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What to Watch for in Copenhagen

Carbon targets, money honeys, watchdogs, and protests -- welcome to Climate-palooza 2009!

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Casual observers could be forgiven for treating the two-week U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, which began Monday, a bit like surgery: We care about the outcome — but please just wake us up and deliver the final verdict when it’s all over.

Last month, world leaders announced that they no longer expect to reach a fully binding legal agreement in Copenhagen, but Barack Obama’s last-minute decision to attend the final day of the conference signals that the U.S. president now thinks there will be something significant to announce on that date. (And perhaps to take credit for?) Until then, here are some developments to watch. How these debates play out could determine what, if anything, will emerge from this month’s gathering.

National Commitments to Reduce Emissions

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The issue: The end goal of international climate negotiations, as affirmed by leaders at July’s G-8 meeting, is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by cutting global carbon emissions to half of 1990 levels by 2050. With Western industrialized countries focused on upping the energy efficiency of old cities, and developing countries focused on first moving their populations into new megacities, the debate over how much commitment countries in such different circumstances should make to trim their emissions has been contentious.

Obama recently pledged that the United States would reduce emissions about 17 percent by 2020 as compared with 2005 levels (though the Wall Street Journal is reporting that he might soon announce steeper cuts for 2050); his current pledge reflects numbers in bills now under review by Congress. The president probably can’t offer much more without risking that any final treaty would later be rejected by Congress, similar to what happened when the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Kyoto climate treaty in 1997.

Rather than absolute carbon cuts, some developing countries, including China and India, have declared goals of reducing the “carbon intensity” of their economies. In other words, they will use less carbon per unit of GDP growth, but as their overall economies grow, so too will carbon emissions, at least for the short term. China has pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45 percent. India has a target of 20 to 25 percent. The targets have been applauded by some as a step forward and pilloried by others as far too low.

The upshot: Most observers think the final numbers coming out of the summit will roughly resemble those put on the table beforehand. That means carbon emissions are likely to continue to grow for the next several years. China’s current efforts to rein in emissions will likely mean that, instead of tripling between now and 2020, its national emissions will only double. Gulp.

It’s worth noting that any targets that emerge from Copenhagen will likely be short-term first steps, up until 2020. Long-term, the goal of negotiations is to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2050. So watch for whether developing countries also make any pledges regarding their “peak carbon years,” after which emissions should begin a downturn. The essential question, which will not be fully addressed at this summit, is what steps developing countries can take now to dramatically bend down their emissions curves as they grow in the future.

Show Me the Money

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The issue: Once countries make their carbon vows, who will foot the bill? At present, developed countries have proposed providing $10 billion per year through 2012 for carbon reduction and adaptation programs in poorer countries, after which a new long-term financing mechanism — whose shape is also yet to be determined — should take effect.

Meanwhile, analysts at the World Bank and in China say much more money is needed, with estimates ranging up to $300 billion per year. (China reportedly would consider upping its reduction targets if more money from developed countries were made available.)

The upshot: Nothing will happen unless there’s money behind it, and for some countries, the financial pledge may be as politically difficult as the carbon-reduction pledge. (Sen. John Kerry has proposed that the United States pony up $2.5 billion to $3 billion, roughly equivalent to the annual budget of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.) With many industrialized countries stuck in recessions and struggling with high unemployment, short-term generosity will be difficult.

But the long-term challenge of designing a financial architecture for climate-change mitigation and adaptation efforts will be even trickier. At Copenhagen, get ready to witness the early design stages of, in effect, a World Bank-meets-WTO for carbon: an international system to distribute funds, impose terms, and arbitrate disputes about carbon-reduction efforts worldwide.

Big Brother Carbon

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The issue: The dictum “trust, but verify” has been adapted and updated in climate circles as measurement, reporting, and verification, or MRV. Once carbon-reduction promises have been made, what system will exist to ensure those commitments will be kept? An international carbon police?

Trust is a huge issue, especially between countries that have been strategic rivals. Beijing, for instance, doesn’t want some global carbon patrol stomping around its factories any more than Americans want Chinese storm troopers fiddling around with their electric grids and meters in the Midwest. And yet, it’s not clear that any country would be satisfied simply allowing its peers to self-report data, without some independent watchdog to check that carbon books haven’t been cooked.

The upshot: At Copenhagen, expect to hear proposals for an international review board to assess each country’s pledges and progress every two years. In the meantime, several technical collaborations are already under way to ensure that developing countries have the tools and expertise needed to track basic carbon emissions.

Networking, venture capital, and yes, brothels

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The issue: In addition to officially sanctioned activity and possibly illegal activity (protests and discounted prostitution, respectively), Copenhagen will feature several hundred side presentations and meet-ups organized by green-tech businesses and environmental organizations. After all, only a fraction of the 30,000 people descending on Copenhagen over the two weeks will be professional negotiators. Think of it as a giant green-tech trade conference.

The upshot: Whatever carbon-reduction targets are set, someone has to make it happen. Governments will play a role in incubating some breakthrough technologies and providing financial incentives for green tech. But much of the work will be accomplished by the private sector and NGOs, and by a variety of partnerships. Expect much trading of business cards and beers at Copenhagen, as green start-ups vie for venture capitalists’ attention and green-tech suppliers shake hands with distributors.

Mexican Tourism Brochures

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The issue: See y’all in 2010! The weather is better in Mexico, we promise! The date for the next U.N. climate conference — from which, hopefully, a truly legally binding agreement will emerge — has already been set for December 2010 in Mexico City. We know already that the two-week Copenhagen conference won’t, in itself, save the world from global warming. No great surprise. But if the United States and China, which abstained from signing the last global climate treaty, stay at the table, it will be at least a symbolic victory. The substance, to be worked out next year, will likely include making countries’ proposed carbon-reduction targets internationally binding and hammering out a long-term financial mechanism to give the planet a clean-tech retrofit.

The upshot: On the one hand, the inevitably inconclusive nature of Copenhagen is to be expected — neither Rome nor the World Bank was built in a day. On the other hand, how much longer can the planet wait? Keeping global temperatures from rising no more than 2 degrees Celsius already seems a difficult target, and delay makes that hope seem ever more distant.

For more: For readers wanting minute-by-minute summaries of breaking climate micronews, there will be ample places to turn. For general Copenhagen news: the New York Times‘ Andrew Revkin, Grist‘s David Roberts, and the New Republic’s Bradford Plumer. For Sino-climate news: the Center for American Progress’s Julian L. Wong and China Environmental Law‘s Charlie McElwee.

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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