Friday, October 30, 2009

Beautiful, Beautiful Copenhagen

Like a big rugby or soccer match, the build-up has already begun to Copenhagen '09! On the 7th of December, teams of negotiators from 192 countries will kick-off a two-week marathon round of talks in order to secure a new climate treaty to succeed Kyoto.

More than 15,000 will attend the talks - from journalists to politicians, diplomats and campaigners; as well as presidents and heads of state from around the globe.
Keen to give the right impression from the start, the Danish organisers are ensuring that, for instance, all water available at the summit is tap-water, with no bottles on summit bargaining tables. They've also insisted that a minimum of 65% of the food and beverages available on site will be organically produced.

Whilst the city boasts an impressive and reliable public transport system (which will be free of charge for the delegates) many will of course arrive by air, with the massive carbon footprint which that will entail. A recent UN climate conference in New York in September produced 450 tonnes of carbon. However, the carbon cost of getting delegates (including 50 presidents and 35 prime ministers) to and from New York, including flights, motorcades, police escorts, etc. was neutralised by directly funding a rural power project in India. The funding will support a scheme which transforms agricultural byproducts such as corn husks and stalks in electricity. It's still unclear if the organisers of the Copenhagen summit will do the same!

The COP15 meeting (as its known) is the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties - a group brought together by the UN framework convention on climate change. Ireland will be represented by officials from the EPA, as well as various government ministries. As such, they are in a race against time to have an agreement in place and ratified by all parties before the Kyoto agreement starts to become obsolete in 2012.

Kyoto was negotiated back in 1997 and things have changed utterly since then. Back then, the US was the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Now that dubious honour goes to China - an indication of the massive growth that we've seen in the Chinese economy.

Despite an on-again, off-again debate as to whether climate change and global warming are actually occurring at all, the weight of evidence and scientific support suggests that it is a real problem already and is going to get worse. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that between 1906 and 2005 the earth's average temperature has risen by 0.74 degrees. Now that doesn't seem like a lot in theory. If I put my dinner in the oven to cook and I'm out by 0.74 degrees, it's hardly likely to make a difference. But, on the global scale, if this continues there will be serious consequences.

For Ireland, the potential consequences focus on our island status and our dependence on the Gulf Stream form year-round mild conditions and a decent level of rainfall for our crops. Recent EPA figures show that the average air temperature in Ireland increased by 0.7 degrees celsius since 1890 with a massive proportion of that (0.4 degrees) occuring since 1980. The EPA predicts a temperature rise by 2100 of between 1 and 3 degrees.

In terms of rainfall, there has been a significant increase in total rainfall in the North and West of the country. Predictions say we'll see wetter winters in the West and drier summers in the 'sunny Southeast'. Researchers have also recorded a decrease in the frequency of storms hitting the country, but the intensity of these storms have increased.

The increase in average temperature is caused by the famous 'Greenhouse Effect' - a natural phenomenon which only becomes a problem when you pump loads of CO2 into the atmosphere. On its own, the greenhouse effect is useful to us - without it, the average temperature on earth would be around minus 19 degrees celsius (as opposed to 14 degrees at the moment). Due to the vast quantities of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, the greenhouse effect is going into overdrive and the Earth's climate is being effected.

That's why December's summit will focus on reducing the amount of CO2 and various other 'Greenhouse Gases' which countries are allowed to emit. The task is easier said than done since greenhouse emissions go hand-in-hand with economic prosperity. Particularly at this time, countries want to do little that will constrain their businesses and economies.

However, industrialised countries will be asked to reduce their emissions substantially. Developing countries such as China and India will be asked to limit the growth in their emissions - despite their wishes to grow their economy. Money will be discussed too. Poor countires will require massive amounts of cash to curb their emissions and to adapt to the problems a changing climate will pose.

It will be an interesting summit. Already, the various sides are flagging their opening positions. The stakes are high in beautiful Copenhagen.


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