Hopenhagen yields little Hope

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  • Date August 6th, 2010 09:06
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  • December saw Copenhagen thrust into the global spotlight. The world watched in suspense to see whether the 193-nation and 45,000 participant United Nations conference would yield a new global agreement on climate change. The outcome was disappointing to say the least - with delegates simply "taking note" of a climate deal that recognised the need to limit temperature rises to 2C.

    Talks were reported to be chaotic and were at risk of disintegrating completely. The Accord, which was reached between the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa behind closed doors at the 11th hour, contains no reference to a legally binding agreement. The other nations only were told of the Accord after it was made and had to vote to support or oppose it. Some countries were resolutely opposed, including Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba, hence the Accord was merely "recognised", rather than approved, which would have required unanimous support. There is no set deadline for transforming the Accord into a binding deal, though UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said it needs to be turned into a legally binding treaty next year. The first deadline for nations is to submit a list of 2020 emission targets and actions by February 1st 2010. It is being widely reported that many countries may not be able to even meet this.

    The significance of the conference goes back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where world leaders pledged to keep emissions below a level considered dangerous. Science advisers have defined the "danger" threshold as a 2C global temperature rise. 17 years later this new generation of world leaders only managed to agree to combat climate change "with a view" to staying below that 2C mark. Hardly the conviction and action the world was hoping for.

    It was the worst time for a conference like this, with the world deep in recession. All the big players arrived with economic pressures and political risks. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said after “If the climate was a bank they would have saved it, said. But it is not. And they have not.”

    Arguably the biggest players were China and the United States. China arrived at the conference believing they held a moral high ground, as the Chinese per capita emissions is one sixth of those in the US. Obama arrived at the conference unable to improve any US offer during talks as the US Congress has to be in agreement first. This is considered one of the biggest impediments to other nations improving their offers.

    The Chinese were blamed for rudeness and bad behaviour in Copenhagen. Unexplainably, China's chief negotiator was barred by security for the first three days of the meetings. By the time Prime Minister Wen Jiabao arrived, the Chinese delegation was in disarray, fending off blame from the world for failing to budge on an agreement on 50% reductions in global emissions by 2050. Mr Wen scrambled to save face with a widely condemned display. Mr Wen told UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown he had come to sign a document, not negotiate. At the same time Obama - who also brought nothing new to the table - escaped without criticism thanks mainly to superior spin.

    It seems clear that China believes it acted fairly in Copenhagen and is doing all it can to tackle global warming. Xinhua news agency put out an article stating, "Representatives from developing countries hailed China's commitments". China's Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, praised the summit: "Developing and developed countries are very different in their historical emissions responsibilities and current emissions levels, and in their basic national characteristics and development stages. Therefore, they should shoulder different responsibilities and obligations in fighting climate change."

    To some respects, whatever deal finally emerges from Copenhagen makes little difference to China. It believes the burden of slowing down global warming lies with developed nations - not countries that are still tackling poverty. Beijing has set China a target - cutting the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for every unit of GDP by up to 45% - but that goal is voluntary. Premier Wen Jiabao has said that China is committed to achieving that target - and even exceeding it - regardless of what the final Copenhagen agreement is.

    Of course it wasn’t a complete complete waste of time. The Copenhagen Accord brings the existing big polluters together in a single accord with the emerging economies which will produce 90% of the new emissions by 2050. It will list the actions of each nation for all to see. There will certainly be further climate negotiations through the year within the UN climate process and almost certainly in forums like the G20. I doubt however that a conference the scale of Copenhagen will be seen again.

    The key points of the Copenhagen Accord are:

    Temperature Rise

    The need to limit global temperatures rising no more than 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels is recognised. The text shows that 2C is not a formal target, just that the group "recognises the scientific view that" the temperature increase should be held below this figure. A year by which carbon emissions should peak is not identified, a position resisted by some richer developing nations. Countries are asked to set out by 1 February 2010 their pledges for curbing carbon emissions by 2020. However, penalties for any country that fails to meet its promise has not been detailed.

    Financial Aid

    $30bn (£18.5bn) of aid is promised to be delivered to developing nations over the next three years but it has not been clarified which countries will receive aid. A goal of providing $100bn a year by 2020 is outlined to help poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change. The funding will be jointly mobilised by rich countries according to the deal, from a variety of sources: "public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance." The deal also establishes a green climate fund which will support projects in developing countries related to mitigation, adaptation, "capacity building" and technology transfer.

    Emission Pledges

    The emission pledges of rich countries will come under "rigorous, robust and transparent" scrutiny under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Developing countries will submit national reports on their emissions pledges under a method "that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected."


    The implementation of the Copenhagen Accord will be reviewed by 2015. This will take place about a year-and-a-half after the next scientific assessment of the global climate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, if, in 2015, delegates wanted to adopt a new, lower target on global average temperature, such as 1.5C rather than 2C, it would be too late.

    World politics aside, individual action is not to be forgotten or undervalued. Everyone can do their bit, less waste, less consumerism, recycling, walking, cycling etc... One of the interesting bits of ‘tech’ to come out of the conference is the ‘Copenhagen Wheel’. The wheel stores energy every time the cyclist puts on the brakes, and then give that power back to provide a boost when riding uphill or to add a burst of speed in traffic. It extends the range of distance people can cover and makes the whole riding experience smoother so that even steep inclines are no longer a barrier. This ticks off one less excuse for not cycling. Lets hope it hits China soon! Read more about it here


    What do you think about the conference and the outcome?

    Do you think a conference of that scale could ever succeed?

    Finally, is it hypocritical for 45,000 people to travel across the world to talk about global warming?

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