The 2009 Climate Change Conference of the United Nations, to be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, will open on Dec. 7 and continue through Dec. 18. It is anticipated that upwards of 100 world leaders will participate, along with an approximate 15,000 attendees. Initially, the meeting was intended to create a new global warming pact that will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which would remain in effect until 2012.
The conference is also known as COP15, in abbreviated form. The COP stands for the Meeting of the Parties which will be the 15th conference on climate change to be conducted under the UNFCCC system The COP15 carbon emissions will be offset by a climate scheme in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, thereby essentially rendering the conference climate-neutral (“COP15”).
Human-Generated Factors & Environmental Impact
The foundational basis for the conference is the belief that a worldwide need exists for controls to be placed on human-generated influences that contribute to the phenomenon of global warming. The term ‘anthropogenic factors’ pertains to human activities that change the environment. The scientific opinion on climate change is actually that human action has been the key source of the significant rise in global surface temperatures during the last few decades. Of particular concern are the factors that increase the CO2 levels, such as emissions from fossil fuel combustion and aerosols, among others. Reducing this environmental impact has become the basis for a number of UN-sponsored global conferences, of which COP15 is the latest.
The multiple ways that climate change can impact any geographic area has long been a source of concern to governments around the world. Among the things that it can affect are the planting calendars for agriculture, rainfall patterns, sunshine hours and cloud cover, and ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns. Some of these factors may lead to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tornados and drought. Other possible effects are decreased fishery yields and food security, land and marine ecosystem degradation, soil erosion, the spread of plant pests and diseases, more frequent forest fires, and flooding.
Green Energy Alternatives
An important cog in the deliberations surrounding climate change is how to move on, as a global society, from energy generated by fossil fuels. The major ‘green’ alternatives constitute burgeoning industries in their own right, as the search continues for the best replacements for oil, gas and coal. Proponents of each alternate energy option tout their ability to generate power by working with nature, rather than against it. The long-term view by the climate change movement is that as green forms of energy become more prevalent, that change, in and of itself, will represent a giant stride in conquering the problem posted by global warming and climate change.
The leading alternate energy sources are: wind power, solar power, hydro power, biomass (the recycling of agro wastes), and geothermal energy. Since it is not currently possible to completely replace fossil fuel energy with just one of these alternate power sources, a combination is usually employed. Although certainly not viewed as a clean alternative form of energy, nuclear power has been very effectively utilized as a substitute for burning fossil fuels.
Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva struck a somewhat confrontational stance while speaking before a November 2009 Amazon summit in which a declaration was signed calling for financial help from industrialized nations to halt deforestation, thought to be a contributing factor to global warming. According to Lula, “gringos” (rich industrialized nations) should be the ones to pay Amazon nations to prevent deforestation. Any agreement reached at COP15 is expected to reward countries for halting deforestation with cash or tradable credits on the global carbon market. For example, Norway is committed to giving Brazil $1 billion by 2015 to preserve the Amazon rainforest, provided the country keeps trying to stop deforestation. Brazil hopes to ultimately raise $21 billion to protect their nation’s natural reserves (“Brazilian president”).
The issue of saving forests has turned out to be among the least contentious in pre-COP15 negotiations and has achieved the most progress. Most countries support the proposed UN plan, called ‘reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation’ (REDD), to reward developing nations for protecting their forestation. REDD will provide such countries with carbon offsets for every ton of CO2 saved from being emitted by protecting forests. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization roughly 32.5 million acres in forestation are destroyed annually. Estimates on the how much rampant deforestation contributes to human-generated greenhouse gasses range from 12 to 20 percent. Implementation of REDD could potentially establish a carbon trading scheme beginning in 2013 that could be worth billions of dollars a year. The issues to be finalized involve the designation of the proper institutions to manage the cash generated, and the methodology to ensure that developing nations had a say in how to utilize the money. Also under examination are the legal rights of indigenous people in affected areas (Fogarty).
Disagreements Over National Roles
Although many world leaders agree that effective actions should be taken on a global scale to curb the effects of climate change, the role that each nation will assume in order to achieve the overall goal has been fraught with disagreement and finger pointing. For example, US President Barack Obama, who will attend COP15 on Dec. 9 before traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, is prepared to push a national goal of reducing emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The stated long-term White House objective is to reduce nationwide emissions by 83 percent on or before 2050 (Tankersley). Though it sounds laudable, many critics are on the record as saying that it isn’t nearly good enough.
