On To Copenhagen | December 7, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 49 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 49 | p. 7 | News of The Week
Issue Date: December 7, 2009

On To Copenhagen

Climate Change: World leaders to hammer out global response to limit greenhouse gases
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: climate change
Copenhagen’s Bella Center is home to the UN Climate Change Summit, which has drawn world leaders such as President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Credit: Newscom
Copenhagen’s Bella Center is home to the UN Climate Change Summit, which has drawn world leaders such as President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Credit: Newscom

A much-anticipated international climate-change meeting opens on Dec. 7 in Copenhagen, with countries poised to hash out thorny issues that are blocking completion of a new global treaty.

The gathering will run thorough Dec. 18 and was supposed to produce a finished agreement to address human-induced global warming. But organizers and observers have toned down their expectations. They now hope the meeting can generate a unified political promise from world leaders, which would lay the groundwork for completion of a binding accord in 2010.

Governments must clarify three contentious matters, however, before negotiations can produce a treaty, says Yvo de Boer, the United Nations’ top climate official and organizer of the Copenhagen meeting.

First, de Boer says, leaders must decide how much and by when the industrialized world will limit its greenhouse gas emissions. In the past, a major roadblock was the U.S.’s unwillingness to propose a cut. However, President Barack Obama effectively cleared the way last month when he announced that the U.S. would propose a 17% reduction by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

Second, de Boer says, major emerging economies—notably those of China, India, and Brazil—must determine how much they will control their emissions. These nations have been reluctant to agree to voluntary limits if the U.S., historically the world’s top emitter, shuns binding international commitments to cut its releases.

The third matter, according to de Boer, is how much financing industrialized nations will be willing to pony up to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to climate change. He says an international consensus is emerging that $10 billion is required between now and 2012, and a path to long-term funding needs to be laid.

In the days running up to the meeting, China and India took steps to come to Copenhagen with domestic commitments.

China, for instance, pledged to reduce the “intensity” or energy used per unit of its gross domestic product by 40 to 45% by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. India offered to cut its intensity by 20 to 25% by 2020, compared with 2005.

What that means in terms of actual tons of reduced emissions, however, is difficult to calculate. A Chinese-government news agency estimates that the goal would make China’s emissions in 2020 roughly equivalent to today’s level.

But this pledge is voluntary, several members of Congress pointedly note, and is unlikely to cut overall emissions because of China’s expected economic growth.

De Boer stresses, though, that China’s proposal could provide about a quarter of the overall anthropogenic emission cuts needed to keep global temperature rise below a goal of 2 °C.

The Natural Resources Defense Council calls China’s pledge a starting place. “This is more than we have ever seen before from China,” says Barbara Finamore, NRDC China’s program director. “Only a year ago, this was unthinkable.” She stresses, however, that the devil will be in the details because the program is yet to be implemented.

Taken with Obama’s announcement, China’s pledge provides additional momentum for the negotiations by signaling that the world’s two largest emitters—which together account for about half of all global greenhouse gas releases—want to make Copenhagen a success, Finamore adds.

Although some observers say talks occurring beyond Copenhagen next year could finish a treaty in mid-2010, others anticipate they will culminate at a global meeting in Mexico City next December.

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