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Update from Copenhagen

Posted by Gary Braasch at Dec 14, 2009 11:50 AM |
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As week two begins, the U.N. climate negotiations focus on global inequality.

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Update from Copenhagen

Photo by Gary Braasch

The battle over the strength of a possible new agreement continues between the developed countries and the small states, the most underdeveloped nations, and those, like Tuvalu, in grave danger of increased sea level rise and storms.

This week the talks reach a climax as the leaders of many nations, including the United States, join their negotiating teams at the Bella Center and in side meetings. Many U.S. senators are due in, and of course the entire meeting awaits the appearance of Barack Obama on Friday. By then, it is hoped that most of the framework for the world's official response to global warming will be set: how much the developed world will promise to cut greenhouse gases by 2020 or 2030, the role of the developing world in increasing standards of living for their poor while keeping their contribution to pollution to a minimum, how China and India will react and what they will promise to do, and how funds to help the most at risk and provide less-polluting and carbon-sequestering technologies will be raised and spent.

Right now, the apparent total reductions being promised by the leading industrial nations, as analyzed by non-governmental environmental groups is about eight to 12 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (1990 is the agreed baseline in the Kyoto Protocol, which many nations are using as a framework for a continuing agreement). But the most at-risk nations, and many scientists, say the reductions in greenhouse gases must happen much faster—up to 40 percent under 1990 emission levels within the coming decade. The U.S. negotiators here are following the bill passed by the House this year, claiming about 17 percent reductions below 2005 greenhouse gas levels, which pencils out to only about 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This is unacceptable to many nations—and to the many thousands of environmental, social, and renewable energy groups who are attending COP-15 as observers.

This is the largest COP [Conference of Parties] ever, with 35,000 attendees registered—the previous high attendance was about 10,000—but only 15,000 may enter the Bella Center halls due to fire and safety regulations. This is requiring groups to limit the staffs and volunteers they brought to Copenhagen. Everyone entering must pass through airline-style security, creating blocks long lines to get in. The subway line serving the center (actually above ground at the Bella Center station) was jammed up this morning by the entry lines being backed up to the exit stairways.

In the streets of downtown Copenhagen, even when demonstrators are not present—as they were by the tens of thousands on Saturday—there are reminders everywhere of climate change and the wish for strong, ambitious and binding greenhouse gas reductions to be the final result of the negotiations. Some 10 story buildings are completely covered by banners about the plight of the poor, there are many public photo displays, and both giant inflated balls and huge cubes showing the volume of a ton of CO2. The average American causes more than 20 of these each year—about 80 times that of a Bangladeshi, for example—and most people here seem to know the effect of this disparity.


Gary Braasch is a nature and environmental photojournalist whose work on global warming has won him international recognition. YES! Magazine has been proud to publish his work since our first issue in 1996. He is the author of Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World and co-author, with Lynne Cherry, of How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming. Gary is blogging from Copenhagen at worldviewofglobalwarming.org.

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