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Emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China
Emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China, fill the air on December 3, 2009. Nearly 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial activities including power generation, waste management, transport, and building operations, while 20 percent come from deforestation, according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Photograph by AP/Andy Wong

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published December 7, 2009

Starting Monday all eyes will be on Copenhagen, Denmark, where world leaders and climate experts will meet at the ten-day UN Climate Change Conference. Their goal: to hash out a new game plan for tackling global warming.

With more than 85 world leaders expected, the Copenhagen climate conference could be the most important world summit since the end of World War II, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development, an independent research institute based in London.

In other words, it's large, and potentially largely confusing. Read on for a breakdown of what the climate conference, nicknamed COP15, is intended to accomplish—and why many experts say there's little time left to act.

Why Might We Need a Climate Deal?

Most scientists agree our climate is in a state of flux. In the past century the global average temperature has risen by about 1.26 degrees Fahrenheit (0.7 degree Celsius).

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said there's a 90 percent likelihood that the increase is due to greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity, such as deforestation and the fossil fuel combustion used to produce energy and run our cars.

(See National Geographic's interactive on the greenhouse effect and global warming.)

A slight spike in temperature has already been linked to drought, heat waves, and storms around the world, according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the organizing body of global climate talks.

(See National Geographic's interactive map of global warming impacts.)

UNFCC experts say recent climate and weather extremes show that there's only a "very narrow window of opportunity" left to stem climate change.

The Copenhagen climate conference will "be the moment in history in which humanity has the opportunity to rise to the challenge," according to the UNFCC.

What Is COP15?

"COP15" acronym is short for the 15th Conference of Parties, or countries, to the UNFCC. COP15 is also the fifth meeting of parties to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding emissions-reduction treaty created in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. The Kyoto agreement aims to reduce global industrial greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels over a five-year period—from 2008 to 2012.

The Kyoto climate treaty, which went into force in 2005, was ratified by 185 nations but not the United States.

(Related: "Australia Signs Kyoto Protocol; U.S. Now Only Holdout.")

Because the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, an "ambitious new deal" needs to be worked out this year to provide governments guidance beyond Kyoto, the UNFCC says.

What Are the Copenhagen Climate Conference's Goals?

The UN Framework on Climate Change aims to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to a level that will not create "dangerous" interference with the climate.

Though there is still debate as to what constitutes "dangerous," the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution was 278 parts per million, contrasted with 381 today.

By 2050 the UNFCC hopes to cut atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations in half, versus 2000 levels.

The Copenhagen climate conference has four achievable goals, according to the UNFCC:

1. Make clear how much developed countries, such as the U.S., Australia, and Japan, will limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Determine how, and to what degree, developing countries, such as China, India, and Brazil, can limit their emissions without limiting economic growth.

3. Explore options for "stable and predictable financing" from developed countries that can help the developing world reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

4. Identify ways to ensure developing countries are treated as equal partners in decision-making, particularly when it comes to technology and finance.

Possible Outcomes of the Climate Conference?

According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, there could be several outcomes to the Copenhagen climate conference, including the following:

1. No agreement: The meeting could result in a decision to resume talks in 2010.

2. Voluntary agreement: The climate conference could yield nonbinding pact that allows each government to decide its own goals and how to reach them. Opponents to this approach argue that targets need to be internationally binding and enforced. Otherwise, they say, reductions will take too long or not happen at all.

3. Binding agreement: A new legally binding agreement, ratified at the December climate conference, could replace Kyoto when the protocol expires in 2012.

How Might Greenhouse Gas Emissions Be Effectively Cut?

Nearly 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial activities including power generation, waste management, transport, and building operations, while 20 percent come from deforestation, according to the UNFCC.

But many experts believe that the cheaper and easier way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation—a strategy called REDD.

Preserving forests may present a faster solution than changing laws to regulate industrial emissions. That's why REDD will be a major focus at the conference as a strategy to reduce emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol did not address tropical deforestation, focusing instead on limiting industrial and vehicle emissions.

Under REDD, developing countries that reduce levels of deforestation would gain credits. Those credits could be sold in international carbon markets to developed nations trying to meet reduction targets.

Some REDD projects are already in place.

