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First Step to Grasping the Critical Issues of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen

From December 7th through December 18th the United Nations Climate Change Conference will be taking place in Copenhagen. Approximately 10,000 people will gather from countries around the world to discuss, negotiate, and create an agreement about what the world is going to do about climate change. Some of the attendees are government officials, while others work for governmental agencies, or non-governmental organizations. The third contingent at the event will be the media.

Although people have been referring to the conference in Copenhagen in broad brush terms for some time, it’s important for you to understand the purpose of the meeting and the key issues being addressed. I’ve developed this quick overview to give you a head start in tracking developments during the meeting.

United Nations Climate Change Conference

Although this group meets on an annual basis, with the last two meetings being held in Bali and Poland, this meeting in Copenhagen is demanding the world’s attention for several reasons.

– Recent scientific findings tell us that rising temperatures are due to our industrialized ways, and that we must find ways to reduce greenhouse gases to ensure that average temperatures do not continue to rise.

– The Kyoto Protocol, the first carbon emissions agreement signed by a collection of countries from around the world, is expiring in 2012. A new framework must be developed now so that when the Kyoto Protocol ends there’s a structure in place to guide countries toward a more sustainable future.

– Countries, especially developing countries, are already seeing the effects of climate change. To avoid wide scale disasters in these countries, efforts must be made now to help them adapt to climate change in ways that are sustainable.

Although this meeting is not expected to result in a detailed solution, the leadership group stresses that the group must come to agreement on four key issues:

“Ambitious emission reduction targets for developed countries” – For industrialized countries the focus will be on defining their targets for greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists recommend “a goal of 25% to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020.”

Late last month President Obama indicated a target “in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.” Notice the year defining the amount of reduction shifted from 1990 to 2005, which means this target is less stringent that the goal recommended by the science. Other developed countries have established targets of 20% for the EU, to 40% for Norway, based on 1990 emissions levels. China, a key player in these deliberations, recently stated that it will “reduce its ‘carbon intensity’ by 40-45 percent by the year 2020, compared with 2005 levels.” Beware, carbon intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of GDP) is not the same as cutting carbon emissions overall.

***As you can see, at the moment understanding these goals is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Throughout the negotiation process you can expect various countries to nudge their numbers this way and that until, hopefully, an agreement is reached.

“Nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries” – For developing countries the focus shifts. Developing countries are striving to grow economically to help their citizens move out of poverty and into a sustainable living situation. Although their contribution to the current climate situation is negligible, forecasts based on projected economic growth and population growth in these developing countries indicate their impact global warming is likely to increase significantly. This trend is especially true for countries that depend on coal and carbon-based fuels.

Countries in this situation are struggling to develop and concerned that making efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions will have detrimental effects on their overall growth. Developing countries are willing to make an effort to reduce emissions, but they want support (financial and technological) from developed countries.

***This push-pull between developing and developed countries will likely show up in the debates regarding this point.

“Scaling up financial and technological support for both adaptation and mitigation” – To address the needs of developing countries, reliable funding sources and cooperative sharing of technological advancements must be built into the framework developed during the Copenhagen meetings.

In addition immediate funds must be provided to help developing countries adapt to changes that are occurring right now. Waiting until 2012 for the funding framework to kick in may be too late. The longer developing countries are left alone to struggle to adapt to the effects of climate change, the more expensive the relief effort will be in the long run. According to the United Nations, “it is estimated that one US dollar invested in anticipatory measures can save up to 7 US dollars in future relief costs.” See this fact sheet on adaptation for more information about this topic.

Think of it this way, for the most part developing countries are bearing the brunt of current climate changes in their region. In addition, they are likely to continue to experience extreme weather, water shortages, shifts in seasons, and rising waters as a result of increasing temperatures well into the future. The residents of these countries didn’t contribute to, or cause, this situation, industrialized countries did.

***Finding an equitable way to work cooperatively toward a sustainable lifestyle for all global residents is what’s at stake in this agreement.

“An effective institutional framework with governance structures that address the needs of developing countries” – To implement these changes, provide funding, and create organizations to help developing countries make the necessary changes, new structures will need to be created. It is critical that these new structures be effective, trackable, and verifiable.

***All parties must work together as partners in this cooperative, collaborative effort.

For more details on these four issues, read this fact sheet on Copenhagen deal published by the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

What to Expect

In a broad sense, the purpose of the Copenhagen meetings is to come up with goals and structures that allow all countries to grow in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable. Given that we are starting with an extremely uneven playing field, it’s critical that all parties find ways to participate in the inevitable give and take of the negotiations. As residents of the planet we cannot afford to have key parties walk away from the table. It’s critical that solid, well thought out decisions be made during the coming weeks. What happens in Copenhagen has the power to influence the state of the Earth for a long time to come.

At this point there is no way to predict what agreements will come out of these meetings or how these decisions will impact the green economy locally or globally. The best thing you can do at this juncture is to be aware of the issues. Pay attention to the news. Listen for indications of how various decisions are likely to impact your target industry. Invest some time in understanding the issues at hand. You never know when you’ll be asked to make comments about these topics. The more you understand the more prepared you will be to provide credible, cogent answers to your networking contacts, potential employers, and future colleagues and coworkers.

Key Issues to Watch in News from Copenhagen

The interplay between developed and developing countries.

The mix of focus on mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to prevent temperatures from rising) and adaptation (dealing with current and future changes due to climate change).

The battle between paying now versus paying later. Although times are tight, delaying action will only increase the ultimate price of both mitigation and adaptation.

The opportunity for a new era in technology – from Technology Cooperation to Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs) that allow countries to grow while simultaneously reducing their emissions. See this fact sheet on Technology for more information about these concepts.

Green Career Expert, Carol McClelland, PhD, is the author of Your Dream Career For Dummies and founder and executive director of Green Career Central, a virtual career center with a distilled and organized set of easy-to-use resources, programs, and events to help you identify your green niche, find a green job, start a green business or get a green education. Visit to request our free report — “Six Strategies to Find Your Green Career”