If you're visiting Planet Green the odds are pretty good that you know there's a huge climate change conference taking place in Copenhagen at the start of December. And you probably know that it's known by the acronym COP15. But, if that's all you know about it, and actually are a bit confused about what exactly is going on and why you should pay attention, here's the most-condensed explanation I can give:

First of all, COP15 doesn't refer to COPenhagen. It stands for Conference of the Parties, which is the highest body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. And we're up to the 15th meeting. FYI, COP14 was in Poznan, Poland in 2008.

Second, the conference is taking place from 7-18th of December in Copenhagen and is being hosted by the Danish government. Officials from 192 countries, plus a sizable number of non-governmental organizations and a large media contingent (including yours truly) will be in attendance.

Third, the goal of all this is to establish a global climate change agreement that will take over from the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. Throughout the year there have been ongoing negotiations to hammer out the details, but with less than eight weeks to go, there are some serious differences to be worked out.

Without going into specific policy discussions, here's the most basic sketch of those differences:

Science says that greenhouse gas emissions have to peak by 2020 to avoid catastrophic climate change -- think half of all animals and plants going extinct, half of all people experiencing water shortages, coral reefs gone, at least one meter sea level rise by 2100 and more thereafter -- and be reduced in the 80-90% range by 2050. To do that emission reductions in the range of 25-40% by 2020 from 1990 levels have to occur in the rich nations of the world.

But so far, rich nations have pledged far, far lower reductions. Norway just committed to 30% reductions (40% if everyone else does too). Japan's prime minister has said he wants similar reductions. Beyond that though, everyone's commitments fall well short of the science.

And that doesn't sit well (for a variety of reasons) with the poor and developing nations of the world. China, India, Brazil, Mexico and others have all called for science-based pledges, but so far no one appears to be listening.

That said, India and China each have huge national carbon emissions -- China's are greater than the US' even though there per capita emissions are very low (a billion+ people will do that...) -- and have indicated that they will not commit to reduce their emissions on the grounds that they have to alleviate poverty. Fair enough, and both nations are doing a lot in terms of deploying renewable energy and trying to keep emissions in check, but it still adds a layer of complexity and divisiveness to the discussions.

In other words, there's a lot to work out and not a lot of time to do it.


The final thing to take away is this: We can reduce emissions sufficiently with current technologies and ones which are due to reach commercial stage shortly. The costs may seem high but they pale in comparison to inaction and will likely actually spur job growth. The main hurdle to be cleared right now is not technical, it is political.

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