The chances of a strong treaty emerging from the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen seem small, but recent progress offers hope.
With about six weeks left before nations gather in Copenhagen to finish negotiating a climate treaty, hopes are rapidly dwindlinug that countries will be ready to sign a strong, ratifiable agreement. The pessimism has spread so widely that it could be considered a global pandemic. News stories are already talking about the 'failure' of Copenhagen and squandered opportunities.
But viewed from the perspective of just a few years ago, the Copenhagen summit could already be considered a partial success. In a short span, many nations have pledged to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases by considerable amounts, well beyond any commitments they had made before, such as through the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Norway, for example, offered this month to reduce its own emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. Indonesia said it would curb its emissions over that same time by 26% below the levels expected under a business-as-usual scenario, with even stronger cuts possible under an international agreement. The European Union has committed to a 20% reduction below 1990 levels and would increase that to 30% with a global pact. And, for the first time, the US Congress is moving towards establishing laws that mandate emissions cuts.
These words are not to be confused with achievements, but they at least show that countries have started to analyse their own emissions seriously and to develop domestic agendas that would set them on course to meet their commitments. Such unilateral decisions are an essential starting point for an international agreement, and they suggest that countries are now ready to back up their rhetoric in a way that was not true 12 years ago, when they signed the Kyoto Protocol. This is real progress, and it would not have happened without the pressure to produce a treaty.
Nevertheless, such vows fall short of what is needed to protect against the dangers of global warming. Nations need to reduce global emissions far more in the longer term, and the endgame gets much tougher if leaders delay making those reductions.
In a package of articles this week (see below), Nature looks at some of the issues that will play crucial parts in the negotiations in Copenhagen. Several articles focus on factors concerning the developing world, which will endure some of the severest effects of climate change and which will also be responsible for much of the future growth in greenhouse-gas emissions. At the moment, major gaps remain between the world's wealthiest nations and those still in the process of providing their citizens with basics such as clean water and electricity.
The negotiating impasse can be breached only by concessions on both sides. Developed nations, particularly the United States, must agree to substantial reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, both in the next decade and in the long term. And developing nations must commit to controlling their greenhouse-gas pollution in some fashion. China has recently taken over as the leader in carbon dioxide emissions and there can be no hope of containing global temperatures without Chinese action.
At the same time, developing nations will need monetary and technical assistance in steering their economies towards a low-carbon future. The wealthy nations have so far committed too little on this front, and the effects of the global recession have tightened budgets around the world. But as economies improve, the wealthiest nations should fashion innovative ways to assist the developing world, whether through the proceeds of carbon trading or through new technical collaborations.
Another major financial obstacle is the issue of support for adaptation. Some estimates suggest that the developing world will require in excess of US$100 billion in aid every year to cope with the effects of global warming. But the international funds created to help adaptation efforts in the world's poorest nations contain orders of magnitude less money, and even the available funds have not flowed smoothly to countries in need. The process of distributing funds should be streamlined. But there must be safeguards to ensure that adaptation money is used effectively.
With such major issues still unresolved, pessimistic observers see no chance of success in Copenhagen. But there is still time left for leaders to reach significant agreements if they make it a personal priority and recognize the urgency of the problem. Some leaders, such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have indicated that they would be willing to attend the conference to seal a deal, but more should step forward and they should commit to going. This would lend stature to the negotiations and would raise the chances of achieving a substantial agreement.
It will not be possible to resolve many of the important issues in the remaining time this year. But leaders could make strong progress by building on the momentum at the national level. Many of the commitments made by nations this year are conditional — they depend on other parties taking specific actions as well. These could provide a model for approaching strong targets through a stepwise process.
In the end, successful international negotiations share some important characteristics with scientific research. Both are iterative processes, in which results from one step help to determine the path forward. They require time and perseverance. And they rarely travel in a straight line. Countries should endeavour to build on the positive actions of the past year, both before and after the Copenhagen summit.
Rajendra K. Pachauri
Books & Arts
Robert Gifford talks to Sanjay Khanna
For podcast and more online extras see http://www.nature.com/roadtocopenhagen