Can Copenhagen prevent climate catastrophe?

The Kyoto Protocol to the Convention on Climate Change, which came into force February 2005, is currently the only international agreement in place that sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main cause of global warming. But this agreement falls short of what is needed to avert environmental disaster.

The Kyoto Protocol calls for three to eight per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions for only half of the world’s developed countries, with no restrictions on underdeveloped countries, despite the fact that some of these countries are catching up to the developed world in terms of emissions. China, for example, is currently the largest emitter of CO2 from fossil fuels in the world.

This is in stark contrast to what scientists say is necessary to prevent major climate change. They suggest that a cut in emissions by as much as 60 per cent is necessary to limit global temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees Celsius. 
The Kyoto Protocol is also rendered a failure because the United States refused to ratify the agreement and consequently does not have binding limits on its emissions, even though it produces a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions, making it the second largest emitter after China.

With these problems in mind, the international community launched a new initiative, beginning in Bali in December 2007 and set to culminate in Copenhagen later this year with a binding agreement that will redress Kyoto’s failures.

It remains unclear if the Copenhagen summit will succeed. At the Bali meeting, the US agreed to sign on to the road map, marking a more positive involvement in climate change negotiations. However, it is expected that emissions targets for developing countries will continue to be problematic in the coming negotiations. Developing nations see climate change as an economic development issue because industrialization will have to be hindered in order to reduce emissions.

More importantly, developing countries view global warming  as a problem created by developed countries starting with the Industrial Revolution. Consequently, they believe that it is the developed countries that should shoulder the burden of combating climate change.

With such a complicated negotiation agenda, many are skeptical of what can be achieved in Copenhagen. Nonetheless, citizens from both developed and developing countries have voiced their concern about the need to act promptly to put regulations in place.

According to a survey conducted by Pew Global Attitudes earlier this year, 68 per cent of France, 67 per cent of India, and 65 per cent of Japan think that global warming is a very serious problem. Over the past two years, organizers of the Copenhagen meeting have framed the summit as a make-or-break event with the aim of raising public awareness of global warming and galvanizing governments to fulfill their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Copenhagen summit will be a major disappointment if the only outcome is a partial accord or a simply political declaration, instead of an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations with immediate operational effect. From an environmental standpoint, a weak agreement will mean irrevocable damage to many countries, mostly the vulnerable and poor.

For a country like Egypt the projected effects of global warming are severe.

On the one hand, the projected Sea Level Rise (SLR) for the Mediterranean led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to declare the Nile Delta as among the top three most vulnerable areas globally. The agricultural land in the Delta may be submerged. What remains would be damaged due to increased salinity. Optimistic estimates put the loss of viable agricultural land at 20 to 25 per cent. An increase in sea levels would also mean that Egypt’s low-lying coastal areas will disappear. The economic effect would be devastating, as Egypt relies heavily on real-estate projects and tourism in these areas.

On the other hand, seeing that both the Delta and the coastal areas are home to two-thirds of the Egyptian population, even the most optimistic predictions of global temperature increase will still lead to the displacement of millions of Egyptians from one of the most densely populated regions on earth.

For these reasons, the outcome of the Copenhagen summit becomes all the more crucial for Egypt. In the past few days world leaders have been oscillating between preparing the public for a mediocre meeting or re-affirming their original plan to ensure that a new climate change agreement is reached.

Following a two-day Asia-Pacific Summit last week, world leaders, including President Barack Obama of the US and President Hu Jintao of China, released a statement saying that they viewed the Copenhagen summit as a "staging post" for reaching a global deal to cut emissions, but not an "end point." With this statement they have pushed aside the original aim of having a comprehensive, legally binding international agreement by the end of the meeting.

Speaking in Beijing after talks with Hu, Obama opted for a reversed approach and appeared to raise hopes that an agreement could in fact be reached in Copenhagen.

For now we are left waiting for the outcome of the summit and hoping that the complex political agendas at hand do not overshadow the world’s hope for a proactive stance on climate change.

As we prepare for the Copenhagen summit in December Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition’s environment section will publish a series of articles related to climate change and the environmental perils facing Egypt.

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