Constructive Ideas for Copenhagen Conference

This week, with world leaders meeting in New York, and with just three months to go until the global climate conference in Copenhagen, Columbia University hosted a series of speeches and panel discussions on climate. In a kind of keynote, Kofi Annan had the following to say:

"As we approach Copenhagen, there appears to be an emerging consensus that global emissions be cut 50 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. But that's not enough. Industrialized nations need to find innovative ways to reduce emissions dramatically, within the range of 25-40 percent by 2020.…The big emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Mexico…must lower emissions relative to a 'business as usual' scenario."

Here's why this is significant and useful. As countries prepare to meet in Copenhagen to draft a follow-on agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, there is wide concern the conference could fail--and that failure, like that of tariff and reparations conferences in the 1920s, could be catastrophic for the whole world. Failure is feared mainly because of U.S. insistence that the fast developing countries must agree to emissions reductions, which they are absolutely unwilling to do, and because of wide unhappiness about the United States.

Countries like China and India are convinced they cannot afford to constrain economic growth in the near term, and that it's unreasonable for countries that use energy and emit carbon much more recklessly to make such demands on them. As for the United States, though it is talking a pretty good game when it comes to the long run, it has been pretty slippery about what it actually will do in the next decade.

So, as a compromise between  those seemingly unbridgeable differences, Kofi Annan proposes that the advanced industrial countries undertake sharper reductions in the decade immediately to come, and that the fast developing countries undertake to reduce emissions relative to what they would have been if business were to proceed as usual.

That leaves open the question of when countries like China will be in a position to actually reduce absolute levels of emissions, as Denmark's Minister of Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard observed in a panel. Hedegaard, who will chair the Copenhagen meeting, makes a tough, no-nonsense impression; a recent newspaper profile of her says her objective in Copenhagen will be to make the price too high for any country that tries to block an emerging consensus. Hedegaard said yesterday that she will be looking to hear from China in December in what year exactly the country’s carbon emissions will peak.

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