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Clock ticking as Copenhagen global climate change summit begins

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Negotiators are working on two deals, running on parallel tracks. One involves a new commitment period for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which industrial countries that ratified the agreement initially promised to reduce their collective greenhouse-gas emissions to 5.5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, a target they are still hoping to meet. A second commitment period to meet this goal is being discussed by the countries that ratified the protocol. The second, higher-profile track is an agreement that would cover the US – which did not ratify Kyoto – and developing countries, perhaps to be dubbed the Copenhagen Protocol.

The aim is to reach political agreements here that can lead to immediate action on greenhouse-gas emissions control and provide a quick influx of cash to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and pay for the technologies that could help them leap-frog energy technologies that spew carbon dioxide.

Expensive proposal

The sums being considered are large: $10 billion a year between 2010 and 2012, then upwards of $100 billion a year out to 2020.

Legally, the boundary between the two is clear. In negotiations, the boundary is blurred. Developed countries are reluctant to further tighten the screws on their emissions unless major developing countries, whose emissions are climbing, come forward with significant emissions-control offers. Developing countries are loathe to take action under an international agreement unless developed countries offer aggressive emissions-reduction plans. This is especially true for the US, which gave the world eight years of what was widely perceived as inaction on the issue.

Poorer nations also complain they're being asked to adopt expensive solutions that will slow economic growth, while economic powers like Japan and the US have already enjoyed the fruits of pumping lots of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas. A joint study by the World Wildlife Fund and the climate research unit of German insurer Allianz found that the US pumps the equivalent of 25 tons of CO2 per person a year. China, by contrast, pumps five.

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