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The Need For Depoliticizing Copenhagen Climate Negotiations

International politics and diplomacy has brought to where we are today. The United States is ready with a provisional emissions reduction target and so are the developing countries ready with their voluntary carbon intensity reduction targets. But as leaders from more than 190 countries prepare to meet at Copenhagen’s Bella Center to discuss the framework of the next climate treaty one wonders if the politics should give way to the climate science.


Never before have the United States and the developing countries proposed to reduce their carbon outputs. This has been a result of the concentrated diplomatic effort of the Obama administration which single handedly convinced the Chinese to volunteer for emission intensity reduction. China’s announcement was followed by similar announcements by other developing countries like India, South Africa and Brazil.

But the targets announced by almost all countries are not in sync with the IPCC recommendations. The IPCC report recommended that the global carbon emissions need to come down by 25-40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. Most of the developed countries are proposing emission cuts of less that 25 percent and some have changed the base year from 1990 to a value which suits their national interets.

The United States has changed the base year to 2005 for its 17 percent emission reduction by 2020 which means an overal reduction of merely 4-6 percent from 1990 levels while the European Union (core members) will overshoot their emission reduction targets.

India and China have announced emission intensity reduction targets raising hopes for achieving significant progress at Copenhagen climate summit. But questions are already being raised about the effectiveness and the potential outcomes of these targets. Both, India and China, will achieve a majority of the proposed targets within the first half of the commitment period by following ‘business as usual‘ approach which means that there is much more room of reducing their carbon output.

Even after this progress world leaders have made it clear that the meeting at Copenhagen would, at best, lay down the political foundation for any future climate deal. So it pretty clear that the climate negotiators will only look to iron out the political differences rather than discussing what needs to be done to avoid a global climate catastrophe.

Eminent climate scientist James Hansen said that the Copenhagen talks are more to do with the politics rather than the climate science. While noting the recent announced carbon targets he said that although these are welcome change in national policies they are based on assumptions which are not at all close to reality and if the world agrees to limit its action to merely these targets it would be a step backwards.

“I would rather it not happen if people accept that as being the right track because it’s a disaster track,” said Hansen, who heads the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

“The whole approach is so fundamentally wrong that it is better to reassess the situation. If it is going to be the Kyoto-type thing then [people] will spend years trying to determine exactly what that means.”

While the announcements of carbon cuts grab the most headlines there are many other issues which require greater attention and consensus in order to get a planet-friendly climate deal. Issues like technology transfer, R&D to make renewable energy infrastructure affordable, technical constraints to integration of renewable sources in to the existing power grids are the real problems being faced or will be faced when we try to implement these targets.

In a great piece Jeffery Sachs, professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, explains the obstacles that the world would encounter in achieving the proposed targets and why we need to involve the scientific community in the process of negotiations.

We’ve debated for years about who should control emissions, by how much, when, and according to binding or non-binding commitments. Yet we can’t settle these issues without also getting into the details about the deployment of low-carbon technologies, social behaviors and the quantitative realities of energy systems, transport technologies, food production, water scarcity, and population trends. We will continue to go around in circles until we are much more systematic in bringing scientific and engineering realities to the table. Our negotiations need much greater grounding in our true options and their costs.

What purpose does the IPCC solve if after providing millions of dollars to thousands of scientists their research, recommendations and warnings are ignored in order to satisfy our own national, political and strategic interests.

It is clear that all the governments have announced these targets according to their national interests. When you look under the hood the emission targets announced by various countries are actually ‘business as usual’ scenario of what they CAN do and not what they SHOULD do to limit their rising carbon emissions. The world requires a scientific solution to this problem and not a political settlement that secures the interests of everyone except the planet.

Photo: COP15 Website

The views presented in the above article are author’s personal views and do not represent those of TERI/TERI University where the author is currently pursuing a Master’s degree.

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Written By

Mridul currently works as Head-News & Data at Climate Connect Limited, a market research and analytics firm in the renewable energy and carbon markets domain. He earned his Master’s in Technology degree from The Energy & Resources Institute in Renewable Energy Engineering and Management. He also has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering. Mridul has a keen interest in renewable energy sector in India and emerging carbon markets like China and Australia.


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