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Can the Copenhagen summit succeed?

A few short months ago, it seemed almost inconceivable that the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen would end with anything less than a binding, legal agreement.


Now it looks like they will be a failure—at least, if one considers what was the original goal of the talks.

Watch George Negus’ interview with Danish Climate Minister Connie Hedegaard.

‘No legal binding deal this year’

There have been several signs over the past weeks that indicate that no legally binding deal is likely at the global talks in Copenhagen.

Even Germany acknowledged it, calling for all countries to fix binding climate change targets next year at the latest.

“Next year, if possible during the first half, we must clinch a binding deal which will have international oversight of each country’s obligations,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on the margins of an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels.

All hopes for a deal where crushed on November 16 when at the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore, 17 heads of states and government dropped a proposal included in earlier drafts to slash their greenhouse gas emissions to half their 1990 levels by 2050.

China vows to slow emissions growth

But there have also been some signs that that big tanker may be very slowly turning.

China promised to slow its carbon emissions, saying it would nearly halve the ratio of pollution to GDP over the next decade – a major move by the world’s largest emitter, whose cooperation is crucial to any deal as a global climate summit approaches.

Beijing’s voluntary pledge comes a day after President Barack Obama promised the US would lay out plans at the summit to substantially cut its own greenhouse gas emissions. Together, the announcements are building momentum for next month’s meeting in Copenhagen.

But environmental experts warned that China’s plan does not commit it to reducing emissions – and that they will in fact continue to increase, though at a slower rate.

With the United States now offering specifics – reducing carbon dioxide emissions by about 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 – China seemed to follow its lead.

China pledged to cut “carbon intensity”, a measure of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product, by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020, compared with levels in 2005. Beijing also said Premier Wen Jiabao will take part in the Copenhagen meeting.

“There’s no question their carbon emissions would continue to grow under this scenario,” said Charlie Melee, an international environmental and energy lawyer based in Shanghai. “This isn’t by any means an agreement by China to either cap, much less reduce, the amount of its carbon emissions. It’s only slowing down the rate at which emissions are growing.”

If China did nothing and its economy doubles in size as expected in coming years, its emissions would likely double as well. The pledge means emissions would only increase by 50 per cent in such a scenario.

Senate to act on Climate Bill in 2010

Even more critically, the US climate change legislation won’t pass the Senate in time for the summit.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the US Senate will act in early 2010 on legislation to battle climate change, ending hopes of a breakthrough by next month’s global talks.

Obama ‘could still agree to target’

The Obama administration offered to curb US emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 — less than calls by the European Union, Japan and UN scientists but the first numbers on the table by the world’s largest economy.

The White House said Obama would lay out a longer term plan for a 30 percent reduction of US emissions from 2005 levels by 2025, a 42 percent reduction by 2030 and an 83 percent cut by 2050.

Stefan Krug, head of the political unit for Greenpeace Germany told Business Week the US have more room for maneuvere than they are currently admitting.

“Obama could actually already agree to legally binding objectives for CO2 emissions without waiting for Congress.

“He could also make financial promises to developing nations and make those commitments dependent on greenhouse gas reductions,” Mr Krug said.

Scope of the summit redefined?

SBS Dateline Presenter George Negus says the summit will still be useful in spreading awareness on climate change issues.

“The political reality is that it is not as easy as it appears for the entire world to agree on a course of action on something that is incredibly complex economically, politically and environmentally as climate change,” Mr Negus said.

“We failed miserably as a human race, a community of nations to solve the problem of war for centuries, so why should we suddenly find it easy to solve as problem like global warming and climate change?”

Mr Negus reckons it may take two to three years from the Copenhagen summit to draft a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.

In an exclusive interview with SBS Dateline program, Danish Climate Change Minister Connie Hadegaard stressed how difficult it is to try to put together an international agreement like this one.

She said she hopes a deal can still be reached in Copenhagen, but added the summit will also be important to spread global awareness on climate change.

“You must also take care that the awareness is out there, that people knows that this is important, that businesses say to their government that we want you to act. That the civil society, NGOs, all of them put maximum pressures on ministers, on parliaments, on governments”, she told Dateline.

“That is what international politics is all about. To try to get them altogether. Make the pressure so strong so that in the end they will start to compromise.

“I don’t know whether we’ll succeed in doing that in Copenhagen but that is obviously what we are trying to achieve”.