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Monday, November 22, 2010

From Copenhagen to Cancun – Pursuing a Global Climate Agreement

Summary:  The United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in convened in Copenhagen during December 2009, under the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change, to negotiate an agreement to combat global warming due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  The deliberations were contentious and failed to arrive at a definitive agreement.  Upon the personal intervention of President Barack Obama the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord was ultimately agreed to.  A renewed gathering of the participating nations is to convene in Cancun, Mexico for two weeks starting November 29, 2010.  An atmosphere of continued distrust, with divergent points of view, appears to persist.  In view of the urgent need for worldwide efforts toward deep reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, it is hoped that significant progress can be made.

Introduction.  The Copenhagen Conference (United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen) was convened with the objective of agreeing on a follow-on procedure after the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997, expires in 2012.  Heads of state, presidents, prime ministers and others with authority from their states gathered, representing 192 nations of the world.    The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated among 37 developed nations including the U. S. and European countries, but excluding developing countries.  It went into force in 2005 after the requisite number of nations ratified it, although the U. S. has not.

Deliberations at the Copenhagen Conference. Over the two weeks of the Conference considerable wrangling broke out among various parties and factions.  Issues under discussion, or forming a backdrop to the deliberations, included:

  • The Kyoto Protocol excluded developing countries of the world from its terms, yet by the time of the Copenhagen Conference, the principal developing countries, China and India, had become major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.  China overtook the U. S. in total amount of emissions around 2009. 

  • The United States, historically the greatest contributor to global emissions of greenhouse gases, failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, so was never bound by its constraints.  The U. S. Senate refused to do so in view of the exclusion from the Protocol of developing countries, and because it was felt that ratification would limit job creation and economic growth within the U. S.

  • China’s position was that terms of any new accord be based on carbon intensity, i.e., the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of economic activity (e.g., gross domestic product), rather than the absolute amount of emissions.  As measured in this way, China’s greenhouse gas intensity was trending lower year-by-year, though still higher than the U. S. or India.  The Chinese feel they should not be bound by limits to be placed on absolute amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and should not be restricted from seeking to achieve a higher standard of living.

  • In general, developing countries object to being placed under future restrictions because of the past history of greenhouse gas emissions from the industrialized countries of the West.

  • Poor nations are insisting that they be granted financial help in developing power sources that would comply with any agreement put in place.  They also foresee unbearable expenditures that might be needed in the future to adapt to adverse effects of climate change within their boundaries, such as floods or drought, or a rising sea level. Their poverty level otherwise would preclude them from ever developing to a living standard prevalent elsewhere in the world.

The Copenhagen Accord. U. S. President Barack Obama personally intervened at the Conference in its last days, as it become clear that the initial objectives of negotiating a final agreement could not be met.  The resulting Copenhagen Accord included the following nonbinding pledges:

  • Recognizing that climate scientists believe the overall increase in average global temperature above the level of the pre-industrial period should be kept below 2 deg C, the Accord pledged to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations within accepted limits of man-made emissions that threaten the climate.  Although not explicitly stated in the Accord, it is generally agreed that this corresponds to limiting greenhouse accumulation to about 450 parts per million CO2-equivalents.

  • Deep cuts in overall emissions “consistent with science and on the basis of equity” will be made.  Equity includes recognizing that the time frame for achieving this objective will be longer in developing countries.

  • Adaptation to the detrimental effects of climate change, especially in developing countries and small island countries, will require that developed countries contribute financial and technological assistance to developing countries.

  • Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) and the corollary effect of promoting removal of atmospheric CO2 by forest growth is recognized as being a significant factor in certain countries for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and is to be a supported activity of the Accord.

  • Collective commitment of up to US$30 billion during the period 2010-2012 is pledged to promote mitigation, REDD, adaptation and technology transfer with respect to developing countries, with a further pledge of US$100 billion by 2020.

The Cancun Conference, 2010. The Cancun, Mexico Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is due to convene for two weeks beginning November 29, 2010 in order to continue the negotiations that were begun in Copenhagen in 2009.  During the intervening year, discussions have been held at G-20 summit meetings in June and November 2010.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (email dated Nov. 19, 2010), the U. S. committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent of levels that were emitted in 2005 by the year 2020, and to further reduce emission by more than 80 percent by mid-century.  Commitments of this kind have not been codified yet because of the failure of the U. S. Congress to pass the required law.

Prospects for progress at the Cancun Conference are not high.  Areas of disagreement persist.   The U. S. insists on verifiable inspection and measurement of greenhouse gas emissions under an agreement.  China, on the other hand, alleges the U. S. and other developed countries have failed to undertake measures to reduce greenhouse gas emission that cause global warming, and that therefore the U. S. cannot be sincere in its negotiations.  Fulfillment of financial commitments appears to be failing.  Developed countries insist on deep world-wide verifiable reductions in global warming-producing gases.  Developing countries regret the unfettered emission of greenhouse gases by the developed countries for the last century, and the apparent lack of initiative currently among the latter nations to reduce their own emissions.  Nevertheless, in October 2010 the U. S. delegate, Todd Stern, reiterated that the Obama administration stands by its commitment to reduce emission by 17% by 2020.

Conclusion. Recent agency, scientific and governmental reports (International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2010; Hoffert, Science, 2010, Vol. 329, p. 1292-4 (see Note 1); United Kingdom National Weather Service) emphasize the dire situation the world faces currently if “business as usual” is continued.  These reports and others make clear the immediate and urgent need for major efforts at mitigation of greenhouse gas emission, leading to a stabilized level of atmospheric greenhouse gases such as 450 ppm, as well as financial assistance to less developed countries.  It is to be hoped that the Cancun meeting will make meaningful progress toward achieving these goals.

© 2010 Henry Auer

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