Copenhagen climate talks: Main issues

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The Independent Online

The December 7-18 UN climate conference was initially billed as the completion of new pact for tackling greenhouse-gas emissions and their impacts beyond 2012.

Slow progress in the talks, held up especially by US politics, means that the meeting is likely at best to yield a framework accord whose details will be hammered out next year.

Following are the main issues on the table:

- EMISSIONS CURBS: The big question is mustering pledges for curbing emissions by 2020, a key stepping stone towards the 2050 goal of halving annual carbon pollution.

Reducing emissions carries an economic cost, in energy efficiency and switching to cleaner technologies, and the price factor has sharpened in the light of this year's global financial crisis.

Rich countries are to blame for today's warming and have more capacity to tackle it. But the potential nightmares of tomorrow will chiefly come from developing countries, which already account for at least half of current emissions.

China, India and Brazil have huge populations and are voraciously burning fossil fuels and cutting forests, adding to the greenhouse effect, as they race to prosperity.

Other big questions are whether the conference will endorse a goal of halving emissions by 2050, an aim supported by the Group of Eight (G8) countries but opposed by China, and whether it will set a date by which emissions must peak.

- MONEY: The goal is to mobilise funds to help developing countries switch to a low-carbon economy and shore up defences against climate change.

Poorer countries want industrialised nations to pledge around one percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) per year, or around 400 billion dollars (270 billion euros), in finance. The European Union (EU) estimates their needs at 100 billion euros (150 billion dollars) annually by 2020.

An interim solution at Copenhagen could be a "fast-start" burst of several billion dollars, starting as early as next year.

A thorny issue, though, is agreeing which institutions should be in charge of disbursing the funds. Poor countries have expressed deep hostility towards the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

- LEGAL ISSUES: Despite two years of meetings, negligible time has been devoted to the key, and politically explosive, question of the future pact's legal status.

Developing nations want the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has tough compliance mechanisms, to be extended beyond 2012, when its current roster of pledges expire.

The United States abandoned Kyoto because it binds only industrialised countries, not emerging giants, to targeted emissions curbs. It is pushing the idea of national commitments backed by report-and-verify compliance rather than tough, internationally-enforceable penalty clauses.

Two possibilities have emerged: extending Kyoto but establishing a link to the United States; or gutting Kyoto and placing selected provisions of it in a brand-new accord with variable geometry that would include the United States.

- DEFORESTATION: Tropical countries with large forests are pushing for a scheme whereby nations that preserve their woodland, a "sink" that absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, are financially rewarded.

But this project is mired in practical problems, such as how to measure conservation and prevent cheating and corruption, and ensure that funds are not drained for technology transfer and other help needed by developing countries.

In addition, deforestation as a share of global carbon emissions has fallen, from 20 percent to 12 percent, the Global Carbon Project (GCP), gathering more than 30 climate specialists, reported in November. This fall may reduce the issue's political traction.