed ahead with the development of hydropower and other renewables if the electricity and water needs in developed and developing countries are to be met, while displacing electricity generated by burning fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases.

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On Saturday, marchers urging stronger action to combat climate change took to the streets of Montreal and other cities around the world. (Photo courtesy ENB)
But hydroelectricity generated by large dams comes with other environmental baggage, such as evictions of millions of people living on lands flooded by the reservoirs created by dams. Large dams can cause damage to rivers and associated ecosystems, environmentalists have warned for years, and rotting biomass on the flooded lands produces the greenhouse gas methane.

Conservationists at the Montreal meeting blamed the World Bank for backing the development of large dams.

"Instead of pushing the much needed rapid scale-up of investment in new sustainable energy technologies, the World Bank is returning to its bad old ways of pushing big dams. This will neither help the climate nor deliver the affordable decentralized power systems needed to reach the 1.6 billion people without electricity." said Patrick McCully of International Rivers Network.

The World Bank has historically been the single largest funder of large dams worldwide, providing an average of around $1.25 billion a year for big dams over the past 60 years - five times more than current lending for clean renewables and efficiency.

"Calling this a new vision for energy investment is like the saying the Bush administration has come to Montreal to push for climate action. This is the World Bank's same old unsustainable vision for the world dressed up as concern for our climate," said Elizabeth Bast of Friends of the Earth US.

Attempts to reduce rising temperatures by building climate-friendly energy projects depend for their success on a commonly accepted way to measure the benefits of these projects.

Such a protocol for measuring and reporting the benefits of greenhouse gas reduction projects was released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) at a press conference Tuesday during the UN climate talks.

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Björn Stigson is president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. (Photo courtesy ENB)
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol for Project Accounting becomes available just weeks after the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism issued its first carbon credits for climate change mitigation projects in Honduras and India.

With this milestone reached and the development of an increasing number of other project-based initiatives - such as the New South Wales Greehouse Gas Abatement Scheme in Australia and the emerging Canadian Offset System for Greenhouse Gases - the need for globally consistent and transparent greehouse gas project accounting methods is increasingly important.

"The Project Protocol fills an important need for project developers," said Bruno Vanderborght, vice president of Corporate Industrial Ecology, Holcim Ltd. "It explains what to do - and importantly, how to do it - so that claims about greenhouse gas reductions from our projects will be transparent and credible. This is essential for us as we look for ways to meet our emission targets and participate in the growing global market for greenhouse gas offsets."

The Project Protocol complements the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard, which has become the most widely used global standard for corporate accounting of emissions and is used by businesses, organizations, programs, and initiatives around the world.

"The widespread adoption of the Corporate Standard contributes significantly to the standardization and harmonization of GHG accounting and reporting frameworks worldwide," said Björn Stigson, president of WBCSD. "We hope that the Project Protocol will similarly serve as a model or basis for other emissions reporting and reduction programs."

Jonathan Lash, president of WRI, said, "There will be a growing global trade in carbon credits for decades to come and a consistent, accurate, and transparent system of accounting for emissions reductions is an essential foundation. That is what this protocol provides."

The market for project-based GHG emission reductions, according to a recent analysis by PointCarbon, is expected to grow from $450 million this year to more than $23 billion by 2010.

The Project Protocol manual, along with supporting documents and tools, are available at: www.ghgprotocol.org. There is also a podcast detailing the Project Protocol at: www.wri.org.



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