Dear EarthTalk: What do organizers hope to accomplish at the upcoming  United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Copenhagen (December 7 to 18, 2009)?
—F. Rojas, Oakland, Calif.

The upcoming COP15 meeting in Denmark—so named because it is the 15th such international gathering of the Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—is the world's next big chance to take decisive multi-lateral action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions substantially enough to ward off cataclysmic climate change.

Negotiators from all over the globe hope to come to terms on a binding agreement regarding emissions reductions that both developed and developing nations can agree to. The stakes are high: This conference represents the final step in negotiations years in the making—and the results could chart a course toward success or failure in human efforts to control the carbon beast we set free in the industrial revolution.

Officially, the stated goal of COP15, according to United Nations organizers, is "to stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous man-made climate changes." They add that "this stabilization must occur in such a way as to give the ecosystems the opportunity to adapt naturally" without compromising food safety or hindering sustainable social and economic development around the world. Organizers, delegates and a wide range of other participants—some 10,000 people are expected to attend—are still holding out hope for the establishment of an ambitious, legally binding global emissions reduction agreement to take effect beginning in 2012. That is when initial commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol, an earlier international climate treaty that the U.S. refused to join, expire.

One sticking point is whether or not the Obama administration will risk agreeing to major emissions reductions without the prior consent of Congress. The most promising U.S. climate legislation, the so-called Kerry-Boxer Bill, is currently under consideration in the Senate but likely won’t be voted on until February 2010 or later; traditionally the American government likes to iron out its policy legislatively at home before agreeing to international commitments. But bi-partisan backers of the bill in the Senate say they can agree on terms now that will be acceptable to enough to their colleagues for later passage, enabling American negotiators at Copenhagen to have some guidelines at the COP15 bargaining table.

China and much of the developing world would like to see industrialized countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, but analysts say such drastic cuts are unlikely to fly with U.S. politicians. Climate champion Al Gore is urging COP15 delegates to create a binding legal framework where commitments can be ratcheted up with time as governments begin to realize the benefits of switching to larger amounts of renewable energy and participating in the development of green technology.

Beyond the big question of U.S. participation, COP15 negotiators will be trying hard to forge a consensus on a wide range of related issues, including: what year should be set as the baseline against which specific reduction targets will be measured; the duration of the emissions reduction commitment period; whether or not to call for curbs on deforestation, especially in developing countries’ tropical rainforests; and whether or not to tighten rules governing the methods used to reduce emissions.


EarthTalk is produced by E/The Environmental Magazine. SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; Read past columns at: EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at: