utside the Bella Center, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, stands a solitary wind turbine. Come early December, the machine is likely to become the most famous symbol of renewable energy in the world, or certainly the most talked about. Why? Because at that time the Bella Center will host key United Nations talks that aim to secure a new global deal to tackle the threat of global warming. If the talks succeed, then the convention center’s wind turbine will launch a thousand news reports that claim it points the way to a low-carbon future. If they fail, the windmill will stand only as a silent witness to a vital chance missed. Perhaps the last chance.
The December talks are the latest round of negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The series of annual talks can trace its roots to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and in 1997 it spawned the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only existing treaty aimed at restricting the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming. The first phase of Kyoto expires in 2012, and there is nothing yet lined up to replace it. For a seamless transition, and to give nations enough time to ratify a new treaty, analysts say pens must probably be put to paper on a new agreement in Copenhagen. To head off the worst of global warming, scientists say the world needs to slash its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, which would mean an 80 percent cut for developed countries. The Copenhagen talks will attempt to make progress toward that goal. Europe wants them to set targets of 25 to 40 percent reductions by 2020 for rich nations.
A failure to agree on a new deal could spell disaster for emerging carbon markets, which are viewed as one of the only large-scale mechanisms available to cut emissions. Investment in clean technology and renewable energy could stall, and the much-vaunted road to a low-carbon economy could be blocked indefinitely.
A new global deal on climate also offers the best chance for launching a large-scale effort to address carbon emissions from deforestation, which accounts for one-fifth of all heat-trapping gasses released into the atmosphere each year. Forests were excluded from carbon-trading schemes set up under Kyoto, but the issue is firmly back on the agenda. It was reintroduced to the UNFCCC process at talks in Montreal in 2005 by the governments of Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea, supported by eight others. Two years later, on the Indonesian holiday isle of Bali, addressing emissions from deforestation was formally included in the action plan that kick-started the talks to produce a new treaty in Copenhagen. The decision was hailed as a step forward, but was light on detail. And if there is one thing the UNFCCC process likes, it is detail.
How much greenhouse gas is produced when different types of forest are felled? How do sustainable management and conservation change these emissions? How do changes in forest cover alter carbon stocks? The UNFCCC wants answers to these questions, and many more, before it allows forest management to be part of whatever emerges from Copenhagen. (One of these management schemes is REDD—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation—discussed at length elsewhere in this special report, in Rhett Butler, "Big REDD.") Whether such efforts are funded through bilateral donations to tropical nations from their richer colleagues in the West or through carbon-credit schemes that reward individual projects, the process will only be trusted if experts can agree on the scale of likely benefits.
The UNFCCC has thrown these questions to its expert advisory group, which is drafting an early text of the Copenhagen treaty. The experts will also say how much they expect it will cost to implement and monitor such schemes. They will report on how well prepared tropical countries are to participate, and identify technical or institutional capacity gaps that must be plugged. All of this information will be absorbed by the UNFCCC process, which must crystallize from it a rule book on which countries can agree in December.
It has not been plain sailing so far. When climate negotiations resumed for the first time since Bali in December 2008, in the Polish city of Poznan, hopes were high that agreement on deforestation offered a relatively easy win for nations eager to prove they were taking climate change seriously. In fact, the discussions were quickly soured by an argument about the deletion of a reference to the rights of indigenous people in the draft text, for which campaigners blamed New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Amid protests and accusations, no decision was reached. The issue will be revisited in Bonn.
Under the UNFCCC rules, all countries must agree on everything for the Copenhagen meeting to produce a new treaty, which means the fate of a forest management scheme is tied to wider agreement in Copenhagen.
o, what are the chances of such an agreement being signed in the Danish capital? To be considered a success, British officials say that besides serious short-term targets for all rich countries, including the U.S., a new deal will need some signal from large developing nations such as China that they will endeavor to reduce their own emissions. In the jargon of the UNFCCC, this discussion, the most politically loaded of all, is known as "a shared vision on long-term cooperative action on climate change."
