Who will be going to Copenhagen in December?

Delegates from 192 countries will meet to negotiate further development of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol. The Convention has near universal global membership, with only Somalia, Iraq, Andorra and the Vatican not belonging. The Kyoto Protocol has more than 180 member countries but, of course, is missing ratification from the United States, a major polluter in terms of carbon emissions. As well as 5,000 country delegates, there will also be another 5,000 or so representatives from civil society, business and research observing the official climate talks and holding their own meetings. This year, an alternative summit alongside the official one will also draw many climate activists who have lost faith in the official negotiations and are discussing alternate solutions to climate change.

What are the stated aims of the Summit?

The Copenhagen meeting is officially called the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention and will deal with regular issues of clarification and further development of the treaty. This year is special, because the Kyoto Protocol stipulates that Parties need to make a decision on how the Kyoto Protocol will continue once its first commitment period runs out in 2012. The treaty does not come to an end then, but without new targets, it becomes meaningless. In order to get the US on board, countries are also working on an alternative or parallel treaty that the US could sign up to without losing face. Country delegates are therefore under a lot of pressure to set emission reduction targets for industrialised countries whether under the Kyoto Protocol or alternatively, under a new treaty which would include the US.

What are the prospects for an international agreement?

A new treaty, or even a second commitment period under Kyoto, seems very unlikely at this stage. However, countries can make emission reduction commitments under the Convention which are just as legally binding. This means that we may not get a spectacular ‘Copenhagen Protocol’, but we may well have legally binding decisions at the end of the Copenhagen summit that include emission reduction targets.

If no binding agreement emerges, will it be a failure?

It will be a failure in so far that the future of the Kyoto Protocol is left uncertain and, more importantly, that the world’s leaders have let yet another opportunity pass to take strong action on climate change. Having said that, no agreement is better than a weak treaty, because a weak agreement will lock technology into a high emission path which will make it much more difficult for the world to reduce emissions later in order to avert dangerous climate change. At the end of the day, what counts is whether we are reducing emissions drastically, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), not whether countries have good intentions.

What is Britain taking to the table? Is it enough?

Britain has been relatively progressive in terms of proposing greenhouse gas emission cuts and also in proposing funding to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. Having said that, the British government often does not follow up on these proposals and is lacking a clear strategy on how to attain its own targets. Unfortunately, we have seen many green policies being announced but never followed through. It is thus important to keep up the public pressure to reduce emissions even after the government announced planned emission reductions.