The climate change caravan has arrived in Copenhagen. But who are the people doing the actual negotiating—haggling over every word—and what are they likely to achieve?by Sam Knight / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
So here we are. Copenhagen. Showtime. In the course of 11 days this December, the leaders of the world must agree on their self-appointed task of saving it. Seventeen years after they first convened at the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio and acknowledged the threat of global warming, the calamity has advanced on every front. The ice is melting, the waters are drying or rising, the birds and the beasts and the bees are dying. Yet humanity, perversely, flourishes—since that summit, the world’s population has grown by 1.5bn and it will grow again by 50 per cent by 2050 to a total of 9bn, just when our worst prophecies may be coming to a head. Nature’s breakdown will be society’s. And for this reason, climate change has joined our everyday thinking. We hear about it on the news. We see it even where it is not there: on balmy winter mornings and in the mottled outbreaks in the garden. Its invisible, enveloping nature has made it part of our human lament. We worry about putting out the recycling but we know this is not enough, because everything we do now—stay too long in the shower, eat a foreign vegetable, fly off on a foreign holiday—is making it worse. Our condition, our comfort, is killing the polar bears, and it is going to kill us too.
So what can 11 days in Copenhagen do about it? The aim is to conclude a new global political agreement on how to stop the damage. Whatever is agreed at Copenhagen will come into force on 1st January 2013, and supersede the last attempt to save the environment, the Kyoto protocol. Kyoto took aim at the emissions of six greenhouse gases (mostly CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) that have upset the preindustrial, prelapsarian blend of air in the earth’s atmosphere. Adopted on 11th December 1997, the treaty bound by law the world’s 37 richest countries (a group known as “Annex 1”) to cut their emissions by 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012. America pulled out of the negotiating process (and has increased its emissions by almost 20 per cent since 1990) but much of the rest of the rich world stuck with it and now, in 2009, it looks like we will make it. Some countries, like Spain, Italy and South Korea, will miss their targets, but as a group, we are on target—a corrective to the critics who dismiss Kyoto as a failure. True, the collapse of heavy industry in the Soviet Union has been the biggest single contributor to cutting global emissions since 1990, but other Kyoto-related policies have helped. In 2005, the EU launched the world’s largest carbon-trading market, covering 40 per cent of the bloc’s emissions, and in 2008, helped by the financial crisis, achieved a cut of nearly 3 per cent in a year.