Why Copenhagen matters

Confused by countries’ climate commitments? Perplexed by paltry promises? Tan Copsey presents a beginner’s guide to the conference.

After two years of protracted and complex negotiations, from sunny Bali in Indonesia through to frosty Poznan in Poland, the Copenhagen climate-change conference opens today. Representatives from every country will meet to try to put in place an agreement that prevents dangerous global warming and determines what happens after the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty expires in 2012.

US president Barack Obama and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao both plan to attend the summit, along with more than 75 heads of state and government. They will not be alone: Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, with a capacity of 15,000 people, is likely to be full to bursting. The event will be colourful, confusing and messy. Bureaucrats and politicians will argue over acronyms, baselines and targets as they wrestle with more than 200 pages of draft negotiating text. Meanwhile, stakeholders in an emerging low-carbon economy will look for investment signals and civil society groups will do their best to highlight the inadequacy of current efforts on climate. Throughout the conference, chinadialogue will try to make some sense of it all. So to get us started, here is a guide to some key questions you may have about Copenhagen:

Is an agreement likely at Copenhagen?

A number of political and procedural set-backs have harmed the negotiations leading up to the conference. It is now unlikely countries will reach a final agreement this December. At the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore, regional leaders suggested that there will be an agreement, but one made in “two steps”, with many important details ironed out in 2010. Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said that nations may reach a political agreement in Copenhagen, but negotiations towards a full treaty may work towards a new deadline, probably before the global conference in Mexico City in December 2010.

Who has promised what?

There is large gap between the pledges of the world’s climate leaders and its laggards. On the one hand, Norway, Japan and the European Union have committed to reduce their emissions between 25% and 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. On the other hand, the United States has merely proposed a 17% cut on 2005 levels – equivalent to a paltry 3% reduction on 1990 levels. Canada has a similarly low benchmark – and the country’s emissions are already more than 34% above its Kyoto Protocol target.

Many developing nations – which are not required to reduce their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, but can take on “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” – have put forward climate-change policies and, in a few cases, targets. China and India have pledged to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP on 2005 levels by 2020. China is aiming for a cut of 40% to 45%, while India will seek a 24% reduction. The total emissions of both countries are likely to grow. Brazil has set a target to reduce its emissions by 36% to 39% compared to business-as-usual levels by 2020 – in practice, to reduce its emissions to 1994 levels – mainly through curbing deforestation. South Korea has a similar target.

However, none of this is set in stone. Copenhagen will be a venue for climate-change negotiations, after all, and there is some hope that the laggards could catch up.

Will a deal be consistent with the science?

The current framework appears to be more concerned with satisfying political demands than reacting to scientific conclusions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading body for the assessment of climate change, has recommended that governments create policy that prevents concentrations of carbon dioxide breaching 450 parts per million. This target is designed to limit warming of the earth to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, avoiding “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

However, one analysis of the climate-change targets proposed by major emitters suggests that these would likely lead to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide of 700 parts per million this century, resulting in a four-degree rise in global temperatures. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency recently said “developed countries as a group would need to increase their reduction targets for 2020 by at least 6% to 10%, in order to keep the two-degrees Celsius objective within reach.” The developing world would also likely need to end their emissions growth soon in order to meet the stated goals of the IPCC.
Is it only about targets?

Copenhagen is not just about national emissions targets. A global agreement is necessary because it creates and reinforces mechanisms for dealing with a problem that cannot be dealt with adequately by states acting alone. Some of the cross-border issues on the negotiating table include: curbing deforestation; technology transfer between nations; and financing the growth of low-carbon societies in the developing world. A key sticking point may be the tricky negotiations over how to measure, report and verify the policies and actions of developing nations. Negotiators will also debate how to help vulnerable nations adapt to climate change: this will effectively require substantial transfers of wealth from rich countries to the world’s least developed nations – which presents practical, as well as political, problems.

How much is this all going to cost?

Large quantities of finance will be needed for adaptation and the development of low-carbon technologies in the developing world. A recent report by non-profit group Project Catalyst suggested that to avoid dangerous climate change, countries need to scale up climate financing flows to developing countries “from 15 to 30 billion Euros [US$23 billion to US$45 billion] annually between 2010 and 2012, to an average of 65 to 100 billion Euros [US$98 billion to US$150 billion] annually over the next decade”. And providing finance is not only a government-to-government affair. For an agreement to succeed in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, it must also provide strong signals to private-sector investors in low-carbon technologies and facilitate global capital flows.
Is this our last chance?

UK environment secretary Hilary Benn described the Copenhagen conference as “the most important meeting in human history”. But it is important to remember that the talks are part of a negotiating process that has been running for nearly two decades. The Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997, but only came into force in 2005. Key details of the treaty, such as the rules and the shape of emissions trading, were agreed after the meeting in Kyoto. It would be unreasonable to expect negotiators to resolve such a complex of array of intertwined issues over these two weeks. However, were Copenhagen to end in a deadlock, the negotiating process could be derailed. The Doha round of global trade talks provides an illustrative example of how bad things can get if momentum is lost in negotiations. The longer nations delay, the harder and more expensive it will be to prevent dangerous climate change. Copenhagen may not be our last chance, but it is not a chance we can afford to waste.

Tan Copsey is development manager at chinadialogue

Homepage image from unfccc