State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Long and Winding Road to Copenhagen

cop15_logo_b_m11A lot of hopes have been placed on the Fifteenth Conference of Parties (COP-15) which began earlier this week in Copenhagen.  Convened on December 7, the conference has been considered by many our best hope at keeping global temperature from rising to what many researchers consider potentially dangerous levels.

The gathering of delegates from throughout the world to negotiate an agreement is the next step of a multi-year process.  So when did this all begin?  What’s at stake?

1992 – The Earth Summit
In 1992, 172 nations and 108 world leaders convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to hammer out an international treaty known as the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Under the convention, signing nations agreed to “prevent ‘dangerous’ human interference with the climate system” while still recognizing indigenous rights and establishing a variety of obligations based how developed a nation was. The UNFCCC went into force in 1994.

1997 – The Kyoto Protocol
The work done by the UNFCCC in Rio eventually led to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol — the world’s first legally binding set of emissions targets for developed nations.  The objective of the Kyoto Protocol was a binding 5.2% decrease in CO2 emissions below 1990 levels for developed nations over a period between 2008 and 2012.  One hundred and eight nine governments ratified the Kyoto Protocol.  A prominent exception was the United States has been seen as a significant obstacle to international progress given that the U.S. was until a few years ago the largest single emitter of greenhouses gases in the world.

2007 – The Bali Roadmap
Representatives from over 180 governments — UNFCCC and Kyoto nations — met in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007 to begin a process that would eventually conclude this year in Copenhagen.  The conference culminated in the Bali Roadmap — a two-year plan including the Bali Action Plan, which, according to the UNFCCC, charted “the course for a new negotiating process designed to tackle climate change, with the aim of completing this by 2009.”

2009 – Achievements and Stumbling Blocks
July: The Group of Eight industrialized economies (G8) met in L’Aquila, Italy where they agreed to limit global temperature rises to 2C.

September: Over 100 heads of state met at the U.N. in New York City to build momentum for an agreement in Copenhagen.  Nations’ statements were met with a mixture of praise and criticism as some nation stated clear and strong targets, and others wavered with ambiguous commitments — the United States among them.

November: Climate talks in Barcelona led to what many commentators considered a stalemate — schisms between developed and less-developed nations in regards to obligations for emission reductions.  The U.S.’s chief climate negotiator Todd Stern, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon,  Danish PM Lars Loekke Rasmussen, and UK Climate Secretary Ed Miliband all expressed skepticism that anything more than a political agreement, rather than legally binding agreements would result from Copenhagen.  However, hope was sparked as more than 60 world leaders agreed to attend the Copenhagen conference.

December: Some momentum built towards a real agreement at Copenhagen as India announced a target to curb its carbon emissions by reducing carbon intensity, only a few days before the conference.  Later, it was announced that President Obama would be traveling to Copenhagen towards the end of the conference in hopes of sealing a strong deal.

The Future
Things seem more ambiguous now than ever, with the possibility of legally binding targets being deemed “impossible”.  Indeed, even James Hansen, a top climate scientist from NASA GISS and Columbia University, has expressed that he hopes the talks at Copenhagen fail — in hopes for a strong agreement later on.  It is already being suggested that the real binding agreement will likely happen in the middle of 2010.  With such low expectations, the unclear status of legislation in the U.S., and divisions between developed and developing nations still salient as ever, the possibility of the conference fulfilling its bill as “Hopenhagen” seems, regrettably and unfortunately, ever more dim.  But with the stakes so high, can we wait even until next year for strong and binding targets?

For a more in-depth look at the Copenhagen Conference, please check out the Earth Institute’s Copenhagen Primer and the blog series at State of the Planet.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lisa Baade
14 years ago

We can only hope that they find some resolution to this situation – how are we going to explain this to our children? It is such a shame that politics gets in the way of common sense.

rishi d
rishi d
14 years ago

we can only keep writing and blogging, and reporting on the failure of the world to come together, with the hope that this issue continues to be the thorn in our side until we take action to take it out.

14 years ago

Well, as expected not much was accomplished. Once politics and egos get in the mix, it is hard to come up with a solution that is accepted by all parties

Joseph Conrad
14 years ago

A few steps further but not many, unfortunately.

The US getting it’s climate change legislation in order would certainly be a big help…but is the “political climate” favorable enough at the moment?

Justin East
14 years ago

After Copenhagen it looked as though Obama’s climate change legislation had enough support to get through congress.

Three months later & the “give us jobs” movement may have squashed any real hopes for climate change regulation in the US.

kien pelagie
kien pelagie
13 years ago

Despite the stakes of the Copenhagen conference,there is still a promising future for global warming and climate change and that has to start from the individual to national and international spheres.