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Copenhagen: Waiting In Anticipation

By Marianne de Nazareth

09 December, 2009

Difficult to speculate if COP15 will deliver at the end of 2 weeks

Copenhagen, 09 December, 2009: As negotiators began work at the COP-15 Summit here in Copenhagen, two key positions from the developing-country side came into place with 2020 carbon targets, rounding out a G-77 negotiating position that looks far more ambitious than anything envisaged even as recently as September 2009.

South Africa offered a 34% cut in "business as usual" levels by 2020 (framing cuts in the same terms as Indonesia and Brazil), rising to 42% by 2025, in a strategy that will do much to change the country's energy mix, particularly for power generation where coal remains the mainstay, but with significant renewables uptake envisaged, supported by handsome feed-in tariffs. India's offer involves a 20-25% cut in carbon intensity by 2020, the same kind of formula as China put forward in order to preserve economic growth, though China pushed the bar upwards to 40-45% on a 2005 baseline.

These moves flesh out a position among the leading developing economies—or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and sometimes South Africa)—which have been singled out by the developed world as a necessary component of any 2020 climate commitment based on concerns about their gaining undue economic advantage should their emissions growth go unchecked while others act. In particular, the United States and Japan have caveated their active participation in a Copenhagen agreement on some movement by the leading developing states, making clear that, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, BRICS should be differentiated from the wider G-77 developing groups in a reflection of their greater economic wherewithal and rapidly increasing emissions trajectories.

The latest moves are making the first week in Copenhagen focused about developed-country positions, particularly the United States, which the world feels is integral to any effective global outcome from the Summit. In support of this, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) this week deemed carbon emissions to be a "danger to human health", thereby opening up new routes for regulatory action against emissions outside the complex legislative process under way in Congress, where the Senate is currently locked in a debate over its version of a House of Representatives bill that foresees a 17% cut in emissions by 2020 against the 20% reduction in Senate, both on a 2005 baseline.

The European Union (EU) has also re-entered the spotlight with questions over when its high-end 30% targets will be triggered, given the range of offers now on the table. Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren has said that this high-end level remains a lever to bring others to the table and not a position that will be given away lightly. The EU has so far been the most forthcoming on the thorny issue of climate finance, pushing the idea of a fast-track fund for 2010-12 with Anglo-French co-operation, as well as a long-term funding formula, though that this has still failed to ignite detailed discussion on this crucial issue among the other leading states.

Meanwhile, Japan has only recently outlined its high-end target of a 25% cut by 2020 if others are on board, with plenty of questions domestically about how this will be achieved and opposition to a carbon tax on fossil fuels as a part of this.

Nevertheless, shifts will have to be made among the three central groupings according to current external calculations, which estimate that measures outlined so far will still leave a 1-5 billion tonne overhang in carbon emissions by 2020 on the levels required to limited temperature rises to 2°C above pre-industrial levels of 44 billion tonnes. If the bar is lowered to a 1.5°C increase, as supported by small island states, the gap is still wider for 2020 and requires a substantial reframing of key positions, most likely untenable in this two-week phase of discussions for sure.

Much has progressed in recent weeks after fairly unpromising progress along the Bali action plan, which was outlined in 2007 with Copenhagen as its final finish. This gives some hope for further breakthroughs in the two weeks ahead based on the agreement of a number of "pro-climate action" administrations. This is unlikely to go ahead with any level of specifics given the carbon gap still identified for 2020, which is likely to dominate debate, as too will the discussion on finance.

The goal for many is to sign up to a high-end skeleton political framework, which can be fleshed out more significantly in 2010. However, with a number of countries facing mid-term elections next year, the timeline for current actors to put flesh on the Copenhagen bones remains tight. The UN's six-month goal for a binding legal framework ,outlined by the head of the UN Framework on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, is very much the new "final" deadline outlining the depth of efforts required at Copenhagen.

(The writer is a fellow with the UNFCCC and is reporting from Copenhagen)

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