Bob Henson | 7 December 2009 • There is a palpable sense of history in the making across Europe as some 15,000 expected participants in the Copenhagen climate conference begin to converge upon the Continent. So many journalists have signed up to attend—5,000 in all—that the United Nations has called a halt to further press registrants, citing space constraints.
There are now 105 world leaders slated to attend the meeting's last day, 18 December, including the recent addition of U.S. president Barack Obama. It will now be the largest such gathering of leaders of state since the "Earth summit," the 1992 meeting in Rio de Janeiro that launched the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Several major players have already laid their initial bids on the table.
Compared to its 2005 emissions, the United States is expected to propose cuts of roughly 17 percent by 2020; 30 percent by 2025; and 42 percent by 2030. When examined by Kyoto Protocol standards (cuts relative to 1990 emissions), the reductions are more modest: 3, 18, and 32 percent respectively.
The European Union proposes to cut its emissions by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels and is encouraging even bigger cuts—25 to 40 percent—if other wealthy nations join them.
After being exempted from emissions pledges in the Kyoto process, China has proposed to reduce its carbon intensity—the amount emitted per dollar of gross national product—by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.
India has also set a carbon intensity target: 20 to 25 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.
The carbon intensity approach is similar to that promoted by the United States earlier in the decade as a compromise between economic growth and emission reduction. It provides no absolute cap on emissions: if an economy grows by leaps and bounds, emissions can rise indefinitely as long as fossil fuels are used more efficiently along the way. From 1990 to 2006, U.S. carbon intensity dropped by about 27 percent at the same time that the nation's carbon dioxide emissions rose by about 18 percent.
These examples—together with many other starting-point positions from other nations—hint at the gaps that must be filled over the next 12 days in order for a durable framework to emerge from Copenhagen.
One global agreement that is truly unprecedented has already taken shape. A group of 56 newspapers from 45 countries is publishing a single group editorial in 20 languages on Monday, 7 December. In many cases, the editorial will run on the newspapers' front pages.
"Newspapers have never done anything like this before but they have never had to cover a story like this before," says Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the London-based Guardian, which led the project.
The editorial's language is strong:
Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics.
According to the Guardian, the project took weeks of wrangling over three drafts, vetted by newspapers with varying styles, editorial positions, and readerships. "It should be a source of encouragement that such a diverse coalition was able to agree about so much," says the Guardian's Ian Katz.
Two sets of absences were noteworthy. Australia's two leading newspapers, the Sydney Morning News and The Age (Melbourne), pulled out amid recent political turmoil, including a climate change bill that collapsed in Parliament last week. The two papers decided they needed to take a more "localised editorial position," according to Katz. And though many U.S. newspapers apparently expressed support for the project, only one joined it: the Miami Herald. The only hostile take on the project came from another, unnamed U.S. paper, which reportedly responded:
This is an outrageous attempt to orchestrate media pressure. Go to hell.
Whether outrageous, courageous, or both, the project is indeed something new to journalism, where cynicism and world-weariness are so often on display. The editorial concludes:
The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.
Bob Henson, a writer/editor in UCAR Communications, is the author of The Rough Guide to Climate Change.