For instance, the Nature Conservancy has spearheaded initiatives in Bolivia, Brazil, and Indonesia, among others.

Their REDD program in Indonesia's Berau District has avoided ten million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over a five-year period while protecting wildlife—including orangutans—and improving economic opportunities for local communities, according to the conservancy. In October 2009, Indonesia announced that it will use the conservancy's project as a model for a nationwide REDD program across that country.

In Madagascar, Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society have led an advanced REDD project called the Makira Forest Initiative. The nonprofits train farmers how to produce plentiful crops without cutting down trees. Groups or individuals, including the rock band Pearl Jam, have invested in the Madagascan forest to preserve it as a carbon sink—a region that absorbs carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.

There are other market mechanisms for reducing climate change, such as cap-and-trade.

Under this method, a country will set a cap on its greenhouse gas emissions, a benchmark that is gradually lowered over time to keep pollution rates down. For companies to meet the cap requirements, they trade carbon allowances on a market as well as innovate cleaner technologies.

Economically, it's to their advantage to pollute less, so they won't have to pay for allowances.

Under Kyoto, one way industrialized countries can pay allowances is by funding emissions-cutting projects in developing and "transitional" economies. Another is by trading credits or emission allowances among themselves.

Trading and assistance schemes seem to be working, according to some experts. Developed countries that signed on to the Kyoto Protocol have decreased their greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent from 1990 to 2007. (However, much of this drop comes from countries in eastern and central Europe, whose economies declined during that period.)

Overall the carbon market has "great potential" for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but countries need to develop policies that would allow the market to thrive past 2012, when Kyoto ends, the UNFCC said.

How Can Developing and Developed Countries Strike a Deal?

Many developing countries worry that they will be pressured to sign a deal at the Copenhagen climate conference that would hamper their economic development and poverty-alleviation efforts.

Leaders in several developing countries have asked that developed countries accept their "historical responsibility" for climate change and the production of greenhouse gases.

For example, the IIED says, in the run-up to Copenhagen, there's been a push to require the developed world to reduce emissions to a greater extent than developing countries.

In response, developed countries have expressed fear that they'll lose their competitive edge if asked to reduce emissions while developing countries are not legally required to do so.

At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007—a midpoint meeting that laid out a road map for a future international agreement on climate change—it was determined that developing countries could limit the growth of their emissions only with financial and technical support from developed countries, according to the UNFCC.

Developing countries are often the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. For example, many have low-lying coastal zones and thereby may be more vulnerable to inundation caused by climate-induced sea-level rise. These regions will also need assistance to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Overall, developing countries are key to reaching a Copenhagen deal. That's because, even if developed countries cut all their emissions today, the savings would be wiped out by the overwhelming uptick in emissions expected from growing nations.

What's the Role of the U.S.?

Many world leaders had hoped the U.S.—the second biggest emitter of carbon dioxide per person in the world, after Australia—would arrive in Copenhagen with climate legislation that had already passed at home.

Though a climate change bill passed the U.S. Senate's environment panel in November, the bill likely won't be voted on by the full Senate until spring 2010, according to news reports.

(Read things you should know about the climate change bill in National Geographic's Green Guide Blog.)

U.S. President Barack Obama said in China in November that he sees the Copenhagen meeting as a "way station" instead of an endpoint on the road to a climate agreement, the Associated Press reported.

But, he said, the global climate deal in Copenhagen should still lead to immediate action. The goal of the talks, according to Obama, "is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect," the AP reported.

How Much Will It Cost?

The World Bank estimates that developing countries will need U.S. $400 billion a year for stemming climate change and about $75 million to a hundred billion dollars a year for adaptation measures,—such as relocating "climate change refugees," including people flooded out of their homes, or planting mangrove forests that could help prevent storm damage.

Experts also hope that "green jobs" sprouting in many countries will also start to plant the seeds for a low carbon-emissions future. The U.S., for instance, has committed $150 billion over the next ten years to boost domestic "clean energy" jobs.

Retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn advises the research-focused nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses on how climate change may impact national security. At a November press briefing, he said that, while making energy choices is tough, there is an opportunity now to create a sustainable-energy economy that keeps the U.S. competitive with other countries.

"There clearly isn't a silver bullet—but there's silver buckshot," he said.

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