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Monday, Dec. 7, 2009


Climate talks run up against clock, politics

Staff writer

It's been called the last opportunity the human race has to save the planet. When delegates from nearly 190 nations gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, between Dec. 7 and 18 for the United Nations COP15 conference on climate change, they bring with them the hopes, expectations and fears of billions of people around the world now at risk from irreversible, catastrophic climate change due to rises in greenhouse gas emissions.

The purpose of the Copenhagen meeting is to forge a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, which expires in 2012. The Copenhagen Protocol, as it will become known, will be the internationally agreed framework for reducing emissions between 2012 and 2020. It is expected to include numerical target reductions for developed countries and at least quantifiable, measurable emissions reductions plans for developing countries, as well as a basic outline for how those targets can be met, financially and technologically.

The Copenhagen gathering is — virtually all world leaders, diplomats, scientists, policymakers and environmentalists agree — the most important conference of its kind since Kyoto. At least 15,000 people are expected at the conference itself, but the city of Copenhagen has suggested up to 100,000 may be present at related events outside the Bella Center conference hall.

Among the expected attendees are Hollywood and European film stars involved in environmental issues, Nobel laureates including former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, scientists, environmental and development NGOs, anarchists, antiglobalization protesters, industry representatives ranging from traditional oil and gas firms who are strongly against strong targets to renewable energy firms, and green businesses that strongly support them.

Even those who deny climate change is happening because of mankind's burning of fossil fuels are likely to be roaming the halls of the conference center, trying to persuade negotiators to do nothing.

The highlight of the conference, though, will no doubt be the gathering of world leaders Dec. 17 to 18 to seal a deal. Nearly 50 world leaders, including Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama, have indicated they will attend or plan to while others have said they'll go if they are sure a satisfactory deal can be signed.

Such a gathering of presidents and prime ministers at a U.N. climate change conference is unprecedented and reflects the broad public consensus, and the growing fear, worldwide that time is running out to take action that will prevent severe floods, famines, desertification, rising sea levels, and mass extinctions of plant and animal species due to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Broad public consensus

Preparations for Copenhagen began in earnest at a U.N. conference in December 2007. Earlier that year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international group of climate scientists and advisory group to the U.N. whose opinions represent the consensus of the vast majority of the world's leading climate experts, issued a stark warning: Unless the world takes quick action to curb greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, the Earth's average temperature would, over the coming century, increase between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees Celsius compared to the global average temperature between 1980 and 1999.

If that happens, the IPCC said, up to 30 percent of all animal and plant life would face extinction by the end of this century. In addition, an increase in droughts, desertification, severe flooding due to typhoons, rising sea levels due to melting icebergs and disruptive weather patterns worldwide could lead to millions of people becoming "climate refugees," with countries just a few meters above sea level like the Maldives in danger of disappearing underwater completely.

The IPCC offered a number of suggestions to mitigate the most damaging effects of climate change. The scientists suggested that, in order to stabilize CO2 and other greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 parts per million by the end of this century, the highest level where it might still be possible to mitigate the worst effects, according to their climate models, developed countries need to reduce their emissions between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020, based on their 1990 emission. If the concentration rises above 450 ppm, climate catastrophe is all but certain. Speed is also of the essence, the IPCC added, as world emissions needed to peak by 2015 in order for the concentration level to eventually settle at 450 ppm.

The IPCC did not specifically call on developing nations to announce numerical targets for reduction, though. It has always been the position of countries such as China, India and Brazil that today's climate crisis was caused by developed nations that have been burning coal and oil since the mid-1800s, and that it's their responsibility to take the lead in reducing emissions. The U.N. seemed to agree, but the IPCC did warn that developing nations could not continue "business as usual" when it came to setting reduction goals.

The IPCC report was released in February 2007 and formed the basis for discussions at the U.N. climate change conference in Bali that December. Developed nations like the United States, however, pointed out that emissions in developing countries are rising rapidly and that it is unfair to developed countries as well as scientifically invalid to sign an international agreement on climate change that doesn't include robust reduction agreements from developing, as well as developed, countries.

