From: Richard Harris, NPR
Published December 9, 2009 06:56 AM

What Copenhagen Climate Meeting Might Achieve

There are so many issues on the table at the Copenhagen U.N. climate conference that politicians from all the major players have already declared there is no hope of reaching a binding legal agreement. But progress is still possible. Participants speak of reaching a "political agreement." Exactly what that would be remains undefined, but it would represent some form of commitment to address global warming that goes beyond mere rhetoric — yet falls short of a legally binding treaty.

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The two-week formal negotiations with representatives from more than 190 nations started Monday, with the ultimate goal of setting up a mechanism to reduce global greenhouse gases. If the nations of the world don't limit carbon emissions, global temperatures could rise by 5 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Sea-level change is highly uncertain, but it could rise from 7 inches to as much as 6 feet.

More than 110 world leaders have said they plan to attend the conference — that's unprecedented for climate talks. The talks kick into high gear the second week, with President Obama flying in for the closing summit.

Potential Scenarios

Negotiators hope to agree at least to the shape of a future treaty, setting the stage for talks at a follow-up conference in 2010.

Possibilities include:

Targets And Timetables: In 1997, these same nations met in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate a climate deal. In it, the rich nations of the world jointly negotiated targets for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases, under a certain timetable.

The rest of the world had no obligations. The Kyoto protocol is still in force, and contrary to what is often said about it, it does not expire in 2012. However, after that date, nations have no further emissions-reduction commitments. The United States signed the Kyoto pact, but the U.S. Senate never ratified it, so the U.S. is not party to this treaty.

Kyoto Plus: One option in Copenhagen is to extend the Kyoto Protocol and to have a second, parallel agreement that would include the United States. (The United States has made it clear it won't join Kyoto, because it gives a free ride to China and other economic rivals.)

Pledge And Review: The United States favors an approach that marks a real departure from the Kyoto structure. Instead of jointly negotiating emissions-reduction targets and timetables for achieving them, the U.S. suggests that each nation bring to the table a pledge of what it intends to do to address climate change.

Pledge And Review, DIY: China and other major developing countries have also stepped forward with pledges to control their emissions. These pledges are domestic plans that in some cases have legal force within the nations involved. But so far developing countries have steadfastly refused to make them legally binding in an international climate deal.

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