A Copenhagen Primer

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | December 8, 2009 | Climate Change

The world’s eyes are firmly fixed on Copehangen, Denmark today for the opening of the 15th Conference of the Parties on climate change. For the next 14 days, delegates from the United States and 191 other nations will discuss, argue and negotiate towards what we hope will be a universally-accepted, fair, ambitious and binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases.  The negotiators and heads of state will actually be a small fraction of visitors in Copenhagen as thousands of activists, business leaders, elected officials and global citizens are already ringside in Denmark to observe the talks, report on progress and advocate for the strongest possible climate agreement from these talks.

Such an agreement has been a very long time in coming, indeed, as the first global climate gathering was held nearly two decades ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  At the 1992 Summit, world leaders from 172 nations adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the first international agreement to limit greenhouse gases.  When a majority of governments (including the United States) ratified the Convention in 1994, a framework for voluntarily reducing global warming pollution was established.  Signatories have convened each year since to continue the negotiating process, starting in Berlin in 1995 and gathering this month in Copenhagen.

Because the Convention established voluntary reduction goals, and not mandatory reduction limits, participating countries realized that stronger action would be needed and negotiated the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC in 1997.  Although President Clinton symbolically signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, our government never ratified the treaty.  In fact, the United States Senate preemptively voted 95 to 0 against ratifying an international treaty that did not require pollution reduction from developing nations, as well as developed ones.  As a consequence, the United States remains the sole industrialized nation still to ratify or withdraw from the treaty.  Meanwhile, ratifying nations have begun building and operating within an international carbon market place, impacting world business and commerce as multi-national companies do business in countries that are taking responsible action to reduce global warming pollution.

In anticipation of the Kyoto Protocol’s conclusion in 2012, world leaders adopted the Bali Action Plan during the COP13 negotiations in Bali.  The Bali Action Plan outlines an ambitious series of steps needed to reach the next stage of a global, long-term agreement on climate change leading up to the COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen.

While some steps, such as interim gatherings in Poznan, Poland or Barcelona, Spain, were predictable and certain to happen, events in recent weeks permit a cautious optimism that a comprehensive and effective agreement to reduce global warming pollution is still possible despite lack of progress in the United States Senate.

In the last month, a range of industrial countries (such as the United States) and major emerging nations (such as China and India) have issued reduction pledges that are collectively just short of what scientists are calling for, according to a new report by the UN Environment Program.  Last week, the White House confirmed that President Obama will attend the negotiations not in the first week as originally reported, but for the final day on December 18, suggesting his presence may help to ‘clinch a deal’ in the final hours of negotiations.  And today, as the conference’s first day wound down, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a final ruling that greenhouse gas pollution threatens the health and welfare of the American people.  This ruling paves the way for limits on global warming pollution with or without legislative action from Congressional and will arm the President with new regulatory powers that could be the key in forging a global consensus by the end of next week.

The pressure has never been greater nor the stakes higher for the United States to vigorously reengage in international negotiations and lead in the next phase of international climate agreements.  As 56 newspapers affirmed by running the same editorial in 45 countries today, we have “fourteen days to seal history’s judgment on this generation.”

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) will be among the attendees in Copenhagen starting on December 12. Dr. Stephen A. Smith, SACE’s Executive Director, and Jennifer Rennicks, SACE’s Federal Policy Director, will follow the action in Copenhagen from a uniquely southeastern clean energy perspective. You can read SACE’s Copenhagen Blogposts, follow SACE on Twitter and join us for an exclusive webinar on December 14 all designed to keep our members and allies updated on the proceedings and outcomes as SACE works to show Congressional and world leaders that businesses and citizens from the Southeast want a clean energy future and expect bold climate action.

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