What to Expect From the Copenhagen Climate Confab

Success or at least a perception of success may be critical, but how is success to be measured?

Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Those exposed to some modern European history may recall the attempts made in the 1920s and early 1930 to resolve the intertwined issues of World War I reparations, war debt, and beggar-thy-neighbor protective tariffs. When international negotiations repeatedly failed, the sense was that the stage had been set for catastrophe—and, with World War II and the Holocaust, that instinct proved correct.

Something of the same feeling has attended the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which takes place from 11 to 18 December in Copenhagen. To be sure, to those who consider climate science to be unsound or attempts to do anything about global warming to be a waste of time and money, the best outcome in Copenhagen would be no outcome. In fact, the conference may end with a mere declaration of intentions. But if that's what happens, it will be a sore disappointment to the diplomats who organized it, who say they consider a strong agreement essential.

Failure in Copenhagen is "not an option," says the conference president, Connie Hedegaard, minister for climate and energy in Denmark's conservative coalition government. The world cannot afford to see "the whole global democratic system [as] not being able to deliver results in one of the defining challenges of the century," she says.

Informally known as COP15, the Copenhagen conference is the 15th international meeting held to discuss the implementation of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in which world membership is virtually universal. The main objective in Copenhagen is to reach agreement on a treaty to supplant the controversial 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which all industrial countries except for the United States have ratified.

To prevent what the convention vaguely called "dangerous" climate change, the protocol would have required the United States to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions 7 percent by 2012 relative to 1990, and the European countries about 8 percent. Since adoption of the protocol, the biggest European countries have held their emissions more or less flat or reduced them, while the United States has let emissions climb perhaps 15 percent. Hardly any country has actually met its Kyoto target.

Overwhelmingly, the biggest issue at Copenhagen—the issue that could easily lead to a total breakdown—is whether rapidly industrializing countries like China, India, and Brazil must agree to binding greenhouse-gas reductions in exchange for the advanced industrial countries' committing to sharper cuts. But there are many other important issues too.

Herewith, a checklist whereby the successes or failures of the Copenhagen conference may be judged as it unfolds this month.

  • The advanced industrial countries agree credibly to carbon reductions that would keep global levels below 450 to 475 parts per million. (That level, which translates to a temperature change of 2¿C by comparison with preindustrial times, is somewhat arbitrarily considered the threshold above which climate change could become "dangerous.")
  • The rapidly industrializing economies commit to a year when their emissions will peak. (Countries like China and India have made clear they are not ready or willing to agree on cuts, but at least they should say when they think their emissions can stop rising and start falling.)
  • Copenhagen avoids the temptation of imposing trade sanctions on countries that refuse to go along with a new treaty. (European leaders have occasionally suggested slapping trade sanctions on the United States because of its refusal to implement Kyoto, and U.S. legislators now talk of similar action against China or India.)
  • Rules are tightened for carbon offsets and Kyoto's "clean development mechanism," which gives developing countries financial rewards for projects that avoid carbon emissions. (Abuses are widely documented.)
  • Leaders of rich countries promise to help poor countries adapt to the adverse effects of climate change—and really mean it (Rich countries have not delivered on measures agreed upon in the past.)
  • Additional measures are adopted for greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. (For example, methane is a much more potent warmer than carbon dioxide, and yet several hundreds of billions of cubic meters are estimated to leak from natural gas pipelines every year.)

This article originally appeared in print as "Kyoto 2.0".

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