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Confused About All the Climate Talk and the Copenhagen Summit? Here's the Skinny: Five Things You Should Know

The who, what, where, when and why about COP 15, which strangely means: the "Council of Parties."

There's a lot of buzz about COP15, the big climate-change meeting coming up -- what exactly is all the hype about, and why should you care? Here's a simple breakdown.

1. What the heck is it?

COP15 is the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, the highest body of the United Nations Climate Change Convention, and it will take place this year Dec. 7-18. There will be 192 countries participating and a whole bunch of nongovernmental organizations, as well. The event will be in Copenhagen and is hosted by the Danish government. COP14 was in Poland last year.

One of the most well-known COP meetings was COP3 in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, which resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, a document now signed by over 180 countries and put into action in February 2005. The protocol set binding emissions targets for greenhouse gases (GHG) for 37 industrialized countries and the European Union, committing them to reducing their GHG emissions an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

"Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities,'" explains the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The U.S., which contributed over 30 percent of global GHG emissions in 1990 never signed the Kyoto Protocol, and the country's reluctance to commit to international climate change negotiations has long stymied the process. Until, perhaps, now ...

2. What are they trying to accomplish?

The goal of the COP15 is to get as many countries as possible (and particularly big emitters like the U.S.) to enter into a binding agreement to reduce GHG emissions enough to prevent catastrophic results from climate change.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told Environment & Energy Publishing that he was hoping four important questions would be answered in Copenhagen:

  • How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?
  • How much major developing countries such as China and India are willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?
  • How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?
  • How is that money going to be managed?

3. Why does the future of the world depend on it?

This is really serious stuff. The best science tells us that we need immediate action on climate change to prevent catastrophic results. This month the U.N. Environment Program released an updated report following the groundbreaking findings in 2007 by the International Panel on Climate Change that basically said thing are are going to be as bad as the IPCC predicted or worse.

"The pace and the scale of climate change is accelerating, along with the confidence among researchers in their forecasts," UNEP Director Achim Steiner said in the report.

What UNEP found was that we've already committed ourselves to an increase in temperature above pre-industrial levels by 1.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, and if we don't get our acts together soon -- meaning making 25-40 percent reductions in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 -- we're looking at 4.3 degrees Celsius increases or worse.

A few degrees may sound like not a big deal, but actually it's quite bad. Here are some details from Matt McDermott at Treehugger to put it in perspective:

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