Copenhagen: is there hope for a new deal?

Later this month world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to decide on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol. It could be one of the most significant meetings in the history of environmental policy making.

There are moments in our history that have real influence. The first meeting of the United Nations in London in 1946, and the Geneva Convention in 1949 are two that spring to mind. But the meeting of the world leaders in Copenhagen in December could rank among them.

The attention of the globe will be focused on the small Danish city for cop15, the 15th meeting of the conference of the parties. But why so much attention on this particular conference? The existing legally binding agreement, the Protocol that governs carbon emissions expires in 2012. To move into a sustainable and equitable future an ambitious new deal must be agreed this year, giving national governments time to prepare for implementation beyond 2012.

Why do we need a more stringent climate policy? The facts are that concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached 435 parts per million (ppm) of CO2-equivalent, compared with about 280ppm before the Industrial Revolution.

Climate models predict that if we were to continue at this rate, burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, concentrations could reach 750ppm by the end of the century. Should that happen, the probable rise in global average temperature relative to pre-industrial times would be 5˚C or more.

Scientists around the globe think that to avoid the severe risks that would result from a rise in global average temperature of more than 2˚C we must get atmospheric concentrations below 450ppm. This requires a cut in annual global emissions from about 50 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent today to below 35 gigatonnes in 2030, and less than 20 gigatonnes by 2050.

Let's be clear about what the aims of the successor to Kyoto will achieve. It will not mandate the use of renewable energy, or limit deforestation - both of which are high on the agenda. Its role is to agree carbon reduction targets that will achieve the aims of stemming climate change, while putting in place mechanisms that facilitate those targets. Exactly what measures each government or region takes to meet these goals will be a matter for self-determination.

For the meeting to be deemed a success it must provide clarity on four key issues. First on the mid-term emission reduction targets that industrialised countries will commit to, followed by clarity on actions that developing countries could undertake to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, it must define stable and predictable financing to help the developing world reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the inevitable effects of climate. Finally, it must identify institutions that will allow technology and finance to be deployed in a way that treats the developing countries as equal partners in the decision-making process.

"If Copenhagen can deliver on those four points I'd be happy," says Yvo de Boer, executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. "We need to get something signed and agreed, but I think it will be very difficult to get every final, small detail of a whole treaty done."

Central to the success of the meeting will be Connie Hedegaard, minister for climate and energy of host country Denmark and incoming president of Cop. She faces the task of orchestrating the world leaders into a sense of cordiality and ensuring that they are singing from the same song-sheet.

"It's not as if the Cop president, the host country, can just tell China or the US or India what they are going to do," she says. "They will decide for themselves. But of course we will argue as strongly as we can, push as strongly as we can and try to seek solutions.

"If the whole world comes to Copenhagen and leaves without making the political agreement, then I think it's a failure that is not just about climate. Then it's the whole global democratic system not being able to deliver results in one of the defining challenges of our century.

"If we don't deliver in Copenhagen then I cannot see when again you can build up a similar pressure on all the governments of this world to deliver. So I think we should be very, very cautious not to miss the opportunity. It would be irresponsible not to use the momentum now."

There are already some causes for optimism, with a new regime embedded in the US making all the right noises coming into the meeting, along with the final silencing of the climate change naysayers heralded by Exxon Mobil finally acknowledging the problem.

But the clock is ticking, and Hedegaard believes that can be an advantage. "In that sense, Copenhagen has already delivered results," Hedegaard says. "If we hadn't had that deadline, these governments would not have come forward with their targets. They are doing so because they know the deadline is coming closer, and they must start to deliver."

To break the deadlock two more requirements must be fulfilled. Politicians need to become more involved and developed countries need to come forward with specifics on finance.

"They cannot just continue to talk about finance. They must prove to the developing world, we know that we are going to pay or there will be no agreement. The sooner developed countries deliver on finance, the better."

No one knows if a deal will be thrashed out in Copenhagen, but among those who believe a compromise is possible is Anne-Marie Warris, an environmental and climate change expert with Lloyd's Register. "We're going to see a lot of press between now and 18 December," she explains. "We are going to have a lot of people keeping their cards close to their chest and we are going to have a lot of discussion. But yes, I think we'll have a deal in Copenhagen."

Among the NGOs that will set up base in Copenhagen for a month of lobbying are the WWF who are more sceptical about a positive outcome. "Stories currently being talked up in the media and diplomatic manoeuvres behind the scenes reflect attempts by industrialised countries to lower expectations for Copenhagen," says Keith Allott, head of climate change at WWF-UK. "They are currently dodging hard decisions on slashing their emissions and providing funding for the transition to a low carbon economy. The world is looking for leadership, but instead the leaders are starting to hand out excuses in advance. We must plan for success in Copenhagen or we are planning for failure, full stop."

China, India and Brazil are adamant they are not responsible for the current mess. "Developing countries recognise and are angered by the inequity of the current situation," says Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Report.

"Current greenhouse gas levels are largely due to industrialisation in the developed world since the 19th century. Yet developing countries are the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, which threaten the economic growth necessary to overcome poverty. At the same time, emissions cannot be reduced at the extent required without the central contribution of the developing world. Climate change and poverty, the two defining challenges of this century, must be tackled together. If we fail on one, we will fail on the other. The task facing the world is to meet the environment's 'carbon constraints' while creating the growth necessary to raise living standards for the poor."

Success will require leadership and there are a couple of leaders who can demonstrate that they can consider the global position rather than their own ambitions, most probably those who have no direct electorate. We have already seen signs from Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the UN, and his Climate Day last month. We are also witnessing optimism from Yvo de Boer as well as strong leadership from the Swedish presidency of the EU.

US Green Credentials

The eyes of the world will also be on US President Barack Obama to see if the US can live up to its new green credentials. "We're really happy that President Obama has committed to this issue both domestically and internationally," de Boer said at a recent pre-cop15 meeting in New York. "We need that engagement and the engagement of other countries to come to a global deal."

The failure of the US to come on board after Kyoto is something that has long rankled with other nations. "My big lesson from the Kyoto era is that it's really important that the government delegation that represents the US is in close touch with the Senate, with the elected officials on what's acceptable and what's not," de Boer says. "I think that a major shortcoming of Kyoto was that the official delegation came back with a treaty they knew was never going to make it through the Senate."

According to de Boer, Kyoto was rejected for two reasons. It did not involve action on the part of major developing countries and it was felt that it would be harmful to the US economy. "Those would be two points of attention in the negotiations as they move forward that would give whatever comes out a much better chance of making it," he adds.

It's not just the faces that have changed since Kyoto - the power behind the throne has shifted. It was the developed world and the US, even though they didn't sign the protocol, that was driving Kyoto. But at Copenhagen there will be a very strong input from China, Japan, India, Brazil and Russia. "That doesn't mean the US and Europe aren't going to have a voice," Warris adds. "Of course they will, but they're not going to have the dominant voice over everybody else."

The rhetoric is already gathering pace as the combatants jostle for position, but by the time the world leaders stand before the steps of the Bella Centre on 18 December the talking will be over and the world will know, for better or for worse, the path it will be treading in the years to come.

"I think what matters is that when we depart we can say we brought the world on the right track, on a track that makes it credible that we can stay below the two degrees average increase in temperature worldwide," Hedegaard says.

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