Only then, say scientists, will it be possible to prevent global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. This figure, they argue, is the maximum warming that our planet can tolerate. If we go beyond it, we will face global calamity in the form of spreading deserts, increasingly violent storms, destruction of swaths of farmland, flooding and widespread loss of life. It is a grim list, one that should guarantee delegates give maximum concentration to their work in Copenhagen. This is their last chance, if not to save the world, then at least to prevent major losses of life later in the century. Failure should not be an option.
Yet there are now signs that a deal which would tie every nation on Earth to a declared cut in their carbon emissions, and which would do so much to tackle global warming, will not be achieved.
Despite the urgency of negotiators’ work and despite the fact they have been meeting regularly for the past two years in order to prepare for this summit, most observers now believe it is unlikely that a strong, ratifiable agreement will be signed on 18 December, the meeting’s final day.
A key problem has been the failure of Barack Obama’s administration to pass a climate change bill in time for Copenhagen. This has left the US, the world’s major carbon emitter, unable to participate meaningfully in discussions. Without an American lead, not much can be achieved, it is argued. Thus the talk is of squandered opportunities instead of expectations of breakthroughs. Agreeing long-term global deals is simply beyond human nature, suggest the sceptics, obsessed as we are with our own local, short-term concerns.
Politicians have known for a long time that this day was approaching and should have realised they would have to sit down to work out a meaningful agreement. However, it would be premature to suggest that everything that has happened over the past two years has been a waste of time and to dismiss, out of hand, the talks that will take place in Copenhagen – no matter how unsatisfactory they turn out to be. Much has happened in the run-up to the summit to indicate there is sufficient goodwill in the political system to tackle the crisis posed by global warming – if not at Copenhagen then in the following months and years.
China, once the most difficult nation to convince about the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, has pledged that it will make “substantial reductions” in its citizens’ individual carbon output. Countries such as Indonesia and Norway, as well as the European Union, have promised to make tight, binding cuts. Europe has also proposed to make significant contributions to a £90bn a year fund that would help developing countries cut their carbon emissions while the US has begun a process that should lead it to establish carbon emission legislation.
A few years ago, such progress would have seen improbable. Today, it is a reality. The world may not get a good global warming deal from the Copenhagen summit, but enough has been gained in its preparations to suggest that a binding agreement will eventually be signed. Whether that can be done in time to halt the worst effects of climate change is a different issue.