A Crash Course on Copenhagen

Photo: istockphoto/yesfoto
Here’s your guide to the issues on the table at the upcoming UN talks

The Head of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, says we have seven years to stabilize the world’s climate. If global temperatures rise more than 2.5 degrees Celsius, climate scientists say the Earth’s climate equilibrium will fall irreversibly out of balance. In other words, after that point, there will be a cascading effect where more greenhouse gases will be released by the soil and seas—and there will be nothing that human beings will be able to do to stop the process.

This December, delegates from 192 countries, consisting of environmentalists, scientists, big business, politicians and the public are participating in the next round of international climate change talks known as COP-15, to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, to save the planet while its still possible to do so. We’ve already seen the global protests demanding governments take decisive action. Delving into the issues can be overwhelming with so much information to consider, so with that in mind we present you with this essential guide on the fundamentals of the issues being discussed at the Copenhagen Convention next month.

How did we get here?

The United Nations has been trying to get world governments to take action to stop climate change since putting together its Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 1990.

The Convention’s greatest success is also its greatest failure: The Kyoto Protocol. In short, Kyoto was remarkable because it was the first international agreement required industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But it ultimately failed because global emissions actually increased by 28 percent since it was adopted in 1997. The Protocol officially expires in 2012. Negotiators at COP 15 in Copenhagen will seek to either replace or extend it beyond this date.

Various preliminary meetings of government officials and scientists have taken place throughout 2009 to lay the groundwork for the Copenhagen meeting. The last of these wrapped up in Barcelona, Spain on November 6th.

The Issues

Working from the draft agreement of nearly 200 pages, negotiators in Copenhagen are likely to have their hands full. But here are three broad categories

1.    Mitigation
After the pre-Copenhagen talks held in Bangkok, a Chinese policy advisor was quoted as saying it would be “almost impossible” to make necessary emissions cuts while meeting the demands of the 192 participating countries. As emissions reductions are thought to hinder economic growth, solutions are likely to revolve around compensation, trade incentives, and carbon trading.

2.    Adaptation
Yvo De Boer, executive secretary of the UNFCC, says it will cost more than USD $100 billion per year to cope with disasters caused by climate change. The African Union plans to head to Copenhagen demanding $65 billion in compensation from rich countries in order to cope—for example, it is estimated that up to 600 million more people in Africa will face malnutrition as agricultural systems break down. An additional 1.8 billion people around the globe could face water shortages, especially in Asia; and more than 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese and six million Egyptians could be affected by climate-related flooding. Negotiations will hinge on a number: how much money developing countries are willing to commit towards helping developing nations cope, and whether developing nations think that’s enough.

3.    Development
Indian officials have pinpointed three specific ways wealthy nations can help developing nations reduce emissions. They can: fund the conservation of tropical forests; make use of the Clean Development Mechanism (an incentive to invest in clean-energy projects in poor countries); and, make sure developing countries have access to the latest, most efficient technologies—even if that means sharing knowledge currently blocked by laws governing intellectual property rights.

Who are the key players in the Copenhagen discussions?

Norway: A big player taking a strong stance. Norway has promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to between 30 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, thereby setting the most ambitious mitigation target among developed nations.

The United States: Although the US wants to see the Kyoto Protocol scrapped completely, the Obama Administration has shown that it takes climate change seriously: Its climate bill would see the nation’s emissions cut to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. If the bill becomes law by December, it would put the US in a position of leadership at the negotiating table. However, that’s not likely to happen and President Obama has still not confirmed that he’ll even attend the Copenhagen Summit.

China:  The world’s biggest polluter and a leader among countries is advocating that the Kyoto Protocol be extended, thereby keeping climate change a problem for developed countries to fix. There is a chance that the rift this point of view causes with the US could be healed by bi-lateral talks between President Hu-Jintao and Obama. The two leaders will meet in Beijing between November 15th and 18th.

The European Union: The EU leadership says its up to industrialized countries to fund developing ones to deal with the effects of climate change and help out with cutting emissions. But it also says developing countries can’t expect any help, unless they commit to cuts. Some development groups say this amounts to holding poor countries for ransom.

Canada: Our nation is walking into Copenhagen with a bad rep. In 2008, the government’s climate policy demanded emissions cuts that would bring us to 2 percent below 1990 levels, while European climate policy calls for a reduction of between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels. Prime Minister Harper says he’ll follow the lead of the US on climate change, and Environment Minister Jim Prentice is already saying it’s unrealistic to expect an agreement to be reached in Copenhagen.

What happens if Copenhagen fails?

The Prime Minister of Thailand says there will be no plan B coming out of Copenhagen, only Plan F—for failure. However, negotiators left the Barcelona talks in a cloud of pessimism. The most optimistic predictions look to a strong politically binding deal (instead of a legally-binding one) coming out of the Copenhagen Summit. They say a legally binding deal is more likely to come out of the climate change summit in Mexico, in 2010.  If the Obama administration does not manage to get its climate bill passed in the next year, its unlikely that a legally-binding international climate change agreement will be signed in 2010 either. In that case, it will be up to individual countries to forge bi-lateral agreements—and set their own targets. To read the most recently published Copenhagen Draft Agreement (published in September) click here

Not convinced? Here are what the scientists and future-makers of our time are saying:

Humans are bargaining with each other, but ignoring the planet. What humans can do to reduce emissions is one thing, but if planetary boundaries are breached we are all imperiled.
—James Lovelock, Inventor of the Gaia theory

Global warming is a political problem. The science is clear; what is less clear is whether world leaders will demonstrate the political will necessary to solve the problem.
—George Soros, world’s 29th richest person, recently pledged to invest 1 billion of his own money into clean energy technology

We desperately need Canada to play a much more positive role in the coming months . . . the Canadian government is largely isolated in its stand vis-a-vis the Copenhagen agreements. It would be tragic, I think, to see a country like this standing in the way of agreement.
—Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers, scientist and chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council