In the end, the conference produced the Bali Action Plan (sometimes known as the Bali Road Map to Copenhagen). Delegates agreed to sign a new agreement at the December 2009 COP15 conference, a post-Kyoto Protocol that will cover the period between 2012 and 2020. Developed countries agreed to "measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives."

Developing countries agreed to "nationally appropriate mitigation actions . . . in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner."

Mitigation commitments

The IPCC report also recommended further cuts in emissions of between 80 percent and 95 percent by 2050 compared with 1990 levels. Developed countries like Japan, which worked hard after the Bali conference behind the scenes to get other nations to agree, hosted the 2008 Group of Eight summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, where leaders agreed to support an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

But that still left the problem of short-term emissions reduction goals. The U.S., Japan, the European Union and other developed nations had different targets based on different base years. The EU as a whole is committed to at least a 20 percent cut and up to 30 percent if other nations join them, by 2020 based on 1990 levels. Some EU countries have targets that are even stricter. Germany has committed to a 40 percent reduction compared to 1990 levels, Britain has announced a 34 percent reduction, also compared to 1990, and South Korea has just announced a 30 percent cut by 2020 compared to 2005 levels.

Japan, under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, said it would reduce emissions by 25 percent compared to 1990 levels, a much tougher target than the one Prime Minister Taro Aso originally announced back in June. Although many in Japan have greeted the new target with skepticism, and while utility companies and fossil-fuel dependent industries have warned cuts that steep will be a heavy financial burden on consumers and businesses, Japan won international praise for showing political leadership in reaching a scientifically meaningful agreement at Copenhagen.

The U.S. earlier this year pushed for a 17 percent reduction, but based on 2005 levels. But a comprehensive climate bill is still being debated by the U.S. Senate and will not be passed in time for the Copenhagen conference. America and China together account for over 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and any agreement that excludes either country would be meaningless.

The success of the conference will thus hinge, in part, on whether the U.S. commits to specific numbers that convince China and other developing countries to pledge cuts of their own that satisfy the politicians in developed countries, especially the U.S and in particular, the U.S. Senate, which will be responsible for ratifying the Copenhagen Protocol.

The other vexing issue awaiting negotiators in Copenhagen is how much financial and technological assistance should be provided to developing nations to mitigate the effects of climate change, and under what conditions.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, has said that developed countries would need to provide at least $10 billion initially to developing countries in order for them develop low-emission growth strategies. Private economic think tanks in Europe and the U.S. estimate, though, that over the coming decades hundreds of billions more will be needed in developing countries if they are to become more energy-efficient and eventually shift away from oil- and coal-fired power plants into renewable energies or even nuclear power.

Renewable energies

The complexity of the negotiations, combined with the economic downturn over the past year, has only added to the growing uncertainty over the outcome at Copenhagen. On the one hand, emissions levels are rapidly dropping in many developed countries. For example, Japan recently announced its emissions had declined by 6.2 percent in the fiscal year that ended in March 2009 compared with the previous fiscal year, mostly as a result of lower energy consumption due to the recession. Tsutomu Toichi, chief executive researcher at the Institute of Energy Economics of Japan, said recently that another 5 percent to 6 percent drop in emissions this fiscal year was possible due to the fall in steel output.

On the other hand, as factories stand idle, cars stay in their garages and unemployment lines stretch in the U.S., polls show climate change is less on the minds of Americans than at the time of the 2007 Bali conference. The change of attitude in the U.S., in particular, has created a political stalemate over the past few months at various U.N. sponsored conferences designed to prepare for Copenhagen.

The deadlock has growing numbers of environmental experts and political leaders saying the conference is unlikely to produce a full treaty, but will have to aim for a political framework upon which a treaty can be built sometime next year. Preparations are under way, in fact, to schedule a follow-up conference, perhaps in spring 2010.

But senior U.N. officials warn that the pace of progress needs to pick up to meet the threat of irreversible climate change at the Copenhagen conference, rather than somewhere, sometime in the future.

"Science tells us that the stakes at Copenhagen could not be higher. But the benefits of taking urgent, united action are similarly powerful. We must not squander this unique opportunity to chart a new path to low-carbon prosperity for all. It is essential that we achieve an ambitious climate deal in Copenhagen. The moment is now," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Related links


A brief history of climate talks: looking back, looking forward


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