The (Mostly) Non-Wonky COP15 Crib Sheet - What Are The Sides? What's Still Being Debated?

The power of the people, a strong civil society and activist voice is crucial in ensuring strong climate action. Get out there... photo: Peter Blanchard via flickr.

If you're late arriving to the COP15 party, and need to get caught up on what the political fuss is about, there's still time to get your head straight: The folks over at the International Institute for Environment and Development have just released a guide to the Copenhagen climate change summit. It's aimed at perhaps a slightly wonkier level than perhaps needed to just follow the action, so I'll distill it down a bit, trying to keep the acronyms to a minimum:Outcome of COP15 Uncertain
First of all, the COP15 conference isn't deciding a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol. Rather, it's really deciding how the international community continues to deal with climate change, in the light of the strengthening of climate science, and incorporating all nations of the world in one way or the other.

Sometimes writers, myself included, will describe COP15 as deciding the successor to Kyoto after 2012 -- which if you haven't been following along may seem like that climate change agreement is finished then, but that's not the case. It's just the end of the first commitment period that happens in two years. After that the second commitment period begins, for nations signed onto it.

Will we have a Copenhagen Protocol that incorporates the Kyoto Protocol and builds upon it, a continuation of the protocol plus a second agreement, another approach that just has nations setting domestic targets? Or will we just push off action until sometime in 2010?

All are possible, with varying degrees of probability -- though a unified Copenhagen Protocol is far and away the least likely and it's all but official admitted that a good deal of the heavy lifting will take place at future negotiations next year.

Three (Or So) Negotiating Blocks...
So who wants what and what are the different negotiating blocks? Broadly it's developed nations and developing nations, but that's a bit too simplistic.

On one side you have the European Union plus what's known as The Umbrella Group (non-EU industrialized nations). Together their proposed emission cuts so far are collectively in the 16-23% range from 1990 levels, by 2020.

On another side you have the G77/China group, which brings together 130 countries whose main issue is that the developing world ought to own up to the fact that it is historically responsible for global warming and make deep emission cuts (40% below 1990 by 2020), supply aid (usually grants) to help developing nations adapt, and needs to allow developing nations to have less stringent emission cuts (if any at all) in order to lift their people out of poverty.

But here's where it gets a bit more complicated: India and China are in that group, and are the number one and number four carbon emitters respectively -- though their per capita emissions are very low.

Furthermore, you have other developing nations, who are really on the front lines of climate change -- the African Group (50 nations), and Alliance of Small Island States (43 nations). There's overlap between these and the G77, but the key area on which they differ is that these two groups say India and China ought to reduce their emissions, and that inaction by all nations is direct and immediate threat to their nations' very existence.

There are some other sub-groups that split out (OPEC, the Least Developed Nations) but if you've got those groups straight, you've got a decent grasp of the sides.

Keep the Science in Mind - Politicians Often Don't Seem to Be
There is one more position that needs to be considered, that of climate science. Here's what we need to do to have the best chance of keeping global average temperature rise below the critical (and agreed upon by G8 nations) level of 2°C: 25-40% emissions reductions in developed nations from 1990 levels by 2020, emissions peaking within the next few years and declining thereafter, at minimum 80% reduction in total emissions by 2050, return concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts-per-million (we're about at 390ppm now). Anything less than that and, from a scientific perspective, we haven't done enough -- and have rapidly diminishing chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Other issues on the table (all of which are important):

The Basic Goals: There's still no agreement politically on when emissions should peak and on whether both near and long-term goals should be included. Lots of strong pledges have been made for 2050 targets, but nearly everyone's targets for 2020 are below what science requires. Even though science has moved passed recommending a 450ppm target as safe, you'll still hear this as acceptable sometimes, when it's not.

Preservation of forests: Deforestation is responsible for about 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions so reducing it it crucial to fighting climate change. As important as changing the way we generate electricity and clean up transportation in fact. Many key details regarding wilderness conservation, monitoring, and indigenous rights are still under debate.

Clean technology transfer: Crucial for climate change mitigation, but developed nations want tight intellectual property rights which can hinder the speed at which this can be transferred to developing nations.

Climate mitigation financing: How much, who pays, and how it's monitored/distributed. Large gaps remain between what developing nations are asking for (and are backed up by analysis in their asks) and what developed nations are willing to give.

Oh, and did I mention there are only ten days in Copenhagen to work this all out -- now that a year's worth of previous negotiation leading up to this, and years of negotiation previously, has only gotten us this far.

Want the wonkier version? Here it is: International Institute for Environment and Development [PDF]

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Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions