Today sees the opening of what is being viewed as the most important international climate change meeting since the Kyoto Protocol was initially adopted in 1997. The Copenhagen Climate Conference, in Denmark, is meant to address the ever increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution believed to be the main cause of climate change.
In a show of support, 105 world leaders have said they will attend the talks' closing stages to try to seal a deal after years of bitter debates over how to divide up the burden of emissions curbs and who should pay. On Sunday, the UN climate chief said time was up to agree on the outlines of a tougher climate deal after troubled negotiations have deepened splits between rich and poor nations. "I believe that negotiators now have the clearest signal ever from world leaders to draft a solid set of proposals to implement rapid action," Yvo de Boer told reporters.
A decision by the US president, Barack Obama, to attend the late stages of the summit, on Friday has raised expectations that an accord may be struck. A delegation of senior UAE officials flies to Copenhagen today for the start of the summit. In a related development, the federal Government yesterday announced the creation of a new environmental department that would determine how the UAE deals with climate change.
One of the 22 UAE delegates to the conference, Dr Saad al Numeiri, an adviser to the Minister of Environment and Water, Dr Rashid bin Fahad, said the Emirates faced a quandary with regards to climate change. On the one hand, he said, should global warming continue unchecked, serious problems could arise, including water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and a detrioration of coastal environments. "We will be very impacted because we have low-lying coastline and islands."
On the other hand, he said, the very measures designed to wean the world off fossil fuels would be financially detrimental. "Economically we will be impacted because there is a reduction of income from fossil fuel revenues as there will be a reduction in the consumption of these fuels." Another oil producer, Saudi Arabia, wants compensation for any such loss of revenue. Dr al Numeiri said he could not comment on whether the UAE would make similar requests.
Dr al Numeiri said that the new federal department would help the country decide on the best course of action to take over the coming years and create "policy and strategy for the climate change issue". "We have been working on this issue for a long time but we assigned that department to take over two months ago." Habiba al Marashi, the founder and chairman of the Emirates Environment Group, a Dubai-based non-governmental organisation, said the Government's move to create a separate climate change department was a positive one.
She added that for the UAE's greenhouse emissions to be reduced, residents could help by making more pro-environment choices. "This is a consumer society and people's decisions have an impact," she said. "It is a complicated issue and the Government alone cannot solve it; all sectors of society need to participate." Also attending the Copenhagen summit, which ends on December 18, will be Leila al Ameri, who has been named to head up the new department.
The delegation also includes officials from the ministries of energy and foreign affairs and representatives from the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and Masdar, Abu Dhabi's sustainability initiative. The Kyoto Protocol, which obliges industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions, expires in 2012. The Copenhagen summit is expected to lead to a political agreement only, with binding targets to be discussed at talks next year. Although the UAE is not considering committing to mandatory cuts in emissions, officials here are insisting industrial countries bring them in. "There should be clear targets and time frames for Annex One [developed] countries," Dr al Numeiri said.
The UAE and other major fossil-fuel producers, including coal-rich Australia, also want funding from the Clean Development Mechanism, which was established under the Kyoto Protocol, for carbon capture and storage projects. It gives financial support to emission-reductions projects in the developing world. The scheme usually focuses on efforts to increase the efficiency of industrial operations and to curb emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
However, this country and others want it to pay for new carbon capture and storage projects. The technique is used to collect carbon dioxide and secrete it deep underground. Critics question whether the international community should support an expensive technology to benefit oil and coal producers instead of funding solar projects or wind farms. The UAE has long been targeted by environmental campaigners because its rate of emissions per capita, or "carbon footprint", is among the largest in the world. But Dr al Numeiri insisted the country is playing its part in tackling climate change. "We have 'zero-flaring' policies in the oil sector. We are collecting methane, which is 23 times more potent that CO2, from waste water treatment," he said, adding that other green policies had also been implemented here.
However, a leak on the internet of prominent climate-change scientists' e-mail correspondence last month could jeopardise a positive outcome at Copenhagen, according to Mohammed Raouf, an environment expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. About 1,000 e-mails between leading climate researchers working at the University of East Anglia in Britain were revealed after hackers had accessed their accounts. They showed scientists discussing the effective ways to present data and singled out individuals and publications they saw as hostile to the idea of man-made global warming.
"This will make the situation worse," Mr Raouf said. "You cannot judge the whole picture with this, there is an overwhelming consensus that human activities are responsible for climate change." Others said the leaks would have little long-term impact. "Climate change is real, it is related to human activities, and the need to counteract its impacts is now urgent," said Ginger Pinholster, a spokeswoman for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With files from Chris Stanton and Reuters