Climate Talks Run Cold

Last December, Representatives of 193 governments gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark for the 15th United Nations (UN) Climate Change conference in what marked the largest gathering of heads of state and governments in UN history. The conference signified an important milestone in negotiations aimed at enhancing international climate change cooperation.

Intense deliberations took place over two weeks but participants struggled to reach any solid and meaningful consensus agreements. Wealthy, industrialized nations agreed to raise funds to assist developing countries with climate change mitigation expenses and clean energy development projects, however a standoff between the United States and China, the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, threatened to collapse discussions. Many feared a complete breakdown of the process set into motion at the 1992 UN Earth Summit, which led to the development of the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gases in 1997. At the heart of the discussions was China’s refusal to accept outside monitoring of its pledged emissions limits.

With any accord seeming impossible, on the final day the Obama Administration announced that the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa had reached an agreement. President Obama had reportedly initiated a closed-door meeting that lead to the agreement, and this in turn resulted in a wider deal, dubbed the Copenhagen Accord. Disappointingly modest and non-binding, the agreement was highly debated and a group of countries including Venezuela, Bolivia, Sudan and Nicaragua refused to sign.

The Copenhagen Accord is a statement of intent to cooperate in reducing emissions and limit temperature rise and so to the disappointment of many, the highly anticipated two-week meeting did not produce a tangible and long-term plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as firm targets for emissions cuts and a firm cap on global temperature rise. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that in order to effectively stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations and avoid a dangerous global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, global emissions should peak by 2015-2020 and a global mitigation of 50 percent by 2050 should be achieved. Other climate scientists advise a more aggressive mitigation of a 45 percent reduction on 1990 levels by 2020.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has highlighted the dangerous impacts of climate change on wildlife and 10 flagship species forecast to be most disturbed by climate change. The list includes the beluga whale, clownfish, emperor penguin, quiver tree, ringed seal, salmon, staghorn coral, arctic fox, leatherback turtle and koala. It is well known that polar species are already being hard hit by global warming due to their dependence on disappearing sea ice, however ocean acidification caused by rising ocean temperatures also threatens tropical species such as staghorn coral
and clownfish.

The difficulty in reaching a binding resolution highlights the importance of climate change discussions and the desperate need for international cooperation and commitment to meet the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures. There remains an urgent need to develop an international legally-binding treaty.