Copenhagen preview: how will world leaders find agreement among the cracks in the heating asphalt?

Publish date: December 5, 2009

NEW YORK – As the scientific community has come to a consensus that global warming is anthropogenic, arising from human driven forest clear cutting, man-made emissions from the power, oil and transport industries, and that furthermore, many of the cures to what ails the world are literally in hand, one might ask why it is so difficult for world leaders to come to an agreement on what to do to curb these harmful activities.

Electric cars are becoming the new emblems of Hollywood, and in some cases, Royal status, and hybrids are already becoming the hottest selling items in road-bound America; carbon capture and storage is being test implemented in Norway and Germany; solar and wind power are as available to be deployed in some parts of the world as coal, and breakthroughs in biomass and hydroelectric energy are already part of the political vocabulary of most European nations. What’s the hold up?

The answer lies somewhere among the maze of fault lines in the debate that will be vividly on display as the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit, or COP15, kids off on Monday, December 7th and runs through December 18th.

Ambitious politicians and walk out scientists
So critical is it that the issues standing before the world get a swift kick in the pants to move forward that President Obama Friday rescheduled his initial plans to speak at the summit on December 9th to December 18th, when most of the major movers and shakers will be hammering out the political outlines of what floats to the top of the negotiations – hopefully in the form of some framework agreement to sign a legally binding treaty within the next couple of years.

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t move from Obama, but has been hailed as a good decision by diplomats, who had been dissatisfied that Obama would just be dropping by while in the neigbourhood on December 10th to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo – which was awarded mainly as a carrot on the end of the stick to prod him forward in his climate efforts.

Obama had said he would come to the summit if his appearance would help tip the scales in favour of major progress. Evidently he is now cognizant that he should live up to that promise in a meaningful way.

In the meantime, James Hansen, a NASA scientist and one of the main gurus of climate change who has argued its human origins to the UN for 20 years, told The Guardian that the Copenhagen talks are so flawed from the outset it would be better if they failed.

Dr Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, said there should be no compromise, comparing the need to stand firm with Churchill’s stance against the Nazis and Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery.

Dr Hansen said he would prefer the talks to “not happen” because they were “a disaster track” for future generations.

“The whole approach is so fundamentally wrong that it is better to reassess the situation,” he told The Guardian.

“If it is going to be the Kyoto-type thing then [people] will spend years trying to determine exactly what that means – this is analagous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill,” he said.

He added: “On those kinds of issues you cannot compromise. You can’t say let’s reduce slavery, let’s find a compromise and reduce it 50 percent or reduce it 40 per cent.”

Hansen also faulted Obama and Al Gore – who has since cancelled a highly paid lecture to Copenhagen – with failing failed to meet what he said was the moral challenge of our age.

“We don’t have a leader who is able to grasp it and say what is really needed. Instead we are trying to continue business as usual,” he said.

But busniess must enter the equation, says Bellona

Bellona President Frederic Hauge struck a more sanguine note, saying, “We know that what will emerge from Copenhagen will not be good enough, but we are hoping for some building blocks toward future climate work,” he said. “It is important that we see the climate fight from two perspectives: both the international climate change negotiations, and from the perspective of businesses, which we need to go ahead and accept responsibility.”

As the climate summit will not produce a legally binding agreement, Hauge said that it is essential that negotiators lay the ground work for one to be put in place as soon as possible. At the same time, Bellona belives industry must be drawn into the equaton in order to ensure investment in climate friendly energy. Hauge said he looks forward to “showcasing some of the solutions we have worked out together with business and industry,” emphasising solutions in ship traffic, carbon caputure and storage, electric cars, energy efficiency of cities, with a special nod to Norway’s Trondheim ‘Smart City’ experiment, which is aiming to reduce the city’s energy use by 20 percent with no effect on the city’s standard of living.

Obama hobbled by Congressional albatross
In fairness to Obama, he can only act as fast as Congress, and even though he has already committed American to a 17 percent drop below 2005 emissions – a laudable feat after eight years of the Bush Administration’s cotton-stuffed ears on global warming – US climate legislation is still tied up in the Senate, which it is not expected to vote on it until next year.  

