Q&A: Copenhagen climate change conference 2009

Environment ministers and officials are meeting at a UN conference in Copenhagen in December to thrash out a global deal on climate change. What's on the agenda?

What is the Copenhagen climate change summit?

From 7 December environment ministers and officials will meet in Copenhagen for the United Nations climate conference to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol. The conference, held at the modern Bella Center, will run for two weeks. The talks are the latest in an annual series of UN meetings that trace their origins to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which aimed at coordinating international action against climate change.

What does COP15 stand for?

COP15 is the official name of the Copenhagen climate change summit — the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The COP is the highest body of the UNFCCC and consists of environment ministers who meet once a year to discuss developments in the convention.

Which countries are taking part in the climate change summit, and how many people will be there?

One hundred and ninety-two countries have signed the climate change convention. More than 15,000 officials, advisers, diplomats, campaigners and journalists are expected to attend COP15, joined by heads of state and government.

Who are the main players?

Developing countries, including China and India, believe it is the responsibility of wealthy industrialised nations such as the UK and US to set a clear example on cutting carbon emissions. Significantly, the US rejected the 1997 Kyoto protocol, with George Bush arguing that the 5% reductions required by Kyoto would "wreck [the American] economy" while making no demands on emerging economies. COP15's chances of success have been improved by President Barack Obama's stated intention to achieve an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In April, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, acknowledged the role the US had played in past climate emissions at a gathering of officials from the world's 17 largest economies. She said the US was "determined to make up for lost time both at home and abroad". "The US is no longer absent without leave," she said. However, Denmark's minister for climate and energy, Connie Hedegaard, has warned that American leadership on climate change will be undermined if the Obama administration does not pass laws swiftly to reduce carbon pollution.

What does the summit hope to achieve?

Officials will try to agree a new climate treaty as a successor to the Kyoto protocol, the first phase of which expires in 2012. According to Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, the four essentials needing an international agreement in Copenhagen are:

1 How much are industrialised countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?

2 How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?

3 How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?

4 How is that money going to be managed?

What are the sticking points?

The main issue is that of "burden-sharing". Climate scientists say that the world must stop the growth in greenhouse gas emissions and start making them fall from around 2015 to 2020. By 2050 they estimate the world must cut its emissions by 80% compared with 1990 levels to limit global warming to a 2C average rise.
Money is also a major issue. The developing countries know they must hand over hundreds of billions of pounds to poorer nations, to help them adapt to the likely consequences. Earlier this year, Gordon Brown said this climate funding needed to reach $100bn a year by 2020. If the recent recession has made rich countries less willing to part with their cash, this could raise tensions in Copenhagen

But which countries must make the cuts and by how large should they be? For example, the rapidly growing Chinese economy has recently overtaken America as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Yet America has historically emitted far more emissions than China, and on a per capita basis Chinese emissions are around a quarter of those of the US.

The Chinese government argues that it has a moral right to develop and grow its economy — carbon emissions will inevitably grow with it. There is also the issue of industrialised nations effectively outsourcing carbon emissions to developing nations such as China. This is a consequence of huge quantities of carbon-intensive manufacturing taking place in China on behalf of buyers in the west. It wants consumer countries to take responsibility for the carbon emissions generated in the manufacture of goods, not the producer countries that export them.

Problems such as these have cast doubts on whether COP15 can succeed. There are also concerns about whether any action we take now to prevent climate change may be too little too late. A Guardian poll revealed almost nine out of 10 climate scientists do not believe political efforts to restrict global warming to an additional 2C — the level the EU defines as "dangerous" — will succeed.


Abigail Edge and David Adam

The GuardianTramp

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