In reality, few nations share any kind of vision when it comes to action on climate change. The world has changed since Kyoto was negotiated: the booming Chinese economy has seen the country overtake the United States as the world’s largest polluter, traditional divides between the rich world and the poor world are crumbling, and the failure of Kyoto to make any meaningful dent in emissions has given ammunition to those opposed to a sequel. Meanwhile, the warnings from the scientists have become more urgent and the consequences of inaction painted in even starker terms.
Although other nations, India chief among them, will be big players on the Copenhagen stage, the search for a new climate treaty has been described as a straight fight between the United States and China. For a new deal to succeed, both countries must be included. China wants the U.S. to acknowledge its responsibilities, while the U.S. points out that Western efforts to cut emissions will be pointless if Chinese emissions soar as predicted, and wants China to at least make an effort. For them to sign up in Copenhagen, both will want to be able to claim victory.
Many are hoping that President Obama will break this deadlock. The United States signed Kyoto, but President Clinton never submitted it for ratification to a hostile Senate, which made it clear it would oppose on economic grounds any deal that did not set binding targets for the developing world—code for China. President Bush distanced the U.S. further from what he called a "flawed treaty."
One problem for those trying to broker the Copenhagen deal is the consequent twin-track nature of the talks. Because the United States is outside the Kyoto process, a new world agreement to include the U.S. must be discussed separately from efforts to extend Kyoto beyond 2012. Why not scrap Kyoto and work on something totally new for everybody? The developing world has voiced fears that rich countries would use that as a chance to escape from Kyoto’s existing binding targets.
The U.S. may be forced to blink first, but Obama’s team will not want a repeat of Kyoto and will sign something only if they know it can be converted into domestic law. That means building support in Congress and preparing a federal cap-and-trade system, which would almost certainly be the route chosen to meet any future U.S. carbon targets. Opinion is divided on whether such legislation needs to pass before December. Domestic targets in the United States would send a positive signal, but they might tie the hands of the U.S. negotiators in Copenhagen.
Western officials insist that the Chinese leadership is more aware of climate change than they are often given credit for. The country is still likely to resist binding targets, but it knows some pledge of future action will be needed to appease the U.S. and give President Obama the political room he needs. Last year China floated the idea that rich countries pay 0.7 percent of their GDP to poorer ones to help them adapt to the effects of global warming. The developed world is unlikely to agree to this, but some see the Chinese move as a positive step toward a meaningful negotiation.
One route to draw the Chinese into a Copenhagen deal could be for the West to agree that large developing nations can work to reduce their anticipated future growth in emissions—known as business as usual (BAU). The European Union has floated cuts, known as "diversions," from BAU of 15 to 30 percent for China and others by 2020 or so.
Elsewhere, India has taken a hard line so far and regularly voices its opposition to legally binding targets. But it has indicated that it would be willing to work to keep its growing per capita emissions below those of industrialized countries. Brazil, another key country, has pledged to cut deforestation 70 percent within a decade, saving a potential 4.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
With the talks heading toward the finish line, there remains much to do, and many senior figures in the field of climate change are already privately playing down the chances of a breakthrough at Copenhagen. The talks have come too soon for the new Obama administration, they warn. Others are pessimistic about the chances of serious targets being set, never mind being met. The preparatory meetings may help clear the table, but the serious emissions targets that will form the backbone of a new treaty are unlikely to appear until the closing days of the Copenhagen meeting.
Only short-term emissions goals are likely to drive the necessary political and technology changes. To make that happen, a whole string of supporting decisions on adaptation, financing, and technology transfer are needed as well.
It’s a big ask, and some are already warning it may not be possible—especially given the current worldwide financial woes. For all the talk of Copenhagen being the finishing line, the talks could be allowed to slide into next year. There is too much at stake to call the whole thing a failure in December. The Bella Center’s wind turbine could yet see further action. And the fight to reduce emissions by protecting the world’s forests may have to wait just a little longer.
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