Organisers of the summit had initially hoped emerge from the talks with an internationally binding emissions deal and help countries most threatened by rising sea waters and temperatures.

Those expectations have been in recent weeks significantly lowered. The divisions between nations are such that world leaders agreed last month to put off resolving the most contentious issues until next year in Mexico at COP16. They will try instead to reach a nonbinding interim agreement in Copenhagen, then work toward a binding treaty in 2010.

Preview from the chill
What will happen in Copenhagen’s early winter chill – a weather factoid not missed by wags and detractors of the global warming theory – remains to be seen, and to say that there is little consensus going into the talks is an understatement.

Here is a preview of the themes and cracks that will run through the summit.

Rich against poor
For the past two years, arguments among negotiators have centred around who should pay for what, and when they should pay.

The long ignored third world portions of the world that are already being hit hard by climate change argue that they are more vulnerable to changes in temperature, and have little or no resources to adapt to changes in the growing seasons or increased rainfall or — in the worst case — to relocate large numbers of people, if not entire populations.

This from of migration has long been the African experience. And the developed world even got a taste of it in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which displaced more than 1 million people, who have still not been able to return to their homes.
The third world is pushing the rich world to commit to far deeper emissions cuts than they already have, and to provide them with cash and technology so they can prepare for the worst and develop a clean energy infrastructure for themselves.
The rich world is meanwhile busy trying to hash out just how to calculate the cost of all of this – while estimates run into abstract figures of trillions of dollars – and how to divide the bill.

Rich against rich
This is the point where post-industrial economies like the United States and Europe, which became prosperous by burning carbon-dioxide-emitting fossil fuels, face off against industrializing economies like China, Brazil and India, which resent pressure put on them by the EU and United States to decarbonize their energy systems now that they, too, are finally growing.

The standoff between China and the United States highlights the issues. The global trade rivals were reluctant to commit to emissions targets until each had an idea of what the other planned. The two countries together are responsible for 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But all players have been eyeing each other like fidgety bare-knuckle boxers.

In recent weeks, the bidding opened, with Brazil, then the United States, followed by China and, last week, India, to offer individual emissions goals. But they have used different criteria by which to measure their reductions, making it nearly impossible to determine whether there is parity among any of them.

Europe against Europe
Even though the EU has postured itself as being at the vanguard of renewable energy development and emissions reduction through its carbon trading scheme – a point many diplomats have grown tired of having their noses rubbed in –  it is struggling internally over each nation’s carbon quotas, how much to assist developing countries and its own faithfulness to the emissions reductions agreed to in 1997 under the Kyoto Protocol.

While Europe as a whole is on track to meet its goal of an 8 percent reduction over 1990 emissions levels by 2012, not every country has pulled its weight. The nations that are most unlikely to meet their individual Kyoto targets include Italy, Spain – and Denmark, the cradle of any potential gains.
Poland and Estonia, meanwhile, have been bickering with the European Commission over the amount of carbon dioxide the two countries should be allowed to emit. Both rely heavily on coal for electricity. This is foreseen as a problem with other former Soviet Bloc nations.

For its part, Russia, the world’s third largest emitter since 1998, is arguing that the bonanza of carbon quotas it has left over from the initial Kyoto Protocol should roll over into any new agreement. It is a matter of national pride to Moscow to weigh in with 34 percent less than Kyoto, which had aimed for 20 to 25 percent below 1990 levels.

The incredible figures Russia is posting are the result of total industrial collapse after the break up of the Soviet Union. Critics are saying those carbon credits should be tossed, as they were achieved by no effort by Moscow to hold down emissions, and they are right – emissions have grown 15 percent since 1998.  

But the Kremlin arugues that it earned those credits through the economic hardships of the 1990s. Under former President Vladimir Putin’s industrial upswing in oil.

Enter Russia’s current President Dmitry Medvedev, who proposed last week that Russia will continue to maintain a 20 to 25 percent bellow 1990 emissions standard.  But this is something of a red herring, as it will allow the country’s emissions to grow by 9 to 14 percent from its low point of 34 percent below its Kyoto obligations.

Medvedev & Co. have further outlined no credible plans as yet as to how to achieve this stabilisation in emissions, while the country’s levels are by most estimates set to blow off the roof in coming years, for a total growth to 5 to 6 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2012, according to Anna Korppoo, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Oil and OPEC against clean energy
Oil-producing nations are worried about the impact of a global climate deal, and they have increasingly argued that any agreement that would reduce reliance on fossil fuels should include compensation for their lost revenues, the New York Times recently reported.  

Saudi Arabia has spearheaded this argument, and while environmental groups and other stakeholders have dismissed the notion as a stunt, oil producers are not without the ability to muddle the coming negotiations.

Meanwhile, developers of wind, solar and other renewable technologies anticipate a windfall if the community of nations — including mega-polluters like the United States — agree to a binding climate treaty. So, too, do global banks, which would presumably bring home a fat Christmas ham with an expanded carbon trading market.

The upshot will be that an army of lobbyists from both sides of the equation will be spit-shining shoes and taking out the dry cleaning for delegates over the next two weeks.

Carbon tax or carbon trade
Many experts argue that the only way to tackle climate change is to put a price on carbon. Some say the best way to do that is to create a cap-and-trade system, in which industries are issued permits to emit carbon dioxide up to a certain level known as a cap.

Companies that emit below the cap can then sell their permits on a carbon market, where companies exceeding the cap will, presumably, buy them so they can continue to pollute. The total number of permits would not exceed an overall emissions target.

Europe has had an emissions trading scheme since 2005. Some critics argue, however, that such systems are unnecessarily complicated and prone to manipulation. A simpler solution would be a tax on carbon, they say. One strong proponent of this is US Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one possible gatekeeper to Obama’s climate legislation.

But with the cap-and-trade system forming the foundation of negotiations in Copenhagen, and among legislators in US Congress seeking to pass national climate legislation this spring, the carbon-tax camp has been increasingly marginalized.

Island nations trying to beat the clock
In mid-October, ministers of the government of the Maldives, a low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean, donned scuba gear and held a 30-minute cabinet meeting underwater off the coast of the capital, Malé, the NewYork Times reported then.

The stunt, which seemed antic at first, was designed to highlight the nation’s plight — and that of three-dozen or so other small island and coastal countries — should global warming raise sea levels in the coming decades. Even a modest increase could leave a number of low-lying nations uninhabitable, according to climate research data.

As a group, these countries have been lobbying for an international agreement to keep average temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius – a half a degree lower than that endorsed by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They also want global emissions scaled back by as much as 85 percent by mid-century, the New York Times reported.

The group, which includes a wide range of economies, from relatively well-to-do Singapore to strugglers like Haiti, wins points for being at the front lines of a planetary problem, but its political clout at the negotiating table – like so many other marginalized third world nations that are already feeling the heat – is uncertain, especially where a European agenda is likely to dominate.

Sounding the alarm now versus figuring it out later
That humanity – or more specifically those portions of humanity that have been rich and privileged enough to do so – is fiddling with the knob on the microwave is widely accepted among climatologists. But how quickly things are changing and to what extent and at what location on the map – and at what point all hope is lost – are issues that are less than certain.

In 2008, NASA’s Hansen identified 350 parts per million as the upper limit for safe atmospheric carbon concentration. Current levels are approaching 390 parts per million.

Others argue that there is no reason for panic — nor for what they say is an economy-crushing global climate treaty. They are putting their faith in human ingenuity. One plan, as reported by the Times, suggests a planetary-scale project of blasting seawater into the atmosphere, where is will increase the heat reflectivity of certain clouds. This is somewhat akin to another proposal that may be heard out in Copenhagen, that would suggest international buildings codes compel the roofs of all structures to be painted white, thus deflecting heat back into space.

There are, to be sure, no lack of ingenious – if somewhat nutty sounding – plans afoot. But it is as certain that no one single plan will be enough to resist the two-degree rise limit the IPCC is pushing as it is certain that global leaders must begin making use of all presently available options at their disposal the minute the summit ends.

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