Copenhagen For Dummies


What is the Copenhagen COP15 summit?

The summit is a giant international meeting of delegates from 192 countries. It is actually the 15th in a series of UN conferences on climate change. The first took place in 1995 in Berlin. At the last conference, two years ago in Bali, the parties agreed to work on a new international agreement to address climate change. This conference marks the end of that two years — and hence the urgency to reach a deal.

What are the blocs of negotiating countries?

Certain blocs of countries are attempting to influence the negotiations collectively:

The G77 is the UN’s largest inter-governmental organisation of developing states, made up of 131 under-developed and poor nations. The G77 wants the rich world to make the majority of cuts to global emissions. The poorer countries represented by the G77 emit only a small amount of the world’s greenhouse gases and believe the rich world should make cuts first and compensate poorer nations to enable them to industrialise cleanly. The G77 points out that current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are overwhelmingly due to the emissions of rich countries during their industrialisation.

China, although already a major emitter, has aligned itself with the G77. Penny Wong has recently held talks with China over its position.

Australia has proposed a compromise agreement which stresses the need for all countries, developed and developing, to work to reduce their emissions. This proposal differs from the G77-plus-China position.

India appears to be something like a swinging voter. There has recently been considerable controversy in India over remarks by Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in support of Australia’s proposal. The political fallout has since forced him to retract his comments. More recently, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reiterated India’s pro-development position.

The rich world is referred to in treaty negotiations as the Annex 1 countries. There are 40 countries in Annex 1, including the US, UK, Canada, Russia, Australia, Japan, Turkey, New Zealand, and all the EU countries. Within Annex 1 there are also competing blocs, for example the EU, US and Russia.

How did we get here? What about the Kyoto Protocol?

After the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the UN set up a Framework Convention on Climate Change: the UNFCCC.

At Rio, the UNFCCC set a long-term — but voluntary — goal of reducing the emissions of developed countries to 1990 levels by 2000. Few countries, however, met this target. By 1997, therefore, negotiations progressed towards a binding treaty that would mandate specific emissions reductions for countries that signed up. The pivotal talks were held in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto.

Overall, Kyoto promised a 5.2 per cent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2012. There was much argy-bargy during the Kyoto negotiations, with certain countries like Australia bargaining hard for generous emissions targets (Australia under Robert Hill actually successfully negotiated for an increase in emissions).

US negotiators under Al Gore were initially strongly supportive of the Kyoto agreement, but political pressures at home saw the US Senate comprehensively reject Kyoto ratification. The subsequent election of George W Bush in 2000 saw the US turn its back on the UNFCC process for the next eight years. In Australia, the Howard government announced in 2002 that even though it had signed the agreement in 1998, it would not ratify it, citing US intransigence as an excuse.

Even so, Kyoto’s fine print stated that if at least 55 countries comprising at least 55 per cent of global emissions signed on, the Kyoto protocol would come into legal and binding effect. This happened in 2005 when Russia signed up, formally bringing the treaty into effect on 16 February that year.

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, which is why a new agreement is needed.

How did Kyoto go?

Not so well. Although the richer, developed nations such as Europe, Japan, Canada, Russia and (eventually) Australia signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, the US didn’t. Kyoto also didn’t include developing nations like China, India or Brazil, all responsible for a large and growing amount of emissions. Worse, many signatories of Kyoto failed to meet their pledged emissions reductions targets, like, for example, Canada, where the resource-rich western provinces pushed it well over its limit. After the election of the Conservatives in 2006, Canada effectively pulled out of Kyoto.

At Bangkok, the issue of Kyoto caused a big split between developed and developing nations. Poorer nations want to continue under the Kyoto legal framework, while the US, EU and other developed nations argued for a completely new and legally binding agreement. This split is yet to be resolved.

What’s on the agenda at Copenhagen?

In general terms, the big issue is to decide how to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The current negotiations are about how much various governments will commit to reducing their country’s emissions — and how this will be achieved.