Most emissions-reduction targets are measured against 1990 levels. When viewed in that context, the proposed 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels translates to about 4 percent below what it was in 1990. That number is less than the 7 percent decline from 1990 amounts committed by the United States under the Kyoto Protocol, signed but not ratified by the Clinton administration in 1997, to be reached by 2012. On the other hand, the European Union is committed to reducing emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and to 30 percent if other rich countries make similar commitments. However, both reduction plans fall short of the 25 to 40 percent decrease over that period that many environmental groups and scientists indicate are needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change (Tankersley).
Emission Reduction Pledges
The US and China are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and it has been a longstanding dispute between them over which nation should bear the greater responsibility for cutting emissions. According to the Chinese State Council the country’s goal is to cut carbon intensity, which is sum of emissions of CO2 per unit of CO2 gross domestic product, by a range of 40 to 45 percent by 2020. This represents the first time that China has issued details regarding its plan for slowing carbon emissions (Oster). However, critics note that the plan falls short of creating an emissions cap. ‘Cap’ refers to the expression ‘cap and trade’ or emissions trading, the administrative approach to control emissions by providing economic incentives.
India is the world’s fourth highest CO2 emitter, and is under pressure to provide target levels of carbon dioxide reductions in advance of COP15. Government figures indicate that the country could possibly cut carbon intensity by 24 percent by 2020, when compared with 2005 levels. By 2030, estimates posit that a reduction of 37 percent from 2005 levels is achievable. The final figures, likely to reflect a broad range of estimates on reduction, will be presented at the conference (Mukherjee).
As far as other developed and developing nations: Japan has pledged to cut its emissions in 2020 to 25 percent below 1990 levels, Canada to reduce emissions by 20 percent below 2006 levels by 2020. Russia has committed to cut 2020 emissions by 10-15 percent from 1990 levels, but is reportedly ready to offer more. Mexico has pledged to cut emissions by 7 percent over six years. Brazil has promised a 2020 cut by 36-39 percent, South Korea by 30 percent, and Indonesia by 26-41 percent (Colebatch).
In Australia, however, Parliament rejected proposed carbon cut legislation, dealing an embarrassing blow to pro-green Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd will assume a lead role in COP15, but his country remains the world’s worst per capita polluter and he will head to the conference without an agreement to cut emissions. The rejected carbon cut aimed to reduce emissions by between five and 25 percent from 2000 levels by 2020. It ran into strong objections from the industrial and agricultural lobby in tandem with the conservative opposition, which forced out its leader Malcolm Turnbull for supporting the cuts (Harris).
Climate Change Controversies
Although the scientific climate change community has supported the claim of human-induced global warming, the concept is not without points of debate. A German scientist at the University of Bristol, Wolfgang Knorr, recently published a study which posits that the percentage of man-made CO2 emissions being trapped by the atmosphere has remained remarkably constant for the past 150 years at a steady 40 percent. This conclusion was reached even though the total amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere has risen dramatically in the last century. Such a claim runs completely counter to the conclusions reached by a consensus of climate change scientists. As the basis for his conclusions, the scientist collected data provided by two stations – one in Hawaii and one in Antarctica – measuring CO2 in the atmosphere. He compared those findings with data provided by two ice cores from Antarctica. When the amount of CO2 emissions produced by the modern industrial age was tabulated and compared to the older data, Knorr noted that since the 1850’s the ratios had remained constant (Seidler).
A growing controversy involving global warming, one that could have an extremely damaging effect on COP15, concerns the recent release of hacked e-mail correspondence between leading climate change scientists. Many of the messages appear to reveal individuals urging each other to present a united front on the theory of man-made climate change, and advice is given on how to manipulate details in order not to weaken the theory preferred. Some of the e-mails go so far as to talk about ways to keep opposing views out of leading journals, and to provide tips on how to conceal temperature declines (Editorial). Professor Phil Jones, one of the central figures in the controversy, announced on Dec. 1 that he is moving down from his role with a director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia while the institution investigates his role in allegedly overstating the case for man-made global warming (Eilperin). Republicans in the House of Representatives of the United States have also begun investigations into the allegations that scientists linked to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) deliberately suppressed dissenting views on man-made climate change (Johnson).
