AP/David Ramos
U.N. Climate chief Yvo de Boer attends the press conference after the opening session of the
U.N. climate talks in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Nov. 2, 2009.

A Closer Look at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

December 01, 2009 06:39 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
The U.N. Climate Change Conference calls world leaders to Copenhagen next week to address global warming and emissions reductions. Recent controversies, financial conflicts and past climate conferences could all impact the outcome.

Global Agreement Not Expected

World leaders are preparing for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, being held in Copenhagen, Denmark, from Dec. 7-18. Initially, they’d hoped to establish a new global agreement addressing climate change, one that would update the Kyoto Protocol reached in 1997 and expiring in 2012. But earlier this month, the decision was made to postpone such an agreement. Instead, leaders will attempt to “reach a less specific ‘politically binding’ agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future,” Helene Cooper writes for The New York Times.

What Will World Leaders Address?

According to COP15, the official site of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), expressed his “wish for clarity” in Copenhagen. De Boer granted an interview to Environment & Energy Publishing, listing essential issues world leaders must address: reduction of carbon emissions by industrialized countries, methods of financing developing countries’ emissions reductions, and management of the funding.

Important Documents

According to WWF, a group of non-governmental organizations came together to prepare a treaty spelling out how to thwart climate change. The 160-page document, called the Copenhagen Climate Treaty, was completed in June 2009 after nearly a year of work. It has been “distributed to negotiators from 192 states,” and shows “balanced and credible climate solutions based on equity and science,” according to Kim Carstensen of WWF International. The treaty was reworked “into a concise paper called the Real Deal for Copenhagen” in October. Both documents can be downloaded at the WWF Web site.

In late November, Denmark drafted a climate pact in preparation for Copenhagen. The pact calls for the world to “halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 from 1990 levels,” Reuters reported. The pact also stipulates that wealthy nations “account for 80 percent of the global emission cuts.” Noticeably absent from the draft was poorer countries’ request for short-term emissions goals for wealthy nations, leading India to oppose the text. According to Reuters, China and India have said they oppose agreeing to the halved emissions goal unless wealthy world powers “take the lead by setting far tougher reductions by 2020.” The highest emitters are China, the U.S., Russia and India.

Potential Barriers to Progress in Copenhagen

Funding is crucial to the success of a climate change agreement, particularly for developing countries, which must cut emissions while also adapting to extreme weather, The Guardian reports.

The European Union has wavered on the issue of funding. Reports surfaced in November that the E.U. had “removed lines in the negotiating text” for the summit. The deleted language stressed “that climate change aid comes on top of existing development aid.” Charity organizations considered the move potentially devastating to the Copenhagen talks, according to The Guardian. Rob Bailey of Oxfam points out that “[n]o developing country will sign up to an agreement that could give them no extra money at all.”

An atmosphere of distrust has already been established between rich and poor countries regarding climate change funding. In 2001, several rich nations pledged $410 million per year, from 2005-2008, to developing countries for climate change. Only about one-tenth of the funding has been given, according to The Guardian.

The U.S. will also play a major role in Copenhagen. According to The New York Times, “Congress’s inability to enact climate and energy legislation that sets binding targets” on greenhouse gas emissions was one of the “chief barriers” to what might have been a “comprehensive deal in Copenhagen.” Without a U.S. commitment, other countries hesitated to pledge emissions reductions, The Times reported.

Another hurdle was presented in November when e-mails exchanged between prominent climate scientists over the past 13 years were hacked and leaked onto the Web. The Air Vent blog broke the story, according to The Guardian, and skeptics of climate change immediately clamored to read the messages and documents. Some skeptics said the e-mails “provide ‘smoking gun’ evidence” of scientists’ manipulation of data to perpetuate the notion of man-made climate change.

In response, The Huffington Post created a slideshow of misleading ideas “being spread by skeptics about the emails.” In more than a decade's worth of e-mails, only a few statements have drawn skeptics’ attention, and such statements taken out of context are being used to distract “the huge task at hand” for world leaders at Copenhagen, The Huffington Post asserts. The feature also quotes Richard Somerville, a professor emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as saying, “We’re facing an effort by special interests who are trying to confuse the public.” 

The independent environmental site Solve Climate also addresses the hacked e-mails, referred to as “Climate Gate” in the media. Stacy Feldman of Solve Climate discusses comments made by three scientists during a conference call for reporters. The call was intended to be a discussion of the Copenhagen Diagnosis report, “a synthesis of 200 peer-reviewed papers” showing the acceleration of global warming emissions and rising sea levels, resulting from human activity. But the trio “spent much of the time defusing the hacker controversy,” Feldman writes.

Background: The UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1994 in an effort to reduce and cope with global warming. The international treaty was joined by the majority of countries, and allows governments to share information, policies and strategies related to climate change.

The UNFCCC also includes the Kyoto Protocol, a series of legally binding measures adopted in December 1997, that set “targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” averaging five percent from 2008-2012.

Historical Context: Rio and Stockholm Conferences

Previous conferences got the ball rolling on awareness of climate change, but did not set legally enforced standards.

In June 1992, officials from 178 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known as the Earth Summit. Officials were joined by approximately 30,000 members of NGOs and the media in their discussion of “solutions for global problems,” including the rift between developing countries and their industrialized counterparts, poverty and war. The resulting “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development” set forth 27 principles aimed at ensuring “environmental protection and responsible development,” according to the Encyclopedia of Earth.

Prior to the UNCED was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, hosted by Stockholm in June 1972. The Stockholm conference brought together 113 countries, and was the first U.N.-sponsored environment conference. It was also the first of its stature to focus “on human activities in relationship to the environment,” and led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Detailed information on discussions at UNCED and Stockholm are available at the United Nations Environment Programme Web site.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines