COP15: What’s at Stake?

COP15: What’s at Stake?

The most important international summit in history? Given what latest scientific reports tell us about the quickening pace of global warming, the sense of urgency driving attention to the Copenhagen summit is warranted.


The most important international summit in history? Given what the latest scientific reports tell us about the quickening pace of global warming, the sense of urgency driving international attention to the Copenhagen climate change summit is warranted. Yet significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions seem unlikely to come as a result of COP15, which begins December 7 and concludes December 18.

Will a legally binding international treaty emerge from COP15? No. Will negotiations between the 192 nations in attendance produce a “political agreement” to be finalized sometime in 2010 and that world leaders will hold up as confirmation of decisive progress toward addressing global warming? Probably.

Four issues will dominate the negotiations taking place inside Copenhagen’s Bella Center. First, developed nations, such as the United States, must commit to significant reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions. Second, developing countries like India and China will have to reduce the rate at which their emissions increase over the next several decades. Third, developed countries will have to provide clean energy technologies and funding to developing nations as they address the effects of climate change. And, finally, negotiators will have to agree on how to monitor and enforce an international climate agreement.

In the past week, there’s been movement on several of these issues. The world’s leading emitters have all proposed cuts to their emissions. China and India have offered to cut their “carbon intensity”–the amount of carbon they emit relative to their economic output. China has pledged a 40 to 45 percent reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels; India has offered 20 to 25 percent, also by 2020 and using a 2005 baseline. The EU long ago agreed to cut its emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, 30 percent if other leading emitters commit to steep cuts. And Obama has now pledged the United States to a 17 percent reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels, which equals a paltry 4 percent from 1990 levels.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed a development fund for financing clean energy technologies and climate adaptation projects in developing countries. Brown suggested that $10 billion should be made available by 2012, increasing to $50 billion a year by 2020.

These commitments, though, are a far cry from what negotiators from the world’s poorest countries, which are also likely to suffer the most from the impacts of global warming, are looking for. Last month, during preparatory negotiations in Barcelona, representatives from African nations held a daylong boycott of climate talks because developed nations did not pledge to reduce their emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, a level consistent with recommendations made by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Brown’s development fund proposal is merely enough, says Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN’s climate change body, to kick-start developing countries’ adaptation. And Brown’s offer is far less then the $200 to $300 billion that others say is necessary. How negotiators from Africa, the Association of Small Island States, and the Least Developed Countries bloc responded to this new round of offers will determine how negotiations proceed over the next two weeks.

Critical issues related to deforestation–Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, in conference parlance–and to cap and trade will also be hashed out in Copenhagen. Though these issues may not receive the public scrutiny that emissions cuts or financing schemes receive, they are of primary importance. Deforestation accounts for 20 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Cap and trade, the primary strategy being proposed for reducing emissions, may become a $3 trillion speculative market by 2020, and many climate campaigners question its utility in reducing emissions.

While negotiators, NGO observers and UN representatives debate these issues inside the climate conference, thousands of people from far and wide will be taking to the streets of Copenhagen in protest. Groups such as Climate Justice Action, Friends of the Earth, Camp for Climate Action, and Greenpeace are backing actions that target corporate institutions and international leaders on the issue of climate change. Although unified in their concerns over the impacts of global warming, there are broad strategic differences among climate change activists over what the outcome of the talks should be. Some say that a flawed agreement is better than no agreement. Others, most prominently NASA scientist James Hansen, argue that the current course of negotiations does little to adequately curb global emissions and relies solely on a market-driven cap-and-trade scheme.

What transpires in the negotiating rooms at COP15 will have a tremendous impact on whether there is a massive culling of the human population over the next several decades. But the social movements taking to the streets of Copenhagen will also have an important impact on this likelihood. Ten years ago, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Seattle, shutting down the World Trade Organization summit and dramatically shifting the terms of debate around capitalist globalization. The dynamic between what occurs on the streets of Copenhagen and in the negotiating rooms of Copenhagen’s Bella Center promises to be just as historic.

So stay tuned to The Nation‘s coverage as we bring you updates several times a day from inside the Bella Center and from the front lines of the protests.

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