Much sheer speculation has been written about the upcoming Copenhagen climate negotiations, and we will see much more over the next few weeks. What is this conference about, and what are the real issues at stake for the future of the world?
The conference in Copenhagen was set to negotiate a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Accords, set to expire in 2012, a treaty that the Senate and the Bush administration refused to ratify or cooperate with. While China has recently passed the US as the largest emitter of global warming gases, the US is still far, far ahead of all other countries in per capita emissions, making US efforts a crucial aspect of whatever efforts the world makes.
The Kyoto Accords set aspirational guidelines for countries to shoot for as they worked to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A large majority of the world's countries ratified the Accords, and some made serious efforts to meet them, but few countries managed to do so. The European Union set up a carbon trading scheme, and several European countries have made large-scale investments in alternative renewable energy. Other countries only approached their targets due to decreased economic activity, primarily Russia.
An international treaty with mandatory limits on carbon emissions has become more urgent. The climate is heating more rapidly than earlier predictions, and the current consequences of worldwide climate change are accumulating and intensifying. As well, shifting to a new energy economy is a massive undertaking, and current plans require an immediate boost if the world is to keep emissions to a manageable level, since this effort will take many decades. In the meantime, carbon dioxide emissions are still increasing.
Major contributors to carbon emissions include transportation using fossil fuels, coal-burning electric plants, deforestation including the burning of forests, unnecessary heat loss from both residential and office buildings, industrial agricultural processes, and increased emissions from the cattle industry which has been growing rapidly. Controlling emissions will mean efforts in all these areasnThe main issues leading up to Copenhagen are:
• Mandatory emission limits for developed countries;
• Emission goals for developing countries;
• A fund from the developed countries to compensate developing countries for technological development, for efforts to mitigate the effects of global warming, and for stopping or slowing deforestation (The UN environmental program proposes a minimum of $10 billion);
• Whether or not the US will actively participate, since cap-and-trade legislation will not be passed by the Senate before the Copenhagen Conference, and the Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Accords;
• Whether the conference will result in a treaty, as originally projected, or will only agree to a "politically binding" agreement to negotiate a treaty in the next two years.
There is increasing pressure for President Obama to attend the Copenhagen Conference, especially since he will be nearby in Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Other world leaders are attending, including Sarkozy of France, Lula of Brasil, and possibly Brown of England. However, there is some reluctance on the part of the administration, since the conference is not likely to result in a completely successful treaty.
On his recent trip to Asia, Obama signed important agreements with China on carbon research and technology development. China, which has until now been almost as much of an obstacle to an international treaty as the US, is now in the forefront of investment in sustainable energy, in production of solar panels, in conservation efforts. The Chinese stimulus was almost 40% devoted to emissions control, conservation, smart electric grid development, and alternative energy investment, compared to about 12% of the US stimulus.
One argument used in recent years by conservative opponents of any climate change efforts has been that the US shouldn't agree to any limits until and unless China and India agreed to mandatory emissions limits first. Now that China is outpacing the US in many ways, this is a harder argument to make, even though China still opposes mandatory limits on developing countries, which have a much lower per capita emission rate, which are more in need of economic development, and which have contributed much less to the emissions which have already accumulated in the atmosphere.
Other countries are also in advance of the US in particular fields. Germany leads the world in electricity from wind power. Brazil leads in the production of alternative biofuels (from sugar cane and sugar cane scrap instead of from corn). The Netherlands, the most threatened developed country due to it exposure to rising sea levels, leads in adaptation efforts, abandoning unsustainable reclaimed land, improving dikes and water control.
Opponents of US climate change action are primarily, though not only, conservative Republicans. They use every argument to prevent or delay any US action, even the inadequate steps proposed in the two major bills before Congress. The Waxman-Markey Bill passed the House months ago. A similar bill in the Senate, whose prime sponsors are Barbra Boxer and John Kerry, will be debated more seriously starting next year, after the battle over health care reform is completed. The conservatives deny climate change is real, they deny that it is cause by human activity, they claim it will be too expensive, that it will hurt the U.S. economy too much, that various industries should get a pass from any mandatory limits, and so on. James Inhofe, Republican senator from Oklahoma, intends to set up a sideshow in Copenhagen for climate change deniers.
The exact details of whatever the conference comes up with are less important than that the world is seen to be taking real steps, placing more pressure on the US to act. The longer the US waits to start seriously tackling climate change and carbon emissions, the more difficult and expensive the transition will be, and the more harmful will be the results of the current impacts of climate change.
On December 11th and 12th, the climate change campaign 350.org is planning candlelight vigils around the country, at the offices of Congresspeople and at other symbolic sites. The same groups sponsored the over 5,000 October actions around the world to demand that the world work to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million from the current 380 (the pre-industrial level was about 270 ppm). Go to their website to join an action or to initiate one.