Apparently something’s happening in Copenhagen in December. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are bickering over it, Penny Wong isn’t too excited about it and Lily Allen, Bob Geldof and Duran Duran are singing about it.

So what’s it all about? We know it’s big and we know it’s something to do with climate change, but what exactly is the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, hosted on behalf of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, all about?

For all those of you who’ve been pretending you know what everyone’s talking about when they drop ‘Copenhagen’ into the conversation, here’s a summary:

When is it?

December 7-18.

Where is it?

The Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why is the world converging upon Denmark in December to chat about climate change?

Because (as outlined on the UNFCCC website), according to “overwhelming scientific evidence”, if we allow emissions to “continue to rise at their current pace” and “double from their pre-industrial level, the world will face an average temperature rise of about 3°C this century”. Such a rise means serious environment impacts including “sea-level rise, shifts in growing seasons and an increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as storms, floods and droughts”.

The world has a lot weighing on Copenhagen, with many viewing it as the culmination of 15 years of UNFCCC treaties and talks about climate change. With the UNFCCC’s existing climate-change plan, the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012, Copenhagen has been marked as the point where the next “agreement that sets the world on a pathway to preventing global warming from reaching dangerous levels” will be finalised.

The event will draw on past talks and conferences, specifically Bali 2007 where a new climate-change deal was drawn-up that would see industrialised countries “accept binding emission reduction targets” and developing countries “limit the growth of their emissions in line with their sustainable development needs” with the support of developed countries.

Who will be attending?

The conference will be attended by delegations from the 192 nations that have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change along with thousands of observers from dozens of accredited organisations, ranging from environment groups, business organisations, research institutions and many other NGOs. The media will be there in very large numbers too, says Clive Hamilton, Crikey’s Copenhagen correspondent-to-be.

Who will be representing the 192 expected nations is still unconfirmed, says Hamilton. “There is speculation about which nations will be represented by the heads of state, rather than environment ministers or equivalent, yet given the high profile of the event,and its importance to the future of the world, we can expect a large number of presidents and prime ministers to turn up for the last couple of days.”

Regardless of who represents them, Hamilton expects key negotiators to be the US, EU, China and the G77 along with Russia, Japan, India, Brazil and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). NGOs including Greenpeace International and WWF International are at the core of the process and will have “a big influence over the EU”.

Will Australia play a big role, what with Kevin Rudd making such a fuss about finalising the emissions trading scheme in time and all? According to Hamilton, while Australia’s “activities at COP15 will be closely scrutinised by Australian NGOs and media … bold words will be undermined behind closed doors as our negotiators try to get a series of special provisions”. In summary “we should not expect Australia to play a leading role”.

What will everyone do at the conference?

The UN Climate Change Conference will involve the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the UNFCCC and the 5th Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP/MOP 5). Like most events of this enormity, the 12-day conference will be the subject of high security. “Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to converge on the city with demonstrations expected in the convention hall and outside,” suggests Hamilton.

While those attending will be part of “formal plenary sessions where parties can grand-stand”, Hamilton suggests all the real business will be done behind closed doors between the major players.

Despite the formality of the event, the atmosphere will be feverish, says Hamilton and will become very intense in the last 2-3 days. Like the 2009 AFL grand final, “we can expect everything to be hanging in the balance until the very last hours of the conference”.

According to Hamilton, although Conference of Parties must conclude at midnight on the last day, “… the chair has the power to stop the clock so the negotiations can continue into the small hours”.

In addition to official proceedings, the conference will also coincide with various side-events at which NGOs, businesses and researchers can give talks, etc.

What will the results be?

According to official website of UNFCCC, the conference will result in “an ambitious climate change deal” that will “follow on the first phase of the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012”. While the UNFCCC acknowledges that the conference will not resolve all details, it does anticipate the event will provide clarity on four key issues:

  • Ambitious emission reduction targets for developed countries
  • Nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries
  • Scaling up financial and technological support for both adaptation and mitigation
  • An effective institutional framework with governance structures that address the needs of developing countries.

These, however, may be ambitious goals, suggests Hamilton. “The most likely outcome at this point is some broad set of principles with a lot of detail missing. Targets for rich countries (Annex 1 parties) may be missing, which would create an outcry. The details would be filled in at subsequent meetings, before and then at COP16 in Mexico.”

Although some kind of outcome is expected, Hamilton isn’t ruling out an unsuccessful Copenhagen, saying: “It seems unlikely, but not out of the question, that leaders of major nations could leave Copenhagen without some sort of agreement to wave around. If they did, they will schedule a COP15bis, a sort of resumption of talks some months later.”

This lack of faith in Copenhagen has been widespread — last month Rudd told the ABC that “climate change is not nearly a done deal globally”, arguing that “this is a huge and complex negotiation … (and) it’s going to be very hard to generate real progress on the way through to Copenhagen.”

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