COP15: The Issues COP15: The Issues
The Planet

COP15: The Issues

by Ben Jervey

November 18, 2009

What's on the table at Copenhagen?

End Goal

The long-term goals of preserving a habitable planet will effectively be boiled down to a single number: the target concentration of CO² in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million. For the past few years, conventional wisdom has called for a target of 450 ppm. But the most recent science points to something more conservative: A 350 ppm ceiling is required if, as the NASA climatologist Jim Hansen puts it, "humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted." More than 80 developing nations and small island nations support the 350 target, as do many international environmental, human rights, and justice organizations.What should happen: 350 ppm.What will happen: It depends on grassroots pressure. Grade for Predicted Final Compromise: B

Emissions Reductions

How much will nations agree to reduce their emissions by? Will developed countries agree to deeper cuts than developing countries? The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has suggested that industrialized nations should commit themselves to 25-to-40-percent reductions from 1990 levels by 2020 (with longer-term goals of 80 to 85 percent by 2050). This is ambitious. In the United States, the American Clean Energy and Security Act currently in Congress aims for a mere 4-percent reduction. If developed countries do agree to cut their emissions more than the developing world-a vicious debate, to be sure-targets would be set to limit the future growth of emissions, and not to cut back from already minuscule 1990 levels.What should happen: Industrialized nations should cut CO² 30 percent by 2020, and 90 percent by 2050. What will happen: Non-E.U. rich nations will balk at deep cuts, and agree to a meager 10 percent by 2020.Grade for Predicted Final Compromise: C-


How to finance a global climate deal is the fundamental debate that runs through every other issue. Developed nations will be pressured to live up to their historical responsibility-having grown rich by burning fossil fuels-and help fund mitigation and adaptation initiatives. The big question is, Where will the money come from?  It's no small purse we're talking about: Developing countries are calling for hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Exactly how much will have to be determined, as will who is chipping in what, and what body or agency is doling it out.What should happen: Appoint an independent bursar who will distribute contributions from rich countries.What will happen: Vague market mechanisms, details to be hashed out later. Grade for Predicted Final Compromise: C-

Technology Transfer

Technological advances and the spread of existing clean-energy technologies are the core of a global climate solution. With the exceptions of China and India, most clean-tech innovation comes from the developed world. Negotiators will wrestle with the question of how to best transfer these technologies to developing countries. Financing, of course, will be a big issue. But a more nuanced discussion of intellectual property rights is needed. Proposals from developing countries suggest a relaxation of IPR and better incentives for patent-holders on clean-energy technology to grant free transfers of their patents internationally. Countries in which businesses hold such patents have thus far balked at these proposals.What should happen: Rich countries should make concessions and allow IPR transfers.What will happen: Poor countries will get a decent deal. Grade for Predicted Final Compromise: B+


Nearly 20 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions are the result of deforestation and forest decay. Mechanisms for what's known as REDD-reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation-essentially involve rich countries paying poor ones to prevent the loss of forests. The problem is, nobody knows how exactly these mechanisms would work. How they'd be designed will be long debated, even after COP15 adjourns.What should happen: Start a comprehensive REDD program, administered by an independent body.What will happen: A pencil sketch of a system followed by years of further negotiation.Grade for Predicted Final Compromise: C+


Even if COP15 results in the immediate stabilization of greenhouse-gas emissions (it won't), we will still be locked into significant warming. The need for adaptation measures is now broadly accepted, and most countries are working on plans or programs to combat the actual effects of climate change. But distinguishing "adaptation" programs from "development" initiatives gets cloudy, and will likely hold up discussions.What should happen: A comprehensive framework should be developed to address adaptation globally, including a financing structure.What will happen: Vague agreement to fund some "adaptation" measures.Grade for Predicted Final Compromise: N/A


The current Kyoto agreement has no formal enforcement. That hasn't worked. This treaty will need some teeth with clearly defined and binding penalties for countries that fail to honor their commitments. Negotiators will somehow have to agree on who will monitor and enforce the treaty. Emissions audits, progress reports, and penalties can't reliably be left in the hands of the countries themselves.What should happen: The creation of an international agency to monitor and enforce the treaty.What will happen: Unresolved or lax enforcement measures.Grade for Predicted Final Compromise: D

Ben Jervey More Info

Ben is a writer and editor covering climate change, energy, and environment, and is currently the Climate and Energy Media Fellow at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor at GOOD Magazine and his work has appeared regularly in National Geographic News, Grist, DeSmogBlog, and OnEarth. He recently worked with the non-profit Focus the Nation to publish an Energy 101 primer. When living in New York City, he wrote a book, The Big Green Apple, on how to live a lower impact life in the city. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.
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COP15: The Issues