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Climate change talks: What to look for at Copenhagen

The Copenhagen climate change talks kicked off on Monday. A Q&A on the key areas that will define success or failure.

By Peter SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2009

Lars Loekke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark, speaks during the opening ceremony of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on Monday.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP



Delegates left the Bali climate change talks in December 2007 with high hopes that a grand bargain on reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be secured by now.

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But today, as the latest round of climate change talks begin with representatives from more than 190 countries gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark, expectations are far more modest.

The biggest decision – a binding international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions – is likely to be pushed off until next December, when another round of climate talks are scheduled for Mexico City. Nevertheless, two weeks in Copenhagen will yield insights into global efforts to control industrial emissions and the warming of the planet.

Below are some key questions:

What might success in Copenhagen look like?

Low expectations at the start of the conference may not be a bad thing.

"I think there was a sense all along that we were not going to be able to reach an international binding legal agreement in Copenhagen," says Eileen Claussen, who heads the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va. But only in the last week did leaders acknowledge this. The results may disappoint some, she said, but added that it's a more realistic track.

Three areas will be the keys to "success" in Copenhagen.

Emissions reductions. What target will wealthy countries and major developing countries like China, India and Brazil set for reducing emissions between now and 2050? An interim target for 2020 will also be set.

Immediate action. What actions will countries take immediately after the meeting to reduce emissions, move new green technologies into the marketplace, and help developing countries adopt cleaner power sources?

Money. How much cash will rich country's pony to help poorer ones pay for green technologies they will need to spur economic growth in a climate-friendly way?

If the meeting yields progress on those three objectives "it will be a resounding success," says Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Observers say the meeting will have failed if it ends without a clear mandate to wrap up binding legal language on reducing emissions no later than December 2010. Otherwise, the process is likely to unravel into prolonged haggling over a new pact's rules of the road, much as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol did.

Money also looms large. Many in the developing world say their richer counterparts need to pay to help them adjust to a changing climate and to reducing their own emissions. A clear, quick-start financing package for these poorer nations might offset developing country anger over what they view as limited emissions reductions promises by major industrial nations.

Industrial countries want a transparent way to verify that developing countries are following through on promises, but several developing countries say such oversight would be a threat to national sovereignty.

What are countries offering on greenhouse-gas reductions?

On Sunday, South Africa said it would slow the growth of its emissions to 34 percent below the current annual growth rate by 2020 and to 42 percent by 2025, as long as international aid is forthcoming.

India has offered to improve its energy efficiency to 20 or 25 percent better than 2005 levels, provided it gets international money.

China has offered up a 40 to 45 percent efficiency improvement on 2005.

Brazil has put up actual emissions reductions of 36 to 39 percent below 1994 levels by 2020, if it gets financial help.