Thoughts on the COP 15 Summit in Copenhagen


  1. What was this conference, and why did it get so much attention?
  2. What actually happened at COP 15?
  3. What comes next?

I. What was this conference, and why did it get so much attention?

It was the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In order to understand why this was important, and why it got so much attention in the media and elsewhere, you have to know the back story.


The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty that was agreed upon in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the “Earth Summit,” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Parties to this treaty (that is, the countries that have formally endorsed it) have been holding annual meetings since 1995. There are now 194 Parties that have formally endorsed the UNFCCC—which is nearly all of the world’s 203 sovereign states.
Although the UNFCCC is technically considered a “treaty,” it’s most accurate to think of it as an “agreement to agree” to take action steps that prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Nothing in the UNFCCC itself requires countries to take such action steps. That’s why there have been fifteen UNFCCC conferences since 1995: the world still has a lot to do before it will have a global agreement that stands a chance of dealing adequately with the threat of climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol, forged in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, is the world’s first and so far only attempt at a global agreement to address climate change. It calls for mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries, but exempts developing countries—including China and India, which are the world’s first and fifth largest emitters of greenhouse gases despite their status as developing countries. Because of this, the U.S. has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which means that the binding emissions cuts accepted by every other developed country (except Australia, until it ratified the Protocol in 2007) do not apply here, although the U.S. is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China.

The fact that three of the world’s five largest emitters of greenhouse gases are not bound to cut their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol has made this agreement inadequate to deal with climate change–though it has led to meaningful emissions cuts in most developed countries that ratified it (with some important exceptions).

The Bali Road Map

In December 2007, at the 13th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC in Bali, Indonesia, the countries of the world agreed on a plan for producing a new agreement that would work alongside and eventually replace the Kyoto Protocol. In particular, this “Bali Road Map” called on Parties to develop strategies to deal with five challenges:

  • Finding consensus on an overall “shared vision” for a post-Kyoto agreement;
  • Cutting greenhouse gas emissions, including those resulting from deforestation;
  • Adapting to those climate change impacts that are already guaranteed to occur as a result of past emissions;
  • Developing clean energy technologies, and transferring knowledge of these technologies to underdeveloped countries;
  • Forging financial agreements between countries to pay for the efforts above.

Under the Bali Road Map, it was hoped that countries would agree on plans for “enhanced action” on these issues in 2008 and 2009, in time to roll the action plans together into a new international climate agreement by the end of this month’s conference in Copenhagen. Over the last two years, negotiators from around the world have indeed worked steadily to address the issues above, in hopes that their work would culminate with an agreement in Copenhagen.


In short, the world spent the last two years preparing to complete a new international climate agreement in Copenhagen. This hoped-for agreement has been laden with expectations as a result of the failures of the Kyoto Protocol. This is why the COP 15 conference in Copenhagen received so much attention before it began, while it was going on, and after it ended.

II. What actually happened at COP 15?

The Copenhagen Accord

The outcome of the conference was a three-page, non-binding “Copenhagen Accord” that, while not perfect, provides the beginnings of an agreement to tackle climate change. The Accord was agreed to in the final 48 hours of the conference by heads of state from the United States, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. The other countries assembled at the conference agreed to “take note of” the Accord. What “taking note” means is open to interpretation; I believe it was an indication that many of the other countries at the conference are unwilling to endorse a non-binding climate agreement, but are supportive of this agreement insofar as it leads to a binding agreement later on.

Emissions cuts in the Copenhagen Accord

The Copenhagen Accord is built on commitments to cut overall emissions by the United States and other developed countries, and commitments to cut emissions intensity (emissions per unit of economic output) by India, China, and other developing countries.
The emissions targets offered by the U.S., China, and India are as follows:

United States

  • The U.S. will cut its overall greenhouse gas emissions 17% by 2020, from a 2005 baseline.
    • This amounts to about a 4% cut by 2020 from a 1990 baseline. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on the science of global climate change, uses 1990 baselines in all its emissions recommendations, and called on developed countries like the U.S. to cut their emissions25 to 40% by 2020 from a 1990 baseline in its 2007 report.
  • Will cut overall greenhouse gas emissions 83% by 2050, from a 2005 baseline.
    • This amounts to about an 80% cut by 2050 from a 1990 baseline. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called on developing countries like the U.S. to cut their emissions 80 to 95% by 2050 from a 1990 baseline in its 2007 report.


  • China will cut its emissions intensity 40 to 45% by 2020, from a 2005 baseline.
    • This does not mean China’s overall emissions will fall between now and 2020, since emissions intensity is a measure of emissions per unit of economic output. It only means that China will emit less per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) that it adds to its economy.


  • India will cut its emissions intensity 20% by 2020, from a 2005 baseline.

Other developed and developing countries choosing to endorse the Copenhagen Accord have until January 31, 2010 to add their own emission reduction commitments to an annex to the agreement.

Financing climate change response measures under the Copenhagen Accord

To finance emissions cuts, adaptation to climate impacts, and clean technology development and transfer in developing countries, the United States has committed to “jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020,” in collaboration with other developed countries. It is likely that the United States will cover 20 to 25% of this amount, which will also include private funding. These funds will be managed and disbursed by a new “Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.”

Technology in the Copenhagen Accord

The Copenhagen Accord contains a pledge to “establish a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology development and transfer” to countries that lack the capacity to develop clean energy technologies on their own. The specific functions of this Technology Mechanism have not yet been agreed upon, but it is very likely that the Mechanism will, at the least, oversee three new “Climate Technology Centers” around the world. These Centers will facilitate collaborative R&D between countries on new clean energy and other technologies.
Other climate technology development activities will take place outside the umbrella of the United Nations, through the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. This Forum, which was launched in March 2009, is a collaborative effort between seventeen of the world’s largest economies (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The Major Economies Forum’s “Global Partnership” on climate technology development began in July 2009 at the G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy. In Copenhagen, the Forum released eleven Technology Action Plans designed to accelerate the development and deployment of key clean energy and energy efficiency technologies, including wind, solar, bioenergy, advanced vehicles, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

III. What comes next?

Because the Copenhagen Accord is non-binding, and because many specific procedures remain to be agreed on (including procedures for technology development and transfer, to name just one issue), attention is now turning toward the 16th Conference of Parties (COP 16), which will take place in November 2010 in Mexico City. Politically, it will be virtually impossible for the United States to make a binding commitment to any international agreement before the U.S. Senate passes energy and climate legislation, which will provide specific guidance about the size of U.S. emissions cuts and . And until the U.S. makes such a binding commitment, China and India are unlikely to do so either.

If the U.S. Senate passes clean energy and climate legislation before the November summit in Mexico Summit—legislation that offers meaningful emissions cuts and international financial commitments—the stage may be set for the establishment of a binding post-Kyoto international climate agreement in 2010.


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