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Frequently asked questions about COP15 - the The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen

What on Earth is Copenhagen?

By now, we should all be aware that some important talks about climate change are set to take place in the Danish capital. But what exactly is going to be decided, by whom and why does it matter?

In an attempt to cut through the complexity and jargon, edie has drawn up a simple list of Frequently Asked Questions about the talks and what they mean for the environment.


To start at the beginning would mean a lengthy ramble about the industrial revolution and the internal combustion engine, so we'll skip 200 years of carbon emissions and kick off with a meeting that took place in Berlin in the spring of 1995 - The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's first Conference of the Parties (COP1).

Here world leaders agreed that the UN's existing nod to the problem of global warming was inadequate. They agreed to 'begin a process to enable it to take appropriate action for the period beyond 2000'

Over the intervening 14 years, there have been ongoing discussions about exactly how the world should tackle greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. These talks have been punctuated by flagship meetings - COPs 2-14 - but the big pow-wows are far from the full story, with negotiators from around the world attending .


What does 'COP15' stand for?

The 'COP' bit is a false friend - it has nothing to do with Copenhagen - it's the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It's a piece of UN-speak which simply means "15th major climate change summit".

Who's involved?

World leaders, obviously, and expect to a lot of headlines to that effect - they'll be the ones making the final decisions and the focus of the inevitable media circus. But off-camera there will be a cast of thousands, with Ministers, officials, negotiators and observers from 192 countries thrashing out an agreement - or at least attempting to. The conference will take place behind closed doors, with access restricted to those involved in the debate and the press. The public are not permitted to enter, but expect plenty activity on the fringes as NGOs, civil society organisations and protesters try to get their messages heard.

I get that they're discussing climate change, but what are the limits to the talks?

In theory, the delegates can agree to anything - nothing is ruled out, but obviously there is going to need to be some focus. COP15 is being held up as a crucial meeting because the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, making this the last realistic opportunity to establish an agreement to replace it while still allowing for a smooth transition between the two.

Delays will almost certainly mean a gap where there is no international climate change agreement. Of course, during this period the climate itself will be unaware of the political hiatus and will continue to change.

Everyone has agreed that something must be done (see Were the other COPs much cop? below) but the devil is in the detail.

It is likely that the main thrust of the talks is likely to be how much money nations are prepared to commit to the international fight against climate change, rather than exactly how said money will be spent.

Optimists are hopeful that new greenhouse gas targets to replace those outlined in the Kyoto Protocol are also a possibility. The crunch will be whether these are aspirational or binding, and how they might be enforced.

What's the big deal about Kyoto?

The Kyoto Protocol stands out because it was the only agreement to come out of the UN negotiations that set binding targets rather than voluntary goals.

The targets are not in themselves mind-blowingly high - they amount to a 5% cut on 1990 levels of greenhouse gases by 2012 across the states that signed up.

Nor was it an agreement that will see universal action - 37 industrialised countries signed up to the cuts and there is no expectation on developing countries to curb their growth.

There were also some notable countries that refused to sign up at the time - although Australia's tardy agreement to ratify the protocol at the end of 2007 left the USA isolated as the only industrialised country not to back it.

Kyoto allows countries to make cuts in several ways - including carbon trading, setting up carbon-reduction projects in developing countries and even making actual cuts within their own borders.

Were the other COPs much cop?

They've been hit and miss. Back in 2007 there was an often-overlooked COP of note in Bali where leaders agreed that there's a need for a concerted effort to tackle climate change. In the Bali Action Planthey established the basic building blocks which would form the foundations of future agreements - which diplomatically covered all the angles being advocated by major global players.

They boiled down to more international co-operation, better adaptation strategies to deal with the by-now unavoidable effects of climate change, more research into technological solutions and, crucially, more money.

It is the financial element that most people expect to form the core of the Copenhagen talks.

What happens next?

That largely depends on the outcome of the talks, but rest assured there will be plenty of COPs to come, as even the most strongly worded outcome from Copenhagen will, like Kyoto, have an expiry date.

What can I do about it?

Ah, the million dollar question. There are obviously lots of actions and lifestyle choices that can help reduce an individual's contribution to climate change, but can you really influence the outcome of the talks? Possibly, yes. Many (most?) of the negotiators represent democratic countries and the voice of the people, so at least ought to work for a stronger agreement if they perceive they have been given a mandate to do so.

The most realistic way of doing this is to sign one - or all - of the many petitions doing the rounds on the internet or to contact your elected representative direct. The UN-led Seal the Deal campaign is a good place to start.

Care to take a punt on the outcome?

Future gazing is a risky business, but it's easy to see some what some of the deal makers -or breakers - are likely to be.

Cash vs Climate

First off, you've got ever-increasing environmental concerns versus the train wreck global economy. Climate change has never been higher on the political agenda - as well as the scientific evidence, it's a zeitgeist thing and most of the major players want to be seen as honourable custodians of the planet back home.

But against that, you've got a bruised global economy and a general reluctance to spend cash on the future. While there's widespread acceptance of the formula outlined by the much-lauded Stern Report - that money spent on climate change today will save more money tomorrow - there's not a lot of ready cash sitting around and, as rule, governments don't like raising revenue (read: taxes) to help out future administrations at the cost of their own popularity.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours

Only Europe, with its self-appointed role as the world's slightly smug responsible adult, is likely to pony up a substantial sum and commit to significant carbon cuts regardless of what everyone else does.

For the most part, the other major players (ie, those expected to curb their emissions), will play their hands according to the actions of competing economies. China, often unfairly portrayed as the pantomime villain of the piece while producing the goods the industrialised world relies upon, is unlikely to accept restrictions on its growth unless they apply to other emerging economies.

Under George Bush, the US showed a reluctance to fetter its own economy to save the world and while Barack Obama has made the right noises on the environment, there's a question mark over his faith in the UN process.

It might take a brave action from an unexpected quarter to really get the ball rolling.

Last chance saloon

While much has been made of the need for a worthy successor to Kyoto, that's not the only reason why action is urgent.

Every day more scientific evidence is emerging suggesting time is running out to take effective action to reduce our emissions before we hit catastrophic climate change and start negative feedback loops - nature's vicious circles - where, for example, rising temperatures lead to the release of huge quantities of methane from melting permafrost to aggravate global warming or melting ice-caps chill the seas to switch off the warming Gulf Stream plunging northern Europe into a Canadian climate.

Scientific consensus suggests we're on the brink and strong action is needed now.

As might be expected, myriad environmental NGOs are lobbying for extreme action from governments. But perhaps slightly oddly, the UN itself has come off the fence and rather than acting as simple facilitator for the talks, is actively campaigning for a major binding agreement - highlighting the view of experts that this really is the time to go beyond a mere talking shop and commit to something big.

Edie's best guess

Here in the office we suspect that in the full glare of the public eye, there will be a lot of promissory notes flying around that add up to a significant-sounding amount of cash on the table by the end of the summit.

Whether the promises translate into hard cash with any sense of urgency and whether the funds are then effectively administered will remain to be seen.

We're not optimistic about binding targets that add up to meaningful cuts - there might be an agreement but the figures will likely be too low to be effective and in many cases will be outstripped by national efforts such as those outlined in the UK's Climate Change Act.


All about COP15 - The United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will take place at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, between December 7 and December 18, 2009.