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What happened at Copenhagen?

Although it was unlikely that the Copenhagen conference would ever result in 192 countries agreeing a set of legally binding emission-reduction targets, the final agreement - the 'Copenhagen Accord', spearheaded between the U.S, India, South Africa, China and Brazil and signed by 25 world leaders - omitted even the long-term emissions goals included in earlier drafts.  The deal outlined fell far short of the ambitions for the Copenhagen summit. There was no agreement on a long term global mitigation target of 50% by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change, and no agreement that global emissions should peak by 2015-2020. Both are, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, necessary to achieve stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations at 450ppm and to avoid global temperature rises of more than 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels.

Here are key points from the agreement:

Long term goals:

"Deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science...with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius."  The Copenhagen Accord therefore recognises the scientific case for keeping temperature rises to no more than 2⁰C but does not contain commitments to emissions reductions to achieve that goal.

Legally binding deal:

A proposal attached to the accord calls for a legally binding treaty to be pinned down by the end of next year.

Financing for poor nations:

The text says: "Developed countries shall provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology and capacity-building to support the implementation of adaptation action in developing countries."

It mentions as particularly vulnerable and in need of help  the least developed countries, small island developing states and countries in Africa.

"Developed countries set a goal of mobilising jointly $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. The funds will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral."

Emissions reduction:

Details of mitigation plans are included in two separate annexes, one for developed country targets and one for the voluntary pledges of major developing countries.

These are not binding, and describe the current status of pledges -- ranging from "under consideration" for the United States to "Adopted by legislation" for the European Union.


A sticking point for a deal, largely because China refused to accept international controls, the section on monitoring of developing nation pledges is one of the longest in the accord.

It says emerging economies must monitor their efforts and report the results to the United Nations every two years, with some international checks to meet Western transparency concerns but "to ensure that national sovereignty is respected."

Carbon markets:

Mentioned, but not in detail. The accord says: "We decide to pursue various approaches, including opportunities to use markets to enhance the cost-effectiveness of and to promote mitigations actions."

Forest protection:

The accord "recognizes the importance of reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation and the need to enhance removals or greenhouse gas emission by forests," and agrees to provide "positive incentives" to fund such action with financial resources from the developed world.

In fact, Copenhagen's bright spot was progress on slowing deforestation. The logging and burning of tropical rainforests accounts for around 15% of global carbon emissions, and eliminates important carbon sinks such as the Amazon.  A plan excluded from Kyoto — titled Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) — under which wealthier nations pay rainforest countries for preserving their trees made a comeback at Copenhagen. Stopping deforestation is a cheap way to slow carbon emissions and protects the most important wildlife habitat on the planet.

The Copenhagen negotiations on REDD made real progress, signaling that both the developed and developing nations want it to succeed. Although the lack of a more ambitious wider agreement limited the progress that could be made on REDD, the very mention of it in the Copenhagen Accord raises the hope that forests are at least one thing that governments may find a way to save.

Expect a renewal of the same debates a year from now at the next U.N. climate summit in Mexico City in November 2010.

It is clear that a lot of awareness raising still needs to be done - btanic gardens can use their incredible outreach to educate people that climate change is a fact, a process already underway, not some sort of speculation or proposition of faith, and that it is possible to simultaneously transition to a low carbon economy and enhance our way of life.  Of course, plants are part of the solution in so many ways and we must be their advocates!

Wishing all readers a peaceful festive season.