The road to Copenhagen


Tom Bradley

What images first come to mind when one thinks of Copenhagen? Overpriced beer? Hans Christian Anderson? Peter Schmeichel and the Laudrup Brothers? By the end of this year it will be nothing so trivial. Come January 2010, the word Copenhagen will be synonymous with either a history-making international deal on climate change, or an epithet for failure.

The Copenhagen Climate Conference runs from December 7-18 and it represents the culmination of years of negotiations aimed at providing a legally-binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol was the first international deal of its kind on climate change, which set binding reductions for industrialised nations, whereby they are required to reduce their emissions by 5% against 1990 levels. According to a roadmap laid out in Bali in December 2007, international negotiations to agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol are supposed to be concluded in Copenhagen in December 2009.

As we draw ever closer to the conference, however, the chances of achieving an ambitious international climate deal are looking increasingly slim. Yet delays are unaffordable. With each passing year that emissions continue to grow, our capacity to stabilise climate change at levels which would not be considered catastrophic to the planetary ecosystem decreases.

Climate change is already happening. Global temperatures have risen by 0.7°C since 1800 and, due to the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere, it is projected that we are already committed to a further global average increase of around 2°C. Though many dissenting voices can still be heard among politicians, the scientific debate has long been settled. All the evidence gathered thus far points to the fact that climate change is a tangible reality, and its causes are man-made. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere haven’t been this high for at least 600,000 years. The situation is unprecedented in human history and marks a massive challenge for international co-operation.

Though climate change will have global consequences, its effects will not be the same everywhere. People in developing countries will be hit the hardest. Low-lying islands may be under water by the end of the century, and sub-Saharan Africa is likely to see its already scarce rain levels drop dramatically. By as early as 2020, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% in some African countries.

Responsibility for the sabotaging of our eco-system rests firmly with advanced, post-industrial countries like our own. It is this fact that has lead to the greatest divisions in climate change negotiations. In the lead up to Copenhagen, a familiar chasm over how blame should be apportioned has once again opened between the developed and developing countries. Nations such as China point to the fact that the developed world’s emissions were un-regulated for the past two centuries to fuel their economic growth. They argue a similar level of economic growth should thereby be granted to those countries aiming to make that transition today.

Climate change has been caused primarily by the USA and the EU and the responsibility therefore lies with them to limit it to acceptable levels. This is an argument the Kyoto Protocol recognises: industrialised nations are required to commit themselves to reductions while developing nations are encouraged to limit their emissions in a way that will not interfere with their social and developmental needs.

But this has not gone unopposed. The US Special Envoy for Climate Change, Jonathan Pershing, stated that industrialised nations alone can’t reduce emissions levels by enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change: “If the United States joined with other countries in the developed world without other major economies, we don’t solve the problem,” stated Pershing at the recent UN climate talks in Bangkok. To be fair, this statement is not without merit. If developing countries’ emissions continue to rise unchecked at their current rate, emissions levels will grow by 50% by 2050 instead of dropping by 50% as is required. It comes, however, from the worst possible source.

During the Bush presidency, the US was the only industrialised country not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, even though at the time it was the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (it has recently been overtaken by China) and still remains by far the largest cumulative emitter. Former President Bush’s decision substantially dented international efforts to tackle climate change and weakened any negotiating position that industrialised countries have. Why should China or India make any efforts to control their emission levels, and risk slowing their economic growth, if the richest country on the planet continues to do nothing?

The election of Barack Obama last year led to renewed hope that the US would finally sign up to a new climate deal in Copenhagen. Although admittedly not a difficult feat, Obama’s stance on climate change to date has certainly been more progressive than that of his predecessor’s. In a speech to a special UN summit on climate change, Obama stated: “Each of us must do what we can to grow our economies without endangering our planet, and we must do it together. We must seize the opportunity to make Copenhagen a significant step forward in the global fight against climate change.”

Such sentiments have not, unfortunately, been observed by Obama’s colleagues in the US Senate. In recent months, international talks in the lead up to Copenhagen have been in a relative state of limbo as countries waited in anticipation to see if the Senate would sign up to a climate change bill. But the USA, once again, failed to come through. A climate change bill has been delayed until after the new year to give them time to consider the economic implications of its passing into legislation. It means that US negotiators in Copenhagen have very little power because any deal with legal implications will probably be rejected by the Senate.

This delay by the US has severely dampened expectations of a deal now being reached in Copenhagen. According to Yvo de Boer, the UN director of the talks, the lack of any definite emission targets and the question over who will ultimately foot the bill for aid that helps developing countries reduce their emissions still show no signs of being resolved in the lead up to the conference in December.

The last hopes rest on leaders of major powers backing up their rhetoric with action by using their influence to force a deal to be reached, or at the very least one which sets a timeframe for a legal deal to be reached next year. As President Mohamed Nasheen of the low-lying Republic of Maldives suggests, a resumption of business as usual is not enough. He has been to climate talks before where lofty verbal pledges have been given readily, but afterwards empathy for his country’s future is soon forgotten and there is a quick return to the status quo:

“If things go business-as-usual, we will not live, we will die,” he said. “Our country will not exist. We cannot come out from Copenhagen as failures. We cannot make Copenhagen a pact for suicide. We have to succeed and we have to make a deal in Copenhagen.” If this is not done, it will again be the poorest nations — those least responsible for climate change — who will suffer the worst consequences of our failure.


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