Hopenhagen? Perhaps not…
It has already been nicknamed ‘Hopenhagen’, but for some, the UN Climate Change Conference, which begins in Copenhagen next week and runs from December 7 to 18, could be more of a political fiasco than a symbol of hope.
Copenhagen is considered the last major opportunity the world has to decide on a concrete and binding plan to reduce carbon emissions before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
Tens of thousands of people, including journalists, activists and heads of state, will attend the conference, which aims to limit future carbon emissions and minimise the effects of climate change, whilst fuelling and funding the transition to a sustainable but worldwide green economy.
“Copenhagen is trying, formally, to achieve five things,” says Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth.
“Agreement internationally on steep cuts on greenhouse gas emissions, on helping developing countries adapt to climate change, on transferring technology to them to help them go green, on cutting emissions from deforestation, and, lastly, on financing all of this.”
Copenhagen is considered a final call because the Kyoto Protocol – aimed at preventing climate change by limiting global emissions – needs to not only be renewed, but reviewed as well.
Since the international conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, global carbon dioxide emissions have increased to 31.5b tonnes, some 40% higher than the 1990 levels that were used as a basis for the treaty, according to renewable energy industry institute IWR.
Some 184 countries agreed the Kyoto Protocol, which came into legal force in 2005 and required 37 industrialised nations to reduce their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels during 2008 to 2012.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Canada’s emissions have since increased 25% above 1990 levels, when its own target was a reduction of 6%, while the USA withdrew from the protocol completely in 2001.
Copenhagen – or COP15 as it’s called (due to it being the fifteenth “Conference of Parties” since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol) – is therefore the chance for the world to set a unified goal on keeping global average temperatures below 2C in comparison with pre-industrial levels, to stave off potential ecological disaster.
To do this, targets and timetables are needed from developed countries and emission reduction actions needed from developing countries.
Developed countries like the US, UK and Russia would need to commit to reducing emissions by at least 80% by 2050, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Developing countries, on the other hand, such as India, China and Brazil, would need to agree on climate mitigation actions that would reduce their emissions by as much as a third by 2020.
Forestry is seen as a major area where such mitigation could occur, as deforestation currently accounts for around 15% of global greenhouse emissions, according to recent figures. Pressure is therefore mounting on ways to reduce deforestation.
The exact emissions targets are causing a debate even before the conference has begun, however, as developed regions, such as North America and Western Europe, are responsible for most of the global greenhouse gas emissions and yet are proposing targets deemed inadequate to make much change.
Smaller and developing countries, who feel they’ve not yet had the opportunity to develop fully, argue that the higher-emitting nations should invest more money in the solutions to the problems they helped to create.
Consequently, just who will finance what – and who will pay for the developing nations to reduce their own emissions – is still anyone’s guess.
The world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, recently rejected core targets for a climate deal, along with other key players like India, Brazil and South Africa, which would have halved world greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, set a deadline of 2020 for peak world emissions and limited global warming to a maximum of 2C above pre-industrial times.
Their fear was that richer countries would shift the economic burden of dealing with climate change onto them, thereby curbing their own economic growth.
US President Barack Obama has also already publicly acknowledged that time has run out to secure a legally binding climate deal at the Copenhagen summit, but has noted that it should be the first in a series of commitments rather than an all-encompassing protocol.
The negotiations on emissions targets, financing and technology transfer will most likely therefore be delayed until second-stage talks in Mexico City in 2010, rendering Copenhagen a conference of intent rather than action.
For John Prescott, a former EU negotiator at Kyoto and now the climate change rapporteur for the Council of Europe, establishing binding targets at Copenhagen was always going to be “10 times more difficult than [at] Kyoto”.
“The lesson I’ve learned from Kyoto is that we were never going to be able to dot all the I’s and cross [all] the T’s,” Prescott wrote recently in the Guardian.
“Kyoto involved 47 countries. Copenhagen will cover 190 countries, where an even greater consensus will be required.”
So is Copenhagen just another bit of greenwash? Not in the least, says WWF’s head of climate change Keith Allott.
“There’s no actual reason why we can’t get a strong, legally-binding text out of Copenhagen that does what we need it to do to get the planet on track,” he says.
“We’ve looked at the text on the table, and while it’s messy, it’s still possible to pull out a strong and effective deal.”
Green-thinking countries like Norway, which aims to reduce its emissions by 40% by 2020, and Japan, following suit with a reduction of 25%, are paving the way.
Even developing countries are keen on doing their bit, too.
“In general, what’s on the table from developing countries is considered more impressive than what developed countries have put forth in terms of carbon reductions,” Allott says.
“Countries like Indonesia, Brazil and even China are making positive headway, and showing us that the developed nations really need to step up.”
These two weeks in Denmark are therefore an opportunity to have faith in the potential of what could come, as deals could still be made to render the Danish capital ‘Hopenhagen’ indeed.
Reducing carbon emissions could help stabilise not only the climate, but energy costs as well, as investing in alternative energy could create more than 20 million new jobs worldwide in sectors including windfarming, biofuels and weatherproofing, according to the UN.
But as hopeful as such a future might seem, it is only possible if political action becomes louder than words, says Allott.
“At the end of the day, words which sound ambitious but are not legally enforceable are not an acceptable outcome for Copenhagen,” he says.
“If it’s not put down in a written, legal text, we’re headed towards 4C warming [by the end of the century], which will be an absolute disaster.”