One of the biggest challenges for Copenhagen is how to bring both rich and poor nations into a global mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Another big issue is whether — and how much — developed nations will be prepared to pay to assist poorer countries to limit their emissions, through financial aid, emissions offsets and clean technology transfer. Finally, there is the problem of whether — and if so, how — to enforce any pledged reduction targets made by those countries that sign up.

So, what’s included in the fine print?

The nitty-gritty detail of the negotiations is contained in the draft text of the agreement which runs to 200 pages. There has been a lot of international negotiation already about this; the recent conference in Bangkok aimed to help finalise the text that nations will be asked to commit to. Bangkok ended in disagreement and recriminations.

As you can see if you read the draft document, there are many clauses in [square brackets]that present alternative versions of the text. For example, look at this paragraph from page seven:

"Deep cuts [by developed countries][by all Annex I country Parties][by all developed countries]in global emissions by Parties in accordance with their historical responsibilities, as well as the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, and realistic changes in emission patterns [will be][are urgently]required to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system and achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention."

Hammering out an agreed version of the treaty remains the hardest problem confronting the negotiators.

What’s in the draft text of the agreement?

A lot of details, qualifications and disagreements. The key issues are which countries will sign up to reducing emissions, how far they will promise to cut emissions, and what sort of compliance and monitoring procedures will be put in place if countries are unwilling or unable to meet their pledges.

So difficult have the negotiations been to date that there are effectively two draft agreements being simultaneously debated — one which deals with 2020 targets and another which deals with 2050 targets.

So many acronyms, so little time. What is the UN’s REDD program?

REDD is an acronym that stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. It’s full name is the UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries.

The IPCC estimates that roughly 20 per cent of carbon emissions entering the atmosphere are due to forests being cut down and burnt. REDD aims to reduce this by paying developing countries to manage their forests more sustainably. The fund has $52 billion and has so far approved projects in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Vietnam.

What about the UN’s CDM?

The UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is essentially a giant carbon offset program. It was established under the Kyoto Protocol to allow industrialised countries to fund projects in developing nations to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. According to the UN, "the CDM allows emission-reduction (or emission removal) projects in developing countries to earn certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2. These CERs can be traded and sold, and used by industrialized countries to a meet a part of their emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol."

It seems like a good idea, but the mechanism tends to reward big industrial polluters in developing countries that contribute nothing towards sustainable development.

What are the most likely outcomes of the Copenhagen summit?

There are roughly four possible outcomes:

1) A binding commitment by both rich and poor nations to relatively modest near-term (25 per cent or so by 2020), but more stringent long-term (80-90 per cent by 2050) emissions reductions. This is the best case scenario, but it still won’t prevent damaging and perhaps catastrophic climate change.

2) A binding commitment by rich countries, but non-binding and more modest commitments by developing nations (like China’s commitment to reducing the energy-intensity of its economy).

3) No broad agreement at all; instead, a patchwork quilt of national policies negotiated on a country-by-country basis.

4) A total collapse of the negotiations (like the recent Doha and Geneva trade talks, which ended in collapse after developed and developing nations failed to reach agreement on agricultural tariffs).


One way of looking the climate change problem is by using game theory, a branch of mathematics that is often used to model political and strategic situations.

From a game theory perspective, Copenhagen is going to be extraordinarily difficult. This is because the only way global emissions can be reduced effectively is if the majority of the world’s polluting nations sign up. But in such a process, there are huge temptations for countries to refuse to participate, to cheat, or to insist that they shouldn’t commit until everyone else does (this is the Liberal Party position in Australia). As a result, Copenhagen faces enormous challenges.

One of the world’s best known game theorists is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. He predicts that Copenhagen will be "a bust", arguing that "today’s emerging powerhouses like Brazil, India, and China simply won’t stand for serious curbs on their emissions, and the pro-regulation crowd in the United States and Europe won’t be strong enough to force their hands."

If that is the case, then we may well be locked into a world four, five or perhaps six degrees warmer than now: a calamity for our children — and especially our grandchildren.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.