In Copenhagen this December, Hewlett Foundation grantees will join with representatives of approximately 170 countries and numerous other nongovernmental organizations to draft what participants hope will be a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases.

And while most people have at least heard of climate change and many are familiar with the Kyoto agreement, fewer know what crafting such an agreement entails, let alone the new gathering’s prospects for success. Here’s a primer about some of the key issues.

Copenhagen: The Task at Hand

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012, was envisioned as a first step in a plan to combat global warming. It called for thirty-seven industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The United States was the only industrialized nation that did not ratify the Kyoto Agreement, but at a conference in Bali in December 2007, it joined with more than 180 other nations to agree to negotiate a new agreement by the end of 2009.

The task at hand is enormously complex, as it entails harmonizing the interests of industrialized and developing nations across a range of issues of wildly varying scale, from the energy generation of entire nations and urban planning to local land use and appliance standards.

But in the end, all the complexity comes down to reaching a single, not-so-simple goal: to prevent atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from exceeding 450 parts per million, the threshold that climate scientists think would cause planetary warming to exceed 2°C. That, in turn, is the tipping point that they think would trigger irreversible consequences for the planet, among them falling crop yields, water shortages, rising seas, species extinction, storms, droughts, fires, heat waves, and abrupt climate changes.

And to avoid reaching the tipping point, climate scientists agree, annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide must be cut in half by the year 2030—an expected reduction of about 30 billion tons per year, roughly equal to all the carbon pollution the global economy currently emits annually.

The Hewlett grantee ClimateWorks, which is dedicated to promoting low-carbon alternatives for the world’s economy to help it meet that ambitious goal, is supporting the work at Copenhagen through an effort it calls Project Catalyst.

Project Catalyst: Analysis to Spur Agreement

Significantly, Project Catalyst has not taken or advocated policy positions and won’t at the Copenhagen meeting. Instead, it has assembled many of the best think tanks in the world to identify and estimate the costs of country-specific carbon abatement programs and to develop a financial framework for the carbon trading mechanism that would be used to cover some of the costs of these programs. In addition, it is working with key countries to develop individual low-carbon development plans.

It also is in the process of launching an institute to support developing countries with world-class analytical services needed to plan a low-carbon future. This analytical resource already has enabled Catalyst to work directly with the most important decisionmakers of various nations to draft plans. It is working, sometimes daily, with the senior climate change negotiators, envoys, and ministers from the EU, China, the United States, Australia, Mexico, and Indonesia. The work ranges from strictly analytical, such as calculating a basis for comparing national actions on climate change, to supporting efforts to translate the analyses into language suitable for the countries to draft proposals for a treaty.

Andreas Merkl, the director of global initiatives for ClimateWorks, acknowledges that many of the crucial decisions to reduce greenhouse gases lie in the hands of domestic policymakers in individual countries. But, he explains, the only way to reach the ultimate goal — reducing the rise in global temperature to less than 2°C — is if the world’s nations agree to policies ensuring that carbon dioxide emissions peak no later than 2020 on the way to the ultimate goal of halving emissions a decade later.

“There’s no combination of domestic and bilateral agreements that could enable this to happen,” he says. “It requires a global agreement.”

Merkl says that achieving a worldwide low-carbon infrastructure that will prevent deforestation in places like the Amazon rainforest is relatively inexpensive in global terms. It would involve implementing financial mechanisms that allow countries to pay forest owners to keep their trees intact instead of chopping them down and selling the lumber. He says that it will cost about $85 billion to $110 billion a year for the next fifteen to twenty years to help countries that agree to protect their rainforests. Government participants at the 2007 Bali conference agreed that the developed world would pay this cost since they, not the developing countries, are largely responsible for creating the warming trends we see today. (Brazil’s leaders have put a price on protecting their part of the remaining rainforest—by far the largest in the Amazon—at $27 billion.) “A central task at Copenhagen will be to come to a global agreement to underwrite this cost in a way that is equitable, efficient, and effective,” Merkl says.

As their economies grow, the developing countries need help with the adoption, dissemination, and commercialization of critical technologies such as solar power, wind, and carbon capture to avoid increases in carbon emissions. “Current market and legal structures place innumerable hurdles in the path of doing those things,” Merkl says. “And a global deal is critical to make essential technology available to those countries whose population and economic growth pose the greatest challenges in terms of climate change.”

What Will It Take?

So what are the greatest obstacles that may keep Copenhagen participants from achieving their goals? Merkl and others familiar with the issues list them as:

  • The rate of climate change. While the effects of climate change already are beginning to be seen in such phenomena as melting ice caps and changing weather patterns, the worst changes won’t occur for twenty to thirty years, reducing the sense of urgency among decisionmakers.
  • Finding the money. Financing the $85 billion to $110 billion annual tab to help the developing world underwrite green development will require two sources of funding, Merkl says. First, the industrialized countries must create a so-called cap-and-trade market to sell the rights to emit carbon dioxide, which will help raise the needed money. And second, national treasuries must commit the remaining needed funds. Both are complex, politically difficult tasks.
  • Allocating the money. Participants at Copenhagen must at least begin the task of determining the formula that will be used to allocate the green development funds to developing countries, as well as how the cap-and-trade carbon markets will work — also extremely complex, politically fraught tasks.
  • Determining comparable effort. Among the nations, what combinations of money, domestic action, and technology support will equal comparable effort to slow global warming? Each nation starts from a different place in terms of its historical carbon dioxide emissions, economic status, rate of growth, and carbon mitigation potential. And to date, the developing nations have refused to agree to any kind of carbon cap, claiming the same right to development that developed countries have enjoyed.

In the face of all this, what progress is being made in anticipation of the gathering, and what is the most likely outcome in Copenhagen? Opinions vary.

ClimateWorks’ Merkl says China and Europe are close to agreement on how some of these large issues should be structured. Current legislation in the U. S. Congress, called Waxman-Markey, calls for a less ambitious emission cap than the European legislation, but includes very significant additional commitments to technology innovation and the protection of tropical forest. The bill passed the U.S. House in June and its counterpart is headed for a vote in the Senate, where its political fortunes are uncertain. Merkl says that getting some U.S. commitment to carbon reduction through Congress is essential for progress in Copenhagen.

He predicts the Copenhagen meeting’s most likely prospect is a deal that creates a framework for further negotiations in 2010. These negotiations are likely to suggest an approach for interim targets which start relatively low, but become increasingly tough and more coherent over time.