By Swati Ramanathan
The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference was held Dec 7-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The days leading up to the Copenhagen talks had all the usual ingredients for high drama: hacked E-mails that purportedly throw climate change into question, protests from individuals demanding tangible results, and last minute announcements by various world leaders that they would attend. The hopes were high as well as the stakes. Despite the United States and BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) nations agreeing to the Copenhagen Accord, clichés abound in world press of the talks being “a lot of hot air.” The denouement, many claim, was somewhat of a letdown, as there is nothing binding about the accord, which will only be formalized sometime during the next year.
To recap some of the background surrounding this issue, greenhouse gases such as CO2 trap heat and raise surface temperatures. Although there is much debate over what exactly causes climate change, there is consensus that a considerable amount of climate change is a result of human actions, mainly in the form of post-industrial revolution development. Infrastructure, transportation, industry and a high reliance on electrical appliances and electronics are the hallmarks of development. Activities crucial to development also lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore global temperatures. Rising temperatures bring with them the threat of rising sea levels, which puts the very existence of low lying island nations at risk. Ironically, these nations typically have small economies and low emission rates themselves and charge the biggest polluters (China and the United States) with the responsibility of curbing emissions to prevent further rises in temperature.
Per capita emissions are very high in the developed world and are steadily rising in the developing world, where carbon emissions are still comparatively low but haven’t peaked yet. Economic growth follows industrialization, so the Kyoto Protocol sought to combat climate change while being equitable to all nations in its specific strategy. The Kyoto Protocol is the protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change, which was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005. It places binding targets on the reduction of greenhouse gases by 37 industrialized nations (known as Annex 1) and general commitments to reduce emissions by all other signatories. It allows emissions trading between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations in a Cap-and-Trade arrangement. The Kyoto protocol is almost universally accepted, with 187 countries having ratified it with the significant exception of the United States, which at the time wanted binding targets and timetables for emission reductions for the developing world.
Following the Kyoto Protocol, the America’s Climate Security Act of 2007 was proposed to bring the United States in line with Kyoto objectives. It was killed in 2008 over economic concerns.
Northeastern states in the U.S. started Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative with their own local cap and trade program. California is now in line with Kyoto, and several U.S. cities participate in cap and trade programs. This list includes several Ohio cities such as Akron, Canton, Columbus and Zanesville.
The Recent Conference
The objective of the Copenhagen talks was to create a mutually agreed-upon framework to tackle climate change. The European Union had already committed to binding legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond Kyoto requirements. Most countries announced moderate emission cuts, with industrialized nations targeting cuts of around 20 percent below 1990 emission levels. The United States announced a cut of 17 percent below 2005 levels, which translates to a 1.3 percent cut below 1990 emission levels.
With most world leaders in Copenhagen, significantly President Barack Obama, who decided in the last minute to be present during a more meaningful phase of the discussions, it was hoped that a legally binding agreement could be reached. This, however, was thwarted by a leaked document that caused a rift between the rich and poor world, that G77 nations (and China) claimed was not previously negotiated and was imbalanced in favor of developed nations.
The talks, which went on until early Saturday, were not a complete failure. The United States and BASIC countries reached a non-legally binding accord that is yet to be signed. The U.S. and other developed countries have promised $30 billion over the next three years to developing nations and another $100 billion in 2020. It isn’t clear yet where the money will come from.
However, many of the accord’s agreements did not meet earlier expectations. The accord limits temperature rise to 2˚C instead of the 1.5˚C that was hoped for. It also dropped earlier proposals to cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. It does, however, include a plan to combat deforestation.
Uncertain Results for Southeast Ohio
The effect of the Copenhagen talks on the Southeast Ohio region may not be immediately apparent, or even direct, but just as the Kyoto Protocol encouraged some states and cities to voluntarily adopt it on a local basis, the Copenhagen Accord might spur further action on the issue of climate change. This might include general encouragement of green initiatives, and possibly some form of a cap and trade emissions system. With no binding agreements at this point, it is hard to gauge what the local ramifications will be without being speculative. The local interest (which mirrors global interest) in the Copenhagen talks would at the very least raise awareness on this issue of growing importance.