Expectations for Cop15
Leading into COP15, a discouraging note was struck at the climate change talks in Barcelona, Spain, which concluded on Nov. 6, when little progress was made on negotiations involving mid-term emission reduction targets for developed countries and a plan for financing developing nations to limit their emissions. UN Climate Change chief Yvo De Boer acknowledged at the time that without agreement on those two key points, there would be no change for a deal in Copenhagen (“Key challenges”).
The many disagreements and sticking points have substantially altered the expectations for COP15. Now, the best that Obama can hope for is that his presence in Copenhagen might seal a meaningful, although not legally binding, climate deal. Key leaders are now aiming for conference goal of becoming a precursor to a future treaty that will be finalized in the next year. The US president will very likely face some political fallout if COP15 is viewed as less than successful. His fruitless trip to Copenhagen to lobby for a Chicago bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics is still fresh in many minds.
There was some encouraging news for supporters of COP15 in the recently concluded 53-nation Commonwealth meeting held in Trinidad and Tobago. The Commonwealth climate declaration expressed a desire that any deal reached in Copenhagen would be “operationally binding” and lead swiftly to a definitive treaty. Nearly half of the members are small island states, several of which were placed at the forefront of the climate debate such as tiny island states like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Tuvalu and Kiribati in the Pacific, whose continued existence is being threatened by rising ocean levels linked to climate change (Fletcher).
Cop15 Preparations & Planned Protests
While all of the controversies and debates rage in advance of COP15, preparations have long been underway in Copenhagen to accommodate the conference. The city’s Bella Center will be transformed from a large, open space into 38 functioning meeting rooms to host the anticipated 2,500 meetings over the two-week period (“COP15”).
Transportation logistics are also being worked out. Approximately 75 Heads of State and other VIP’s are scheduled to fly into Copenhagen Airport when the high-level portion of COP15 begins on Dec. 15. The airport will manage up to 10 extra arrivals and departures an hour on Dec. 15 – 17, in addition to implementing extensive security measures. Each non-commercial airplane will only be allocated two hours at the airport, and stopovers at nearby airports in Denmark and Sweden are mandated while waiting to return to COP15 to convey the VIPs home. Most of the estimated 15,000 delegates will be traveling via on commercial airliners (“COP15”).
Since activists and protests usually accompany any global conference, Copenhagen is preparing its response to that eventuality. Under the new powers passed into law on Nov. 26, Danish police will have the authority to detain individuals for up to 12 hours whom they suspect might break the law in the near future. Conference protesters could also be jailed for 40 days, if charged with hindering the police in their duties. Fines of 5,000 krona can be levied for breach of the peace, disorderly behavior and remaining in place after the police have broken up a demonstration (Carus). Protest organizers have accused the new measures of being “punitive” and “hostile.”
Activist leaders expect tens of thousands of protesters to travel to Copenhagen to help make their demands known. The end of fossil fuel use and compensation for developing countries for climate protection measures will be two of the main platforms. Organizers plan a number of protests, among them is a plan to confront the corporations supporting the conference in an action called “Don’t Buy the Lie.” Reportedly, another group plans to blockade Copenhagen harbor to protest against the way global goods are produced, transported and consumed. Other planned protests are less confrontational in nature, such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which plans to drive an old-fashioned London bus running on cooking oil through northern Europe to Copenhagen. A coalition of activist groups will hold a parallel conference, Klimaforum, which will feature workshops, films, art, and public speakers (Lawton).
Children’s Climate Forum
In conjunction with COP15, the Children’s Climate Forum opened on Nov. 28. The event represents a collaboration between UNICEF, the City of Copenhagen and 22 Danish school classes who will act as hosts for visiting children. The delegates are 165 children from 44 countries. Many are from ‘at risk’ countries, such as Zambia, that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Over the period of one week the young people will discuss their local experiences with climate change and propose solutions. After the conclusion of the forum, the participants will be tasked with educating other children in their home countries on climate change and global warming issues (“COP15”).
Once viewed as an event that would finalize the legal underpinnings for a new global climate change treaty to succeed the expiring Kyoto Protocol, various factors have relegated COP15 to a mere stepping stone to the stated ultimate goal. Looking to the future, disagreements on how much individual nations have to sacrifice in terms of money and time to develop alternate technology promise to be hotly debated and difficult to resolve.
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- Tankersley, Jim. “Obama’s climate vow boosts chances for Copenhagen deal.” Los Angeles Times 26 Nov. 2009. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.