Copenhagen: let the talks begin

Nature's low-down on the world's biggest climate summit.

The Copenhagen climate talks could help to develop an international agreement to avert damaging climate change. Credit: Punchstock

After two years of preparations, delegates from 192 countries begin the difficult task of piecing together a climate agreement in Copenhagen today. All the major industrialized nations have now put their commitments to cut carbon on the table, and the major emerging nations have outlined their voluntary targets too.

But the proposed cuts fall well short of what many had hoped, and the gulf between developed and developing nations over core issues — such as who should pay for dealing with climate change and who should be leading the way — remains as wide as ever. Nature takes a closer look at the key issues that will play out over the coming two weeks.

Several countries, including the United States and China, have announced formal commitments in recent weeks. Have the prospects for a deal improved?

Yes and no. US President Barack Obama removed one of the largest barriers to a deal by signalling that he will commit to reducing emissions by about 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, even though Congress has yet to enact a domestic climate policy. A second barrier came down when China said it would commit to reducing carbon intensity — how much carbon it emits per unit of gross domestic product — by at least 40% from 2005 levels by 2020. Both announcements were preceded by aggressive commitments from Brazil (at least 36% from expected levels by 2020) and South Korea (30% below projections for 2020). India came through last week with a less-than-inspiring promise to cut carbon intensity by 20–25% from 2005 levels.

“Developed countries will need to pay serious cash to help poor countries shift onto a sustainable development path. , ”

These announcements are significant in that they pave the way to an agreement that quantifies emissions commitments. But they do not guarantee a deal. Developing countries have asked rich countries to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels, but current commitments come in at around 13–19%. Bridging that gap won't be easy.

How does science affect this debate?

Developing countries regularly invoke the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) 2007 assessment as evidence that rich countries aren't doing enough. The IPCC's report on mitigation options specified that industrialized countries would have reduce emissions by 25–40% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 parts per million (p.p.m.) — roughly what is needed to limit the average temperature rise to 2 ºC.

See Nature’s Road to Copenhagen special for more.

Carbon dioxide levels registered at 386 p.p.m. in 2008, compared with preindustrial levels of about 280 p.p.m., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, DC. Those levels are rising at about 2 p.p.m. per year. Most industrialized nations have signed on to the 2 ºC goal, but not the major emerging economies, which fear they will have to pick up the slack if rich countries fall short.

Will the e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia affect the talks?

Probably not. But the talks operate by consensus, which means that just one country could hold things up. So far only one nation — Saudi Arabia — has weighed in on the side of the climate sceptics, with their chief negotiator citing these e-mails as evidence that scientists fudged their findings to play up the human impact.

Are developing countries holding up their end of the bargain?

Experts are still analyzing the proposals, but some analyses suggest that the commitments of developing countries — driven by the major emerging economies — would fall within the range of 15–30% emissions reductions from 1990 levels by 2020.

Yet India, for one, has repeatedly said it will not sign on to binding commitments, and will only verify emissions reductions that it undertakes with money it receives from rich countries. The United States and Europe want developing countries to formally commit to these goals, and to open their books to outside inspection.

What are the other major hurdles to a deal in Copenhagen?

The first is money. Developed countries will need to pay serious cash to help poor countries shift onto a sustainable development path and cope with the inevitable impacts of global warming. The United Nations' climate chief Yvo de Boer says that consensus seems to be emerging around a start-up fund of US$10 billion, which was endorsed by Obama last week. There is also more tentative agreement that in the long-term, that figure may have to rise to $100 billion a year. Many countries — and researchers — contend that even this sum isn't enough.

And delegates still need to figure out the architecture of the treaty. Developing countries want to preserve the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and fold the United States — which did not ratify the protocol — in through a separate agreement. Europeans want a single treaty, but the United States objects to many of the accounting and verification rules of that treaty.

Questions also remain about the role of existing multinational institutions such as the World Bank and potential new institutions that could be charged with allocating money, organizing energy research and development programmes, and helping poor countries to adopt clean-energy technologies.

Nearly 100 heads of state are expected to attend, including Obama. Will they secure an agreement?

Probably. But negotiators are now aiming for only a political agreement on major issues, leaving the details of a formal treaty to be filled in next year. Such an agreement would include a deadline for filling in those gaps, perhaps as early as next spring but more likely a year from now at the next UN climate conference in Mexico City. It might also feature agreements on key issues such as short-term funding; research, development and deployment of clean-energy technologies; and on handling emissions from tropical deforestation.

UN officials are still urging developed countries to increase their commitments, but it's unlikely that their negotiating positions — particularly those of the United States — are going to change substantially. That means developing countries must decide whether they are willing to sign a deal that falls short of their expectations, and so far they aren't backing down.

Some pragmatists argue that any agreement at Copenhagen represents an important first step. But others argue that a stronger deal might be secured by continuing negotiations for another year, rather than rashly signing a questionable deal this year.


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Tollefson, J. Copenhagen: let the talks begin. Nature (2009).

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