Will Copenhagen lead to a deal?

December 8, 2009

In Copenhagen, delegates from 190 countries are at the largest-ever climate conference aimed at crafting a legally-binding global treaty to curb climate change.

Reuters.com is running a series with some of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject during the talks, which run Dec7-18. We are asking questions about breaking news out of the conference as well as more umbrella themes about fighting global warming. We also hope you will join the discussion.

Today’s question: Will Copenhagen come up with a deal to avert “dangerous” global warming?


Dr. David Suzuki, award-winning geneticist and journalist:

It can and it should.

Many climate scientists and governments agree that avoiding dangerous climate change means no more than 2 degrees C of average global warming compared to pre-industrial temperatures. An increasing number are saying that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is necessary.

If these thresholds are breached, impacts escalate: rising seas that inundate low-lying island states, droughts that curtail food production, hurricanes that become more frequent and intense.

But a fair, ambitious, and binding Copenhagen agreement can avert the worst damage and allow countries to seize opportunities in the clean-energy economy.

That means all countries must do their fair share, with the majority of the effort being shouldered by rich, industrialized countries. They need to reduce their global warming pollution deeply and provide financial and technological support to the developing world so it can adapt to climate change and curb its own emissions.

We still have a choice: to experience a little climate change or a lot of climate change. Copenhagen will be a defining moment for which path we choose.



Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago:

Predicting climate is hard enough, but predicting the outcome of a political process is even harder.

At least in this case, we only need to wait about two weeks to get the answer.

Meanwhile, I can say something about the general issue of what would constitute real progress towards avoiding “dangerous” warming.

The wording regarding “dangerous warming” in the Framework Convention doesn’t really make sense scientifically, since it implies that there is some level above which there is danger and below which things are safe.  The reality is that even if we stop emitting CO2 tomorrow, we are already committed to a certain degree of warming, and some of the consequences of that could already be called dangerous.

The European Union has settled on a maximum atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 450 parts per million, and even that takes us fairly well outside the range of climate of the past million years and there will be some danger.

However, the thing to recognize is that the warmer we make it, the more danger there is, and there is enough coal underground that if we burned it all the CO2 concentration could go way beyond doubling, all the way up to 1200 parts per million, or maybe even as high as 2000 parts per million if the carbon stored in land ecosystems starts getting released.

So, even if the results of Copenhagen failed to put us on track to avoid a doubling of CO2, it will still have been worthwhile if it puts us on track to avoid going beyond.

There’s always more danger to be avoided, so getting the process started to get us on track to a decarbonized economy  is the important thing.  The wording of the Framework Convention is reasonable for a treaty document, in that it leaves it to the messy business of democracy to sort out the balance of costs and risks in deciding what is an acceptable level of danger.

The thing to recognize is that CO2 is a pollutant that accumulates in the atmosphere, like mercury accumulates
in the food chain, and is removed only slowly over many centuries.  To stop the buildup to dangerous level, we eventually need to go all the way to zero emissions, and Copenhagen is not going to do that.

However, if we get on track to stop the growth of emissions during the next ten years and reduce global emissions by something like half in the next thirty or forty years, that will at least buy us enough time that we can almost certainly avoid a doubling of CO2, and will buy enough time to develop technologies that can take us the rest of the way to zero emissions.

There is a reasonable chance that Copenhagen will get us that much.



Kim Carstensen, leader of the World Wildlife Fund Global Climate Initiative:

Yes, Copenhagen will end with a climate deal.

There can be an agreement and there must be an agreement because that is what people around the world want. A failure to act means ignoring the will of millions of people.

It means turning the back to those whose lives will be affected by rising temperatures. It means to be remembered as the generation who did not care about the future of their children and grandchildren

But in Copenhagen we not only need to agree on a deal. We need to agree on a fair, ambitious and binding deal. WWF and other NGOs who gathered for this negotiating will be fighting for this.

We will be checking the deal for its level of ambition and for how binding it is on the countries, who sign. We need climate clarity and certainty, and we know we can get it.


What do you think? Leave your comments below.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I would love to see something substantive come out of Copenhagen, but opponents of carbon legislation, particularly in the U.S., pose a real threat to the process. Armed with talking points carefully cherry-picked from the stolen CRU emails, they’re howling like a pack of rabid wolves. God help us all if they succeed in derailing this.

Remember that the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the League of Nations – a failure that may have led to WWII. Do not count on our politicians to act in the best interests of the world.

Posted by Fishrl | Report as abusive

[…] • Reuters gets David Suzuki and another leading environmentalist to predict that negotiators will leave Copenhagen with a deal. […]

Posted by Copenhagen Day 1: EPA sends a big message | My Green ATL | Report as abusive

The political manuvering necessary to even have the conference will insure that there will be some agreement at the ending of the conference. But the content of the agreement, how binding the agreement will be, and the focus of the agenda as we move away from Copenhagen are not going to be what the organizers hope/want/expect.

The scope of disingenuous behavior amongst the supposedly objective scientific community,as revealed by the Climategate emails, is going to serve as a poisoned arrow into the political process.

Certain unsavory behaviors are acceptable from politicians and other even more devious behaviors are acceptable by activists; but scientists are held to more stringent ethical behaviors. When boundaries of behavior are violated, then all becomes suspect. When a person, or a class of person’s integity becomes suspect, then no potitical action based upon that ingerity is certain.

Posted by PhilGrimm | Report as abusive

Agreement is definitely attainable. But the question is what sort of agreement. In Bali the world agreed (no thanks to a last minute U-turn by the United States) to agreeing to a legally binding treaty in Copenhagen, but I don’t think we’ll be getting it in Copenhagen. The world is still divided on core issues of equity, where the attribute of blame and hence how much emissions to cut by whom is still unresolved. Not to mention the technological issues and adaptation issues involved. We’ll see a global agreement, and the world leaders will hail it as a great step towards dealing with the climate change problem, but the impact of such an agreement will be minimal when compared to what the individual countries are already commiting themselves to do.

Posted by ben_00 | Report as abusive

Not that it matters.

It is unlikely that we will agree to cut emissions by 50% (not just emission growth) in the next fifty years.

And even if we do this will only reduce climate change by fifty percent. And this will only happen at the point when we cut emissions by 50%.

And that assumes no growth in emissions (meaning low economic growth) and massive growth in green energy (meaning high energy costs).

Plus there is the obvious issue that for an agreement to be legally binding, it needs to be legally enforcable. Something I doubt will be possible. If China, India or America decide to stop complying, what will the world do? Embargo them and cause another global recession?

Sooner or later people are going to realise we need to stop trying to prevent climate change. Face facts. Climate change has already happened. Now we should be getting ready to live in the post climate change world.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

World community must come to an agreement for a legally binding target for limiting emissions in COP15. It is only for few major polluters our planet is in danger. It is already late.We can not argue with nature , will climate.The damage we have done is almost irreversible. World can not support billions of climate refugees if we do not act and act positively now.

Posted by sufi | Report as abusive