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COP15 in a nutshell

The much talked about UNFCCC COP15 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen is now underway. If you, like us, have been completely overwhelmed with all the news; views; predictions; doom and gloom; excitement; not to mention political machinations, possibilities and stall setting of the last few months leading up to the event, here’s a quick reminder of what it’s all about, what the (peer-reviewed) science says is at stake, and the position of some of the major players at present.

The UNFCCC’s COP15 is effectively a deadline for thrashing out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol – designed to prevent dangerous global warming. Its origins go back to the 1992 Earth summit in Rio.

Why is this conference so crucial?

Climate scientists from eminent bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change think we need to peak the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, and then start making them fall asap. To have a chance of keeping warming under a perceived “dangerous” 2C mark (a rise above which precipitates lots of nasty things to happen - so the fear is), cuts of 25%-40% by 2020 (relative to 1990 levels are needed), rising to 80%-95% by 2050).

But who should make these cuts?

The industrialised nations have been merrily creating the problem for the past few hundred years or so since the industrial revolution (this is a great, no-nonsense description of growing CO2 levels here), so it’s kind of understandable that developing countries are reluctant to pay for a mess they didn’t create. Indeed they are demanding money from developed countries to help them:

  • adapt to climate change and;
  • put in place measures to help them reduce emissions - indeed in some countries the hope is that they can leap frog over highly-polluting technologies where possible in favour of greener technologies.

Then again, it’s also true that in the future countries like China and India and others in the developing world will contribute far more to global emissions, so developed countries insist that the whole world be mandated to act together (which was one of the key reasons why the US wouldn’t sign up to Kyoto way back in the day).

Who has said they’ll do what and where does that leave us on the 2 degrees question?

At this stage it's very tricky to weigh up the shifting sands that will inevitably happen before leaders jet in to take the plaudits and make history towards the end of next week (we're being optimistic in this blog!)

Various countries have made their own opening announcements (see below), some unconditional and some dependant on global agreements and other criteria being settled in Copenhagen. This tracker gives a great position of where we are now (but way over 2 degrees - 3.5 degrees by the end of the century in fact - a long way short of what's needed).

One problem is the benchmark year from which emissions levels are to be “reduced from” fluctuates wildly, and other variables make it very difficult to get too excited about some of these commitments. For example:

  • the EU has pledged to cut emissions by 20% on 1990 levels by 2020 (and 30% dependant on an agreement being reached in Copenhagen);
  • The USA meanwhile will ostensibly commit to a paltry 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 (though this isn’t even close to being agreed in Congress yet);
  • China has announced that it will reduce its CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 40% to 45% from 2005 to 2020. But we don't know yet what China's GDP will be, so 40%-45% of what?;
  • India, meanwhile, has played a hand, saying that it wants to aim to reduce its "carbon intensity" by 24% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, according to provisional government figures obtained by the Reuters news agency.

Generally, though, all these measures are seen as insufficient and it is hoped that the high drama and frission of COP15 - together with the eyes of the world focused on leaders who could potentially make things much easier for future generations - will force them to be more ambitious.

What else needs to be settled?

As well as setting targets for global emissions to keep temperatures below 2 degrees, and deciding how much rich countries will help and fund developing countries, other negotiating quagmires at COP15 revolve around:

  • finding a way to “encourage” people to stop cutting down forests (which absorb CO2 naturally so it makes sense not to make our life even more difficult by removing a natural way to control emissions);
  • and Cap and Trade: i.e. agreeing a global scheme that will put a price on carbon emissions and therefore create a market to stimulate (and pay for), say, low carbon forms of energy generation. But will this be a revamped and globally-regulated Kyoto Protocol, or something different?

So, what will happen then?

All of the above are fiendishly complex and fraught with problems, and negotiating a successful global deal to its conclusion by December was always going to be tough - and is now probably impossible.

The hope now is on some positive announcements and general consensus between the major parties in Copenhagen – leading to a deal that is signed, sealed and delivered sometime next year. The fear though is that if momentum is lost and the process begins to stagnate and drift in a post COP15 world, the last 20 or so years of negotiation could ultimately prove fruitless.That is the nightmare (some may say doomsday) scenario, and why the next two weeks really are that important.

But, anything could happen, as was witnessed by the last minute agreement witnessed in Bali in 2007. So strap yourself into the Copenhagen rollercoaster and let's hope we get to the end before it gets derailed.

P.S Steve Sawyer (of the Global Wind Energy Council, GWEC) and Rolf De Vos (of Ecofys) will be blogging for us from Copenhagen. Keep your eye on our blog page.


Posted 08/12/2009 by David Hopwood

Tagged under: COP15 , Copenhagen , Climate change

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