Why the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change is Important

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Climate Change, You, and Me
As I look around my desk and see plugs, a radio, a couple of pens – I know that somewhere in their production history there is an overspill of oil or a hole in the ground that was left to fester after the minerals were extracted.

And it is a sad reflection on man that we have to be told the sky is falling and our grandchildren are going to live in a blighted world before we even think of making changes in a concerted way.

If the producers were responsible for the consequences of what they did to the landscape, we’d be a little nearer to the true cost of production.

With that said, I thought it would be a good idea to review where we are internationally with efforts to tackle climate change.

No-one seems to be arguing that we are not suffering climate change, so that is a battle that doesn’t need to be fought again.

So what is the bottom line on taking action to maintain a healthy balance for the Earth?

On My Desk
Oil and Minerals on My Desk... and Yours?

From Stockholm to Rio to Kyoto
In 1972 in Stockholm a UN conference put together an action plan for the human environment. It was deemed important, but not as pressing an issue as was the case twenty years later at the Rio Conference.

The Rio Conference of 1992 was not simply a group of concerned environmentalists coming together, although many did attend. To give its full title it was ‘The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development’. The representatives of 172 countries attended, including the heads of government of over 100 countries.

It looked at pollution, toxic materials in production, alternative energy resources, transport systems, and water scarcity.

Rio and the UNFCCC
What came out of the Rio conference was a treaty named the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

It contained a declaration of principles including that “States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption”.

It also contained an agenda for introducing legislation to back up the principles, and a framework within which to work out how to deal with climate change.

But the UNFCCC did not contain any enforcement provisions.

How Are We Doing?
So which countries are doing well and which are doing not so well in reducing their emissions?

These are the countries that have significantly reduced their emissions over the past 20 years:

    Denmark
    Germany
    The United Kingdom

If we leave out emissions from land use including forestry, then we can add these countries to the list of countries that have reduced their emissions:

    Australia
    Norway

And those that have increased their emissions in a range from about 10% for Japan on up to 50% for Spain:

    Japan
    The Russian Federation
    The United States
    New Zealand
    Ireland
    Greece
    Canada
    Portugal
    Spain

And those that have more than doubled their emission levels:

    India
    China

Kyoto
In 1997 the countries met in Kyoto in Japan to agree on a framework for targets for the UNFCCC that became known as the Kyoto Protocol. A protocol is a diplomatic agreement. It carries no force except disapproval.

What was needed in order to give the protocol the force of law, was for each country to ratify the Protocol and make a treaty binding itself to the principles of the protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol became effective in 2005, and has been ratified by 141 countries. In other words, those countries have bound themselves to the Protocol.

The United States and Australia have refused to ratify the Protocol, partly because China, India, and a number of other developing countries are not required to take any action until 2012.

The present protocol runs out in 2012, and the question is whether it will be replaced, and if so, then by what.

Mechanisms
One mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol is Emissions Trading. This allows countries that have emission units to spare (those they are allowed to use but do not in fact use) to sell their units to countries that are over their allocated emission units.

The word ’emissions’ is of course another word for pollutants.

You might conclude that it is as though the various countries are living on separate planets, some healthy and some diseased. The reality is of course that there is one planet and if one country sells its unused pollution to another, it is both that will suffer, no mater who uses the pollution allowance.

Another mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol is Clean Development, which grants emission credits to a developed country that sets up a ‘clean’ system in a developing country. The developed country can then spend its credits – allowing it to pollute beyond the allocation it would have otherwise.

You might think it is like paying a man in cocaine for successfully getting others off the habit.

The counter arguments is that these mechanisms provide an incentive to produce clean technology, which will have a longer-lasting effect.

The Bali Action Plan
At the UNFCCC meeting in Bali in 2007, an action plan was agreed that would be brought to fruition with a binding agreement at the Copenhagen Conference to be held in December 2009.

The Copenhagen Conference
Whether the mechanisms are flawed or not, this December the United Nations Conference on Climate Change takes place in Copenhagen, and the agenda is to settle limits beyond 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol ends.

It is a meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP13) and the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (MOP3) and is being hosted by the Government of Denmark – specifically the Minister of Climate and Energy and the Prime Minister.

Obstacles to Overcome
There are huge obstacles to overcome. It all comes down to self-interest, of course.

The obvious problem is to develop a mechanism that the United States will work with, bearing in mind that it did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

The developed nations are going to be worried that they will not be competitive on price because of the cost of keeping within their emission limits. Therefore, the temptation for them is to balance this cost by erecting trade barriers, which would cause international cooperation to break down.

The developing countries will argue for different obligations compared to those on the developed countries.

The developing countries will want financial and technical support to develop clean technologies. If they don’t get a commitment to this they will be tempted to refuse to cooperate.

Not every developed country will have the opportunity to contribute technical support for clean technologies to developing countries. Those that do will get emission credits. Those that don’t will be unhappy at being left out, so there is ground for disagreement between developed countries.

Everyone agrees though that this assembly is one where defining choices will be made, whether for good or not.

The situation calls for some fundamental changes in the way countries regard each other and deal with each other.

The eyes of the world and of history are on the outcome of the Copenhagen Conference.

Still, why worry? What is the worst that could happen?

References

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
United Kingdom Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
Kyoto Protocol – Full Text
Wikipedia

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  1. Dear David,
    An important post. I wish I had known. I could have written a post on this on my blog as well! But, thanks for being so responsible. A few months ago when I read that our government was considering drilling on the California Coast for oil rather than seeking out alternative options, I joined the Sierra Club, but I certainly need to do more than just sign petitions. I’ll have to figure out how to get involved.

    Susan

    • David Bennett

      Hi Susan,

      We signed up this blog on the Blog Action Day site. That way we get email updates. I guess we will hear about the ‘Day’ next year.

      You could sign up and get updates that way.

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