From Bali to Copenhagen, a rocky road

Next year a meeting of urgent global significance will determine the replacement to the Kyoto treaty. Looking toward Copenhagen 2009, Isabel Hilton introduces a new project that tracks the path to a new agreement on reducing climate change.

On December 1, 2009, delegates will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. It will be a meeting of extraordinary importance for the future of every person on the planet – and of millions yet unborn. At stake is whether an agreement can be reached that will effectively reduce emissions of greenhouse gases enough to keep the world’s climate change within tolerable limits. 

The science is clear. Now it is time for the politics, and for an unprecedented effort to secure the cooperation of all nations – rich and poor, developing and developed – in a just and effective deal. The road to Copenhagen was laid out last year in the “Bali road map”, and the effort is well underway. (In June more than 2,000 delegates met in Bonn, Germany, in one of a series of preparatory meetings, working on the future agenda and identifying the key issues.) But the timetable is tight – and the outcome is uncertain. chinadialogue will be following the process closely, explaining issues, introducing the  players, tracking the process and exploring the alternatives on the road to Copenhagen.

The central challenge is to formulate a new agreement to take over from the Kyoto treaty when it expires in 2012. Under that treaty, developed countries set targets for emissions reductions and mechanisms to help them get there. The question for the next treaty is what role the rapidly developing countries – in particular, China, India, Brazil and Russia – will play in the efforts to limit and eventually to reduce emissions.

Under Kyoto, the burden of emissions reductions fell on developed countries in recognition of their historic responsibility for current levels of greenhouse gases, their greater resources and the needs of developing countries to grow. Now, however, it is clear that even with extraordinary efforts on the part of developed countries, it will not be possible to reach a safe level of emissions if developing countries do not also take action.

What action should and can they take? What mechanisms can be found to allow developing countries to grow without future climate change destroying their future, along with that of developed countries? How can these challenges be met in a fair and equitable way? How can those affected by the climate change that is already underway be helped to adapt to our changing world?

Fundamental to these discussions is the question, as yet not agreed, of what is a “safe” level of concentration of greenhouse gases – the stabilisation target against which all efforts to reduce emissions must be measured. How accurately can we link the concentration levels with scientific predictions of future temperature rise? And how can we allow for the unknown impacts of feedback loops that might be triggered by a changing climate? Can public support be secured for the changes we are all going to have to make for the sake of our – and our children’s future? What can we, as individuals, do?

To reach an effective agreement in Copenhagen will demand an unprecedented effort – and many fear that the chances of success are not high. There are reasons for pessimism: the negotiations are taking place against a background of global economic uncertainty and steep rises in energy and food prices that have sparked protest around the world. The United States, by far the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, is in the middle of a presidential election, the outcome of which will determine how and to what degree it participates in the global effort. The attitude of the US will, in turn, influence that of China, India and other developing nations.

If the process fails in Copenhagen, it will affect everybody’s future. But even if it succeeds, it may not be enough. What mechanisms exist and what other efforts can be made, outside the diplomatic process, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? There are other players, not directly represented in the talks, whose behaviour will have an important impact. Business and industry are among the biggest sectors that can take action: some global corporations have carbon footprints as large as several countries and  they will be judged by how they take on that responsibility, what action they take and what action they generate in their supply chains. 

Last month, for the second year running, it was reported that China led the world in emissions of greenhouse gases by volume. Along with the US, China holds the key to the success of humanity’s efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change. It is a heavy responsibility and the stakes could not be higher. The consequences of failure will affect everybody. Conversely, the prize for success could be a secure prosperity, a sustainable model of development and cleaner, safer future for all. Over the next 17 months, chinadialogue will be travelling the road from Bali to Copenhagen. We invite you to join us on the journey, to explore the issues and to meet the players who will determine the outcome.  


Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue