You’ve probably heard that delegates are meeting in Copenhagen for climate talks. But you might not be clear on what exactly all the hoopla is about. Here’s your cheat sheet on COP15, the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
What are the Copenhagen climate talks?
This is the meeting at which the parties to the UNFCCC will try to finalize an agreement which will get the world on track to meet the goals scientists have said are key to preventing calamitous climate change.
It’s called COP15 because it’s the 15th annual meeting of environmental ministers to discuss climate issues since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1994. The Copenhagen agreement, if there is one, will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed at the fifth meeting, in 1999, and was the first serious international greenhouse gas emissions agreement.
Why do we need a successor to the Kyoto Protocol?
Kyoto’s provisions start expiring in 2012. More importantly, however, the steps in Kyoto don’t go far enough to create the necessary reductions in carbon emissions.
Who’s going to COP15?
Over 5,000 delegates from the 192 countries that are party to the UNFCC. Another 10,000 officials, advisers, activitists, and journalists are also expected to descend on Copenhagen for the potential signing of this historic treaty.
What does the Copenhagen treaty hope to achieve?
The executive secretary of the UNFCCC has said the agreement needs to include four key elements:
An agreement on the amount industrialized nations—like the United States, Germany, and Japan—must reduce their carbon emissions
An agreement on the amount major developing countries—like China, India, Brazil, and South Africa—must reduce their carbon emissions
Cash and clean technology assistance from wealthier countries to poorer countries, to help them both reduce their carbon emissions and implement projects that will enable them to withstand unavoidable changes in climate—like sea walls, new varieties of crops, and new sources of fresh water.
A governance structure for the convention, which will go into effect January 2013 and will be legally binding.
What are the challenges?
Many countries agree in principle that carbon emissions have to go down. But they don’t necessarily agree on who is specifically responsible for doing how much—a contentious issue since any commitments carry hefty price tags.
Where does the United States stand?
During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama said he supported the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 15% by 2020 (which would return the country to 1990 levels) and by 80% by 2050. And in April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke with years of denial by the Bush administration and acknowledged the role the United States had played in causing climate change. She said the United States was “determined to make up for lost time both at home and abroad.”
Despite this, the Obama administration learned its lessons from Kyoto, which President Clinton signed but never brought to a vote in Congress due to domestic opposition. Because of this, the United States is only likely to sign a deal it thinks it can get approval for at home.
What’s likely to actually come of Copenhagen?
At this point, it’s unclear. If the parties don’t think they have something everyone’s willing to sign, they might push the pause button and hold off on forcing the issue, choosing instead to continue negotiations into 2010.
How can I get involved?
A bunch of organizations have organized ways for people around the world to let their leaders know they want them to back the Copenhagen treaty.
- Seal the Deal is a UN-led campaign to marshal support for COP15. You can sign a petition, express your point of view, join their Facebook group, or make a pledge to perform a climate change-related action.
- Sign a petition from Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace.
- Contribute a message (video, audio, or text) to the Friends of the Earth Climate Capsule.
- Participate in 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action on October 24, by either creating an action yourself or joining one planned by someone else.
And if you feel you need a little something to help you get motivated, a campaigner at Oxfam suggests organizing a party to watch The Age of Stupid, a film set in the future, looking back and wondering why people didn’t act on climate change when they had the chance.