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Steam billows from the cooling towers of a brown coal power station in eastern Germany on Dec. 2. (Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters)

Between Dec. 7 and 18, environment ministers and officials from 192 countries will converge on Copenhagen for a United Nations conference on climate change.

More than 85 world leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and U.S. President Barack Obama, plan to participate in person.

What is this summit?

In 1992, the vast majority of the world's nations signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). While legally non-binding, the treaty provides an outline for member countries to stabilize and reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

Kyoto reductions

The protocol called for reductions of these six greenhouse gases:

  • carbon dioxide.
  • methane.
  • nitrous oxide.
  • hydrofluorocarbons.
  • perfluorocarbons.
  • sulphur hexafluoride.

After years of intense negotiation, the member states hammered out an agreement on how to put these principles into action. The Kyoto Protocol, formally adopted in December 1997, set firm targets to reduce emissions, but only for 37 industrialized nations.

These goals vary by country; Canada's target is a six-per-cent reduction below 1990 levels by 2012.

One-hundred and eighty-nine countries have ratified Kyoto to date, with the United States notably absent from the list. The U.S. signed the protocol, which came into force in February 2005, but has neither ratified nor withdrawn from it.

The Conference of the Parties (COP), the UNFCCC's highest decision-making body, holds a meeting each year. The goal of these summits is to keep the treaty's broad climate change efforts on track.

This year's 15th meeting, also known as COP15, takes place in Copenhagen.

Why the sense of urgency?

Climate scientists believe that increases in global temperatures must be kept no more than two degrees Celsius above Industrial Revolution levels to prevent wide-spread environmental damage, such as rising oceans and widespread droughts.

The world's temperatures have risen by an estimated 0.74 Celsius during the past 100 years, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And without intervention, global temperatures could rise by up to four degrees by 2060, according to one British study.

At their July 2009 meeting in Italy, the Group of Eight nations agreed to a two-degree Celsius limit on global warming. While climate experts applauded the goal, the countries didn’t reach a consensus on the hard targets needed to achieve it.

Keeping the promise will not be easy for the G8. The European Union says that, based on IPCC findings, global emissions need to peak by 2020 and then be more than halved under 1990 levels by mid-century to keep the global temperature increase under two degrees.

What's the ultimate goal of COP15?

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The glaciers of Patagonia, seen here in Chile, are some of the fastest retreating glaciers on Earth. (Roberto Candia/Associated Press)

The original aim was to find a successor deal to Kyoto, which expires at the end of 2012. The international community had set a December deadline to make it happen.

However, a rift between developed and developing nations over emissions — who should cut, how much, and who should pay for it — has dampened expectations  for what will come out of Copenhagen.

The hope now is for a politically binding deal that will produce an outline for a more formal agreement to be considered late next year.

As Yvon de Boer, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, states on the convention's website: "At Copenhagen, governments must reach agreement on all the essential elements of a comprehensive, fair and effective deal on climate change, that both ensures long-term commitments and launches immediate action."

What is the stolen email scandal?

Hundreds of emails between scientists at the U.K.'s Climatic Research Unit, a leading global research centre on climate change, were apparently stolen and made public in November.  Skeptics of climate science have seized on the documents — at least some of which have been confirmed as authentic — as evidence that some scientists have overstated the case for global warming and have attempted to manipulate data.

But researchers working with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have dismissed the posting of documents as an attempt to derail discussions leading up to the Copenhagen summit.

What is Canada's position at COP15?

Analysis

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 Don Newman: You can't blame Prime Minister Stephen Harper for being a reluctant participant at the Copenhagen summit.

In the leadup to COP15, Harper told reporters that his government believed it was essential to keep Canada's targets in line with those of the U.S. because of the close integration of their two economies.

Canada's target, Harper said, is for a 20-per-cent reduction from 2006 levels of greenhouse gases by 2020. The proposal also includes a cap-and-trade system with the United States.

What do other countries have on the table?

Some of the national perspectives going into the summit:

U.S.

  Point of view

 

If a breakthrough deal is to be reached, American President Barack Obama is seen as the one most likely to deliver it.

Administration officials have said that the U.S. will present a target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions at the summit. A bill passed by the House of Representatives in June would require a reduction of 17 per cent under 2005 levels by 2020 and 80 per cent by mid-century. That equates to a roughly three per cent cut below 1990 levels.

China

  Point of view

 

 

The country's cabinet announced plans in late November to sharply boost its energy efficiency and slow the growth of carbon emissions. The target: cut emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020, compared with levels in 2005.

China has said repeatedly it will seek binding pollution targets for developed countries, blaming them for causing most of the existing climate situation. However, it rejects similar requirements for developing nations such as itself.

At a conference in April, China called for the West to cut emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

EU

  Point of view

 

The industrialized countries of Europe have called for more aggressive curbs on greenhouse gases than those cited by U.S. and Canada.

The European Union has offered to slash emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 — but using 1990 levels as the baseline. The country has also pledged to raise that to 30 per cent if an ambitious deal can be hammered out.

Japan

  Point of view

 

New Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has promised to slash emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, if other major emitters also take meaningful action. This is in the range recommended for developing nations by the UN's climate change panel report in 2007.

Japan, the world's second-largest economy, has also pledged to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

India

  Point of view

 

India is proposing to reduce its carbon intensity — its emissions relative to GDP, the measure China is using — by 24 per cent over 2005 levels by 2020, according to the Guardian newspaper.

The country, the world's fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has joined with other developing nations in calling for developed nations to share more of the burden for emissions cuts.