A Photo Essay

A Look-Back at the Climate Talks; COP-15 in Copenhagen

View Braasch’s Copenhagen Photos

COPENHAGEN, Sunday 20 December 2009 (7 am local time) — The 11th-hour “Copenhagen Accord” agreed to by the U.S., China, and three other major greenhouse gas emitting countries capped 14 days of frustrating negotiation, contention, oration, and demonstrations. The final agreement, while disappointing in so many ways, nonetheless came as an upbeat and unexpected outcome – an alternative to no agreement at all – and one that just might open the way for breakthroughs down the road.

Most of the 35,000 registered attendees had arrived hopeful, but over time had become increasingly concerned that nothing at all might come of the meetings – surely not a binding legal agreement with fixed emission reductions. On that score, they were right, but the short note on the U.N. climate convention website on December 19 in effect signaled both the absence of a binding agreement and a new direction for major greenhouse gas emitting countries:

Advance unedited version
Decision -/CP.15
The Conference of the Parties
Takes note
of the Copenhagen Accord of 18 December 2009.

That’s it. That is the entire official record of the action, or inaction, taken by COP-15 on an international plan to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The Conference of the Parties (COP), this huge meeting of 193 nations, the governing body of the UN climate convention, ended its long anticipated fifteenth meeting in Copenhagen without a negotiated, agreed to, and binding decision on firm targets, dates, and financing for slowing global warming.

“Takes note of …” means the COP recognizes that the three-page Copenhagen Accord, which President Barack Obama and four other world leaders agreed to on Friday but did not sign, has been proposed as a plan. Climate convention head Yvo DeBoer called it a letter of intent.

Negotiations based on it (and possibly on other proposals, such as the much more stringent limits proposed by Tuvalu and the African and island states) are to proceed through 2010. A final consensus decision with binding targets and dates will have to wait at least another year, until the COP meeting currently scheduled for next fall in Mexico.

However COP-15 was successful in an important way: Friday’s dramatic involvement by President Obama, the presence of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao and of more than 100 other world leaders – and the fact that major nations including the U.S. and China have acknowledged the urgency and stated some national goals to limit climate change – are the most important advances in the international reaction to global warming since the Kyoto Protocol.

In the words of the Accord: “We agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science, and as documented by the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity.”

Before the COP officially ended on Saturday afternoon, many nations indicated that they want to be associated with this plan, agreed to in impromptu meetings between the leaders of just the U.S., China, India, South Africa, and Brazil. The Accord thus partly rescued what had until Friday been a stalled, fractured, and contentious two weeks.

However, the promises and proposals of the Accord appear to fall very short of stopping dangerous global warming effects. President Obama acknowledged as much in his closing press briefing. Environmentalists earlier had circulated a leaked United Nations analysis of the major proposals which said “global emissions will remain on an unsustainable pathway that could lead to concentrations equal or above 550 ppm with the related temperature raise around 3 degrees C” or about 5.4 degrees F. This estimate is measured from pre-industrial temperatures – it means about an additional 2.2 degrees C / 4 degrees F from today (see Dotearth blog).

The benchmark which the COP and Accord are using is to limit world average surface temperature to about 2 degrees C over pre-industrial times (250 years ago). That is about 1.2 degrees C / 2.2 degrees F higher than today, and is based on a carbon dioxide concentration in the air of 450 parts per million (ppm), compared with today’s concentration of 387 ppm.

There were many calls to “follow the science,” from national delegations and environmentalists alike, to ensure that any agreement actually would lead to a sharp change in emissions and remain in that temperature range. Government officials from across the globe and prominent scientists and activists representing scores of different countries spoke or held press conferences cautioning of harmful effects already happening and attributable to a warming climate. Some challenged the “consensus” science on climate change, but those warning of much more dire effects even at the 2-degrees mark far outnumbered those claiming the science to be seriously flawed.

Leaders of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said there had already been “unprecedented changes in the climate system.”

“CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 1000s of years,” read one slide projected above the stage, “causing irreversible changes in the climate and ocean chemistry.” Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC head, defended scientists’ intensive and broad-ranging climate research results against accusations (stemming from the “hacked e-mails) that climate is rigged or invalid.

The Copenhagen meetings were very much a battle over the strength of a possible new agreement between the small number of highly developed countries and the most underdeveloped nations and those like Tuvalu in grave danger of increased sea level rise.

Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia of Tuvalu, a nation of low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean experiencing dangerous high tides said, “It is now or never … We have the right to exist.” Mr. Ielemia said his nation’s goals included “… insuring that world temperature peaks at well below 1.5 degrees C … these are nonnegotiable.”

The apparent total reductions being promised by the leading industrial nations, as analyzed by nongovernmental environmental groups is about 8 to 12 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. 1990 is the agreed baseline in the Kyoto Protocol, which many nations are using as a framework for a continuing agreement. But the most at-risk nations, following the science and effects already seen by their people, say the reductions in greenhouse gases must be greater and must happen much faster.

President Obama, during his brief stay in Copenhagen, offered no new programs and followed closely the “Waxman-Markey” legislation passed by the House this year, targeting reductions of about 17 percent below 2005 greenhouse gas levels, about 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. They are targets many nations – and thousands of environmental, social and renewable energy groups attending COP-15 as observers – reject as inadequate.

But President Obama’s all-day effort to find some common ground with China answered another important question at COP-15: How will the nations of the world be judged and measured in their promises and actions to cut greenhouse gases and pay for damages? He apparently overcame Chinese concerns about having the world looking over its shoulder, and the Copenhagen Accord includes international monitoring.

The term of art for this in Copenhagen is “MRV”: measurable, reportable and verifiable actions. How those goals of the Accord would be accomplished remains a point of disagreement.

So too does the issue of climate justice. NGOs put forward a lot of information about the huge disparity over the years of heavy emissions from the 35 or so developed nations; the costs and effects of climate change on poorer nations; and the money it will take to limit emissions and protect against rising sea level and water shortages. Some nations and groups seek direct reparations from the leading countries.

Also left for another day: final agreement on how to manage, calculate the emissions from, and pay for the protection of the world’s tropical forests. This so called REDD issue – reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation – is especially critical in developing nations, which would eliminate up to 15 percent of global emissions and sequester huge amounts of carbon.

In the halls during the first 10 days of the COP, attendees were treated to a constant babble of languages, thousands of brochures, and hundreds of skits and demonstrations about climate change. There was in so many ways something approaching a circus atmosphere outside the halls as negotiators labored indoors.

Then at the beginning of the Thursday sessions of the second and final week, with so many world leaders in attendance, the UN blocked access to the hall for most of the NGO representatives and other “observers,” admitting only a few hundred world civic and environmental community representatives.

The media too operated for a time under an escort-only access rule.

After the initial Saturday’s downtown Copenhagen demonstrations of somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 marchers … after reminders virtually everywhere of participants’ hopes for strong, ambitious, and binding reductions in greenhouse gases, and after scores of photo exhibits and props demonstrating the risks of a warmer world … after the face-to-face negotiations of top heads of state … some realities are still as they were before the meetings started two weeks earlier: Americans’ per capita carbon dioxide emissions are multiples of those of citizens of many other nations. It’s a disparity certain to complicate whatever international negotiations come next as a way to pick up where Copenhagen left off. There is, for sure, lots more to be done.

Photojournalist Gary Braasch has covered and photographed the science and effects of global warming for 10 years. His archive of images, including this work from the COP-15 in Copenhagen, is online at www.worldviewofglobalwarming.org. Braasch’s photographs have been used for United Nations postage stamps and calendars, and in the film “An Inconvenient Truth.” His books on the subject include Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World (University of California Press) and How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, with Lynne Cherry (Dawn Publications).

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