Countdown to Copenhagen, Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo, Brazil
By TOM ZELLER Jr. – The New York Times
With the scientific consensus more or less settled that human activity — the burning of fossil fuels, torching of forests, and so forth — is contributing to a warmer and less hospitable planet, one might reasonably ask, why is it so hard to agree on a plan to curb those activities?
The answer lies with the many fault lines that cut through the debate over climate change. Those deep divisions will be on display beginning this week as representatives of 192 nations gather in Copenhagen for a United Nations conference on the issue.
Organizers had hoped to emerge with an international compact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help countries most threatened by rising sea waters and temperatures. But the divisions between nations are such that world leaders agreed last month to put off resolving the most contentious issues until next year. They will try instead to reach a nonbinding interim agreement in Copenhagen, then work toward a binding treaty in 2010.
Just what will happen, of course, remains to be seen. Here’s a primer on some of the major themes and fissures:
RICH NATIONS VS. POOR NATIONS
Who should pay whom for what — and how much?
The Bolivias and Chads and Mauritanias of the world argue that they are more vulnerable to changes in temperature, and have little or no resources to adapt to changes in the growing seasons or increased rainfall or — worst case — to relocate large numbers of people.
They want the rich world to commit to far deeper emissions cuts than they already have, and to provide them with cash and technology so they can prepare for the worst and develop a clean energy infrastructure for themselves.
The rich world, meanwhile, is busy trying to figure out just how to calculate the cost of all this (estimates run into the trillions of dollars), and how to divvy up the bill.
DEVELOPED VS. DEVELOPING ECONOMIES
This is where postindustrial economies like the United States and Europe, which became prosperous by burning carbon-dioxide-spewing fossil fuels, face off against industrializing economies like China, Brazil and India, which resent pressure to decarbonize their energy systems now that they are growing.
The standoff between China and the United States underscores the issues. The global trade rivals were reluctant to commit to emissions targets until each had an idea of what the other planned. The two countries together are responsible for 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But all players have been eyeing each other warily.
In recent weeks, bidding has begun, with Brazil, then the United States, followed by China and, last week, India, offering up individual emissions goals. But they have used different baselines against which to measure their reductions, making it difficult to determine whether there is parity.
ISLAND AND COASTAL NATIONS VS. THE CLOCK
In mid-October, ministers of the government of the Maldives, a low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean, donned scuba gear and held a 30-minute cabinet meeting underwater off the coast of the capital, Malé.
The stunt was designed to highlight the nation’s plight — and that of three-dozen or so other small island and coastal countries — should global warming raise sea levels in the coming decades. Even a modest increase could leave a number of low-lying nations uninhabitable.
As a bloc, these countries have been lobbying for an international agreement to keep average temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius — or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. They also want global emissions scaled back by as much as 85 percent by midcentury.
The bloc, which includes a wide range of economies, from relatively well-to-do Singapore to strugglers like Haiti, wins points for being at the front lines of a planetary problem, but its political clout at the negotiating table is uncertain.
EUROPE VS. EUROPE
Even though the European Union has been at the vanguard of renewable energy development and emissions reduction through its carbon trading scheme, it is struggling internally over each nation’s carbon quotas, assistance to developing countries and fidelity to the emissions reductions agreed to in 1997 under the Kyoto Protocol.
While Europe as a whole is on track to meet its goal of an 8 percent reduction over 1990 emissions levels by 2012, not every country has pulled its weight. Nations unlikely to meet their individual Kyoto targets include Italy, Spain and, yes, Denmark, host of the Copenhagen talks.
Poland and Estonia, meanwhile, have been bickering with the European Commission over the amount of carbon dioxide the two countries should be allowed to emit. Both rely heavily on coal for electricity.
Oil-producing nations are worried about the impact of a global climate deal, and they have increasingly argued that any agreement that would reduce reliance on fossil fuels should include compensation for their lost revenues.
Saudi Arabia has spearheaded this argument, and while environmental groups and other stakeholders have dismissed the notion as a stunt, oil producers are not without the ability to muddle negotiations if push comes to shove.
Meanwhile, developers of wind, solar and other renewable technologies anticipate a windfall if the community of nations — including mega-polluters like the United States — agree to a binding climate treaty. So, too, do global banks, which would presumably do handsomely through an expanded carbon trading market.
Lobbyists from all sides will be wining and dining delegates over the next two weeks.
CARBON TAXERS VS. CARBON TRADERS
Many experts argue that the only way to tackle climate change is to put a price on carbon. Some say the best way to do that is to create a cap-and-trade system, in which industries are issued permits to emit carbon dioxide up to a certain level, or cap. Companies that emit below the cap can then sell their permits on a carbon market, where companies exceeding the cap will, presumably, buy them so they can continue to pollute. The total number of permits would not exceed an overall emissions target.
Europe has had an emissions trading scheme since 2005. Some critics argue, however, that such systems are unnecessarily complicated and prone to manipulation. A simpler solution would be a tax on carbon, they say.
But with a cap-and-trade scheme forming the bedrock of negotiations in Copenhagen, and among legislators in Congress seeking to pass national climate legislation, the carbon-tax camp has been increasingly marginalized.
EMERGENCY VS. WE’LL FIGURE IT OUT
The idea that human beings are nudging the planet’s thermostat upward is widely accepted among climatologists. But just how rapidly things are changing, to what extent and where — and at what threshold, if any, should we abandon all hope — are far less settled questions.
In 2008, the NASA scientist and global warming guru James Hansen identified 350 parts per million as the upper limit for safe atmospheric carbon concentration. Current levels are approaching 390 parts per million.
Others argue that there is no reason for panic — nor for what they say is an economy-crushing global climate treaty. They are putting their faith in human ingenuity, arguing that planetary-scale engineering projects like blasting seawater into the atmosphere to increase the heat reflectivity of certain clouds (yes, that’s a real idea), will eventually solve the problem.