Copenhagen 2009: An A-Z Guide


CLIMATE CHANGE SUMMIT: A is for ARCANE– the arcane world of negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted by acclamation at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It spawned conferences of the parties (COPs), held annually so that the issue would never slide off the international agenda. Copenhagen is “COP 15”, it will go on for two full weeks and is expected to attract up to 17,000 participants from 192 countries.

The location of this travelling circus – as some might see it – changes from year to year, including such exotic places as Bali and Marrakech, and not so exotic ones like Montreal and Poznan. But everywhere it goes, the drill remains the same – a seemingly endless round of talks that ebb and flow, culminating in a “high-level segment” for the final three days, when environment ministers and even heads of state or government join the jamboree.

Anyone arriving for the first time would be totally bewildered. All the hard bargaining takes place in private, at meetings of ad hoc groups or smaller contact groups dealing with different issues. The process is mysterious, secretive and so obscure in some areas that only a handful of experts know what’s really going on.

B is for the BALI ACTION PLAN,which set out the “road map” to get us to Copenhagen. Adopted amid high drama at COP 13 on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali in December 2007, it called for two years of negotiations “to reach an agreed outcome and adopt a decision at its 15th session”. The resolution referred to the scientific evidence for global warming as “unequivocal” and said that delay in reducing greenhouse gas emissions “increases the risk of more severe climate change impacts”.

C is for CHINA.Previously known for repeating the refrain that developed countries that got rich from burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution owed it to the rest of the world to cut their emissions, China was recently hailed by UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer (see below) as a “world leader” in combating climate change. This remarkable transformation happened after the penny dropped among the Chinese leadership that their own country was being hit by global warming – aggravated in part by the environmentally unsustainable way in which it was developing with a new coal-fired power station being commissioned every other month. By last year, China was fourth in the world in terms of installed windpower capacity. It has also set a target of generating 30,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. And because the country is run by a totalitarian regime, the likelihood is that this ambitious target will be achieved.

D is for DENIERS,those who deny that climate change is happening. They’ve become increasingly vocal, seizing on every opportunity to debunk the scientific consensus – such as the e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit’s e-mails.

Botanist David Bellamy, who used to believe that climate change was the biggest threat facing humanity, now claims that it’s “a completely natural thing” related to sun spots. Or Lord (Nigel) Lawson, former British chancellor of the exchequer, who insists that it is not such a threat and efforts to stop it are both wrong-headed and dangerous. Or right-wing columnist Christopher Booker, who claims that “not a single item on the list of apocalyptic predictions we have been fed for so long” had turned out to be true.

Climate change denial is at its most hysterical in the US, where many on the right see the UNFCCC as a conspiracy by leftists and foreigners to impose a “world government” on freethinking Americans.

This is all grist-to-the-mill for powerful vested interests in the oil and coal industries, who held sway in the Bush White House, where independent reports on climate change were “doctored” to minimise its dangers. In 2007, it was revealed that the American Enterprise Institute – which has received funding from Exxon-Mobil – had offered sceptics in the scientific community a fee of $10,000 each to debunk the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC).

E is for the EUROPEAN UNION, which has long claimed a leadership role in the climate talks. In December of last year, a full year ahead of Copenhagen, the EU agreed to cut its overall emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 – and offered to boost this to 30 per cent if other developed countries were prepared to follow its example. It has also pioneered the development of carbon markets.

There is no doubt, however, that the EU’s stance has been weakened since enlargement to 27 member states; many of the newer ones fear that an unfair burden could be placed on them to meet these targets and provide aid for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. At the Barcelona talks last month, EU sources said it could take another 12 months to reach agreement on what might replace the Kyoto protocol on climate change (see below).

F is for the FOURTH ASSESSMENT REPORT OF THE IPCC, issued in 2007. Not only did this report – drafted by some 3,000 scientists, meteorologists and other experts all over the world – state that the evidence for global warming was “unequivocal”, but it also said emissions from developed countries would have to be cut by 25-40 per cent by 2020 if there was to be any chance of limiting the rise in average surface temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius.

The IPCC projected an increase of 1 to 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 – something that has never happened during the past 10,000 years. Its best estimate of sea level rise was 50cm over the same period, although it could be as high as 1 metre or as low as 15cm. The scientists also warned that once the process was set into motion, it could not be slowed down in less than a few millennia.

Since the IPCC’s latest assessment was published, the evidence has hardened. Over the last decade, global average temperatures have been increasing at a slower rate, although eight of the 10 warmest years on record occurred in the period since 2000.

More alarmingly, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting at a faster rate than was estimated in 2007, and both the surface area and thickness of Arctic summer sea ice are decreasing.

G is for G77,the group that represents 132 developing countries at the UN. A disparate collection, they include some of the poorest nations on Earth as well as vulnerable small island states, wealthy oil-exporting counties and others with major economies, such as India and Brazil. Currently chaired by Sudan’s ambassador, Stanislaus Lumumba, it is a force to be reckoned with in the negotiations.

In Barcelona last month, he made in clear that the G77 wants a fair and legally-binding agreement to emerge from Copenhagen and does not want to see the Kyoto protocol killed off. Suggestions that the summit might only produce a “political agreement” were dismissed out of hand by Lumumba. “Tell me of any politician who delivered on his political manifesto. Is it Gordon Brown? Is it Kevin Rudd?” Within the G77 is the 53-strong African group. .

H is for “HOT AIR”, the surplus emissions credits held by Russia and other eastern European countries that could flood carbon markets, if they are allowed into the system. Known in the trade as AAUs (assigned amount units), these credits – amounting to millions of tonnes of CO2 – were built up as a result of the collapse of Soviet-style industry can be bought by other countries seeking to offset their own emissions. Russia, which plays an almost invisible role in the climate negotiations, will want to hold on to this potentially lucrative revenue stream.

I is for the small, low-lying ISLAND NATIONSvulnerable to sea-level rise, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives. Twenty years ago, 403 of them formed a group called AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) to press for urgent action on climate change. Ably chaired by Grenada ambassador Dessima Williams, they complain that developed countries lack the political will to tackle it. At Copenhagen, AOSIS will be demanding that they sign up to new targets under the Kyoto protocol or a new treaty that would “bind all countries”.

J is for JETand other “bunker” fuels, which escaped inclusion in Kyoto, even though it is estimated that emissions from aviation and shipping account for over 1 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum – and growing. Known as bunker fuels because they can’t be assigned to individual countries, they are now likely to be drawn into the net, with a deadline set for both the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation to come up with proposals on how they should be treated in future.

K is for the KYOTO PROTOCOL, the only legally-binding international treaty on climate change. Adopted in 1997 at COP 3 in Kyoto, it set modest targets for 37 developed countries – known as Annex 1 parties – to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent overall relative to 1990 levels in the period 2008-2012. That “first commitment period” seemed quite faraway then, but we’re in it now.

It also took a long time to work out the details, and it wasn’t until 2005 that the protocol finally came into force when Russia ratified it. Despite being spurned by the US in 2001, the protocol has been quite effective in reducing emissions, particularly in Europe – although this is due in part to the current economic recession. What’s at issue now is whether it should be renewed by a “second commitment period” (ie after 2012) or replaced by a new treaty under the UNFCCC.

L is for LULUCF(land use, land use change and forestry). This little understood provision in the Kyoto protocol allows developed countries to meet their emission reduction commitments by engaging in “LULUCF activities” – principally afforestation. It also permits the management of forests, revegetation and even grazing land to be included in the accounting exercise, based on a recognition of their value as “carbon sinks”. This is an area that only experts can fathom.

M is for MRV, the measurement, reporting and verification of what countries promise to do under Kyoto or any new treaty. One of the key paragraphs of the Bali Action Plan – the one to which the US objected until the last minute – called for “measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives, by all developed country parties, while ensuring the comparability of efforts among them, taking into account differences in their national circumstances”.

N is for NAMAs,an acronym for “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” by developing countries. It was included in another key paragraph of the Bali Action Plan, calling on them to take such measures “in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner”. In other words, and crucially, NAMAs do not require developing countries to adopt “quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives”; the actions they take are voluntary, rather than mandatory. And, of course, it would fall to developed countries to provide whatever technology, financing and capacity-building they may need.

O is for OVERSEAS AIDto enable developing countries both to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to pursue more environmentally sustainable economic growth paths. It raises the thorny issue of who should pay – and how much. But even EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas has said repeatedly that without money on the table, no agreement can be reached. “No money – no deal” has been his catch phrase. The EU has estimated that developed countries would contribute a total of €22-€50 billion a year, of which it would provide €2 billion to €15 billion.

But Oxfam International complained that even the higher figure of €50 billion per year was “less than half of what developing countries need to adapt to harmful climate change and pursue low-carbon futures”, and it called on the EU to pledge at least €35 billion annually to a €110 billion “global climate fund”.

P is for POPULATION GROWTH. Although the world’s population is heading inexorably towards seven billion and the clear link between this increasing trend and the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, this issue is ignored in the climate talks – mainly because it’s too controversial. As Sustainable Population Australia notes in its submission for COP 15, population growth and rising emissions have “moved in virtual lock step” since 1970.

“UN population projections indicate a 50 per cent increase in global population [by 2050]. Thus, even if average global per capita emissions were cut by 30 per cent, total emissions would remain unchanged”, it says. But the sheer numbers of human beings exceed the Earth’s “carrying capacity” will continue to be ignored as an issue by climate negotiators on all sides.

Q is for “GENERATION Q”, as New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman has dubbed it. He meant “Quiet Americans in the best sense of that term, quietly pursuing their idealism, at home and abroad”, arguing that “America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what twenty-somethings are for – to light a fire under the country.”

There are a lot of idealistic young people, not just in the US, who are lighting fires under their countries these days, and also under the climate talks. They’re best exemplified by the TckTckTck campaign and, which is seeking commitments from world leaders to cut CO2 emissions to a “safe level” of 350 parts per million (it’s about 385 ppm today). Founded by Bill McKibben, it staged over 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries in support of this target during a “day of action” on October 24th and it is planning a series of candlelight vigils at “iconic and strategic locations” around the world on Saturday, December 12th.

R is for RAINFORESTS and REDD(reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation). The REDD programme is intended to help a large number of developing countries protect their remaining rainforests and reduce the estimated 18 to 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions attributed to deforestation, forest degradation and peatland destruction.

Prospects for a credible deal on this front are still unclear, however. The latest negotiating text released in Barcelona last month, contains no provisions to monitor how developing countries would spend the funding under REDD, nor any explicit language that would ensure protection of intact natural forests.

REDD is being championed by Kevin Conrad, Papua New Guinea’s climate change envoy and director of the Coalition of Rainforest Countries, who made a name for himself at the final session of the Bali climate conference when he attacked the US, saying that if it was not willing to lead, it should “leave it to the rest of us [and] get out of the way”. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, leading the US delegation to relent and “join the consensus”.

S is for SAUDI ARABIA, which regards an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen as a threat to its lucrative oil trade – unless it receives compensation for loss of revenue from any adaptation fund. But oil production is peaking anyway, if it hasn’t already, so it is obvious that the desert kingdom will lose out in the end. In the past, the Saudi delegation at climate conferences worked in close collaboration with the likes of Don Pearlman, a silver-haired Washington lawyer who sought to obstruct, or at least delay, progress; a chain-smoker, he died from lung cancer in 2005. In his heyday, Pearlman was dubbed “King of the Carbon Club”. Members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries – Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela – meet regularly during the talks to co-ordinate their positions.

T is for TARGETS TO CUT CO2 EMISSIONS– both mid-term and long-term. Last July, the G8 group of big economies pledged to reduce their emissions by 50 per cent by 2050, saying the rise in average global surface temperatures “ought not” to exceed 2 degrees Celsius. But the G8 leaders failed to specify any target for 2020. It is, of course, much easier for politicians to commit themselves to long-term targets; they are not going to be around when the reckoning comes. Commitment to mid-term targets, to be achieved in just 10 years, is a much more difficult proposition. Which makes it really remarkable that Norway has set a target to cut its emissions by a whopping 40 per cent by 2020; that shows real political will.

U is for the UNITED STATES, which has traditionally played a ‘bad guy’ role in the climate negotiations. But the familiar faces of Harlan Watson, an oil man to his fingertips, and Paula Dobriansky, who could easily pass herself off as one of Tom Wolfe’s “perfectly emaciated” New York socialites, have now been replaced. Barack Obama’s delegation is headed by Todd Stern, a veteran of the Clinton White House who represented the US at the Kyoto summit, and Jonathan Pershing, who was previously director of the World Resources Institute’s climate programme.

The intense Dr Pershing (he holds a PhD in geology and geophysics) has been handling most of the negotiations over the past year, and he can rattle off figures like a walking abacus. He has made it clear repeatedly that the US favours a new treaty under which both developed and major developing countries (China and India, for example) would pledge to reduce their emissions over time, reporting progress in a transparent way, but without any penalties to ensure compliance.

Just 10 days ago, the US pledged a cut of 17 per cent by 2020, relative to 2005 levels. However, this translates into a reduction of only 5 or 6 per cent (at best), if 1990 is taken as the base year. Thus, it falls far short of the unilateral cut of 20 per cent pledged by the EU. President Obama’s late decision to attend the final day of the summit when other world leaders will be there offers some hope that some deal will be brokered on emissions cuts.

V is for VULNERABLE REGIONS– particularly Africa, Bangladesh and south east Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the poorest regions of the world, is already affected by the impact of climate change; indeed, some claim that this is the root cause of conflicts in the region. Prolonged drought and flash flooding are threatening the livelihoods of farmers as well as causing malnutrition and famine. It is deeply ironic, of course, that the first victims of global warming are among the poorest people on Earth, including many living on a dollar a day.

W is for the WORLD WILDLIFE FUNDand all the other environmental NGOs (non-governmental organisations) which have doggedly monitored, participated in and protested at the climate talks over the years. Without the close involvement of green NGOs (known as “Gringos”) such as the Climate Action Network, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace International and others, there would be much less pressure on the negotiators to reach an agreement. But NGOs are not always on the side of the angels. Some of the business NGOs (known as “Bingos”), notably the US Chamber of Commerce, are lobbying in the opposite direction against an agreement to reduce emissions.

X is for CLIMATE “X”-CHANGE,or carbon trading, one of Kyoto’s “flexible mechanisms” for compliance with CO2 reduction targets. Although slow to take off, it has now become well-established – especially in the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which came into operation on January 1st, 2005. A similar “cap-and-trade” system may be introduced in the US, after senators finally deal with the Kerry-Boxer Bill on energy security and climate change “sometime in the spring”. It has the support of many leading American corporations, including DuPont and General Electric. The idea is that by putting a price on carbon, energy-intensive companies will have an incentive to cut emissions by adopting cleaner technologies. Carbon trading could also generate funds to aid developing countries.

Y is for YVO DE BOER, the Dutch diplomat who has been serving as executive secretary of the UNFCCC since 2006. A man who always pauses before answering questions and rarely loses his cool, he has let the mask drop just once – when he broke down on at the final plenary session in Bali, after being accused of rigging the negotiations; this led to him being dubbed as the “crying Dutchman”. He has described himself and his team both as “the butlers of the process” – expert, but unobtrusive – and also as “the conscience of the process”, constantly stressing the need to reach agreement.

Z is for ZERO or ZILCH– what might be achieved at Copenhagen. There is now general acceptance that no treaty will be miraculously produced at COP 15 and that it could take another 12 months to conclude, most probably at COP 16 in Mexico next December. Yet the momentum created by a worldwide “seal the deal” campaign has forced countries to confront the issue and put numbers on the table. The most probable outcome, however, is a “political agreement” on the need to take action and to finalise negotiations by the end of 2010.