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Inching toward an International Climate Change Treaty
September-October 2009

Negotiators have been meeting throughout the year with the goal of a new global climate agreement by the time they convene December 7-18 in Copenhagen for the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At their last informal meeting August 10-14, negotiators left Bonn, Germany feeling the pressure of only 114 days remaining with miles to go before they meet their goal.

August’s informal meetings in Bonn produced candid discussions on the legal architecture of the agreement on long-term cooperative action under the UNFCCC. However, divergent views prevail on several of the critical issues, and negotiators left Bonn with the unmanageable “brick”– the nickname for the 2,000 page text that contains thousands of bracketed text representing issues that need resolution by December.

Technical discussions continued on more industrialized nations’ emissions reductions. Engagement was high among all parties, but less industrialized countries were disturbed by some richer countries’ pledges to reduce emissions using different baseline years and different assumptions around carbon mechanisms which make the various proposals difficult to compare. (The U.S. is currently working with the base year of 2005).

Pressure mounts from various sources. Scientific reports reveal that previous targets of carbon reductions are no longer realistic to slow climate change impact. Scientists now concur that the world needs to reduce the carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (350ppm). In the U.S. this would mean cutting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 – something the U.S. has been unwilling to commit to in climate legislation thus far.

Currently global CO2 is at the dangerous level of approximately 390ppm. The “350 campaign” urges decision-makers to embrace the 350ppm goal and calls for worldwide action around this appeal on October 24, 2009. Getting to 350ppm means setting a long term target for industrialized countries’ reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent (and less-industrialized countries by 50 percent) by 2050 – using 1990 as the baseline year.

The urgency of the impact of climate change also pressures negotiators to come to sign an agreement. Countries like the small island state of Tuvalu desperately cry for adaptation assistance as rising ocean levels swallow their land mass. At the same time, the sluggish economy means that industrialized nations (especially the U.S.) are slow to commit new public funds necessary for climate adaptation. 

At the conclusion of the Bonn meeting, the working group chair declared parties will have to work “twice as hard” in Bangkok (September 28-October 9) and subsequently in Barcelona, Spain November 2-6 before convening in Copenhagen at the UNFCCC’s 15th Conference of Parties and fifth meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol.

This fall there are two other important meetings where these issues will be discussed. The first is at a UN High Level Meeting in New York September 22, where Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will use this opportunity to urge swift action on establishing a climate change agreement. The second will be at the G20 Summit held in Pittsburgh September 24-25 where President Obama will chair a meeting of leaders from the countries that represent 85 percent of the world’s economy.

One of the underlying issues that complicate the negotiating landscape is that of transparency. While some of the upcoming opportunities for all countries to discuss ways to move ahead, the Group of 20 industrial and emerging market economies only includes 20 nations. Clearly the G20 countries have to work out some kind of agreement with emissions levels rising in countries like China and India, while industrialized nations like the U.S. fear making short-term domestic emissions reductions in the face of the ongoing financial crisis. On the other hand, the decisions on how to respond to climate change must be a more inclusive undertaking because Earth and all the life it supports are at stake.

Faith in action: 

Use the September 22 date of the UN High Level Meeting on climate change to create your own “seal the deal” action this fall. Learn more at

Register your faith community for a 350 action on October 24 urging world leaders to set an ambitious target at Copenhagen to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. See details here.

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