Muted Optimism on Copenhagen Climate Talks

With final prep work in Barcelona complete, negotiators hope to move forward with a substantive accord.


By Janet Raloff, for Science News' Science & the Public Blog

Negotiators representing 181 nations completed their final prep work in Barcelona, Spain, last Friday, on a new climate treaty—one they hope to build a month from now at a major conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. But some observers worry that what comes out of the Copenhagen deliberations may not have sufficient coordination and strength to meet the challenges that Earth’s climate has begun throwing at us.

Although many world leaders had hoped to have the framework for a new climate treaty ready by now, it looks like even the basic architecture of any accord won’t emerge until Copenhagen. That would leave any crafting of details to be fleshed out well after the Danish meeting ends, which is currently slated for a week before Christmas.

 “Governments can deliver a strong deal in Copenhagen, and nothing has changed my confidence in that,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, at the close of the Barcelona meeting. But between now and then, he said, “We need more movement” by governments around the world.


Well, he said he expected industrialized countries to offer better “clarity” in Copenhagen on how much money they will commit to. This would be money that rich countries are willing to pony up to help poorer ones transition to cleaner, greener energy and manufacturing technologies.

De Boer said that “I particularly look to the United States to announce a clear, numerical mid-term target. And I’ve been consistently assured by U.S. representatives that this can be done.” He’s referring to a desire to see pledged U.S. reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020.

But Congress hasn’t proven it can stomach sharp cuts, and the U.S. climate negotiators have promised they’re not going to push for something in Copenhagen that Congress would clearly find unpalatable, says Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in Arlington, Va. Unless negotiators and U.S. legislators are on the same page, any hope of the United States eventually adopting a climate treaty risks being dead in the water from day one. As it was for the Kyoto Protocol.

Right now, regardless of what de Boer says, no one knows what Congress will find acceptable since the long-awaited U.S. climate bill is sitting in a cue behind health-care legislation. To date, Congress has not been seriously discussing big caps on greenhouse emissions by 2020. Moreover, Diringer notes, Congress has indicated that it’s “not going to bind itself in an international agreement unless that agreement also provides for some measure of commitment by the major emerging economies”—especially in reining in their greenhouse emissions.

“But to expect developing countries to cut emissions, at this stage is, I think, totally unfair and inequitable,” argues R.K. Pachauri, director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Director General of TERI, an energy and resources center based in New Delhi, India. Keep in mind, he says, “You still have 1.6 billion people in the developing world who don’t even have access to electricity.”

So what are de Boer’s expectations at the Copenhagen meeting? Any successful agreement, he says, “must record, in black and white, the commitments of individual governments” on a host of important issues, such as:

  • emission-reduction targets by 2020 from industrialized nations,
  • plans by developing countries to limit a growth in their greenhouse emissions,
  • short- and long-term funding from rich countries, and
  • “an equitable structure to manage and deploy that money.”
  • In fact, de Boer suspects that any Copenhagen accord would likely resemble the Kyoto Protocol. He refers to a Dutch saying: If you have only one pair of shoes, don’t throw them away before you get new ones. Right now, de Boer says, “Kyoto is my shoes—and I would like to keep them on until I know there is something better.”

    A number of developing countries would also like to see a Kyoto “part II” come out of Copenhagen, rather than some novel accord. One reason: Developing countries have been exempted under the current treaty from having to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.