From December 7 – 19, 2009,1 the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Copenhagen, Denmark for the 15th annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP15). This aimed at concluding a new global climate agreement for the period after 2012 when commitments for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of industrialized countries under the current Kyoto Protocol will expire. The outcome is a disappointment for many of the negotiating parties, including the EU. The conference was characterized by disagreements between developed and developing countries, and resulted in a limited, non-binding political agreement (the “Copenhagen Accord”) which must now be transformed into a legally binding treaty in the course of 2010. We highlight below: (i) the key obstacles to progress at the conference, (ii) the main contents of the new agreement, and (iii) the immediate outlook for the global efforts to combat climate change through international mechanisms.

I. Key Obstacles at Copenhagen Conference

In general, the original objective for the Copenhagen conference was to conclude a full-fledged, legally binding post-2012 agreement, but slow progress in the preparatory negotiations led to the more modest expectation of delivering a binding political agreement that could be transformed into a legally binding treaty in the course of 2010. However, due to persisting disagreements between developed and developing countries the conference eventually resulted in the Parties to the UNFCCC only “taking note” of the limited, non-binding “Copenhagen Accord”.2 Amongst these disagreements, the following issues in particular proved to be key obstacles that prevented further progress at the conference:

  • Structure of the new climate agreement: Developed countries proposed to change the UNFCCC’s framework in order to include emissions reductions commitments for major emerging economies such as China and India. China in particular, however, refused to adopt such commitments, and instead insisted, together with the Group of 77 developing countries (G77), on updating the Kyoto Protocol with more ambitious emissions reductions targets for the industrialized countries, while adding a separate agreement that includes binding commitments for the United States.
  • Financial assistance: Discussions stalled for a long time over the amount of funding that the developed countries were willing to provide in the short or medium term to assist developing countries in their adaptation and mitigation efforts. For example, the developed countries opposed an initial demand by China for US$200 billion a year by 2020, while the United States refused to specify or go beyond its offer of contributing a “fair share” of US$10 billion in “fast-start funding” for the period 2010 – 2012.

II. Contents of the “Copenhagen Accord”

As for the specific contents of the Copenhagen Accord, the agreement recognizes the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2° Celsius and provides, inter alia, for the following with regard to the issues that the UNFCCC had highlighted as “essential” for an eventual legally binding treaty:

  • Emission reduction targets for developed countries: Parties to Annex I3 will commit to implement quantified emissions targets for 2020 that they will submit to the Secretariat of the UNFCCC by January 31, 2010. The agreement adds that these targets will “further strengthen” the reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Mitigation commitments by developing countries: Non-Annex I Parties4 will implement mitigation actions that they will submit to the UNFCCC by January 31, 2010. In addition, the agreement notes that least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing countries may undertake actions voluntarily and on the basis of support.
  • Financial assistance for developing countries: Developed countries assume the commitment to collectively provide “fast-start funding” of up to US$30 billion for the period 2010 – 2012, with funding for adaptation prioritized for the most vulnerable developing countries. In addition, developed countries commit to mobilizing jointly US$100 billion a year by 2020. As part of this funding the Parties will, amongst other things, establish a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund to support immediate action in developing countries.
  • Monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV): The agreement provides for MRV of reduction and financing efforts of developed countries in accordance with guidelines adopted by the UNFCCC. Mitigation actions by Non-Annex I Parties will be subject to domestic MRV, except when these actions enjoy international support, when they will be subject to international MRV, i.e. in accordance with guidelines adopted by the UNFCCC.

In addition, other key elements of the accord that the UNFCCC highlights are: (i) the establishment of a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology development and transfer in support of mitigation and adaptation efforts of developing countries; and (ii) the launch of a financing program to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD-plus) in developing countries. It is also worth noting that because the offers of the developed and developing countries may prove insufficient to prevent the global temperature from rising below 2° Celsius, the accord provides that an assessment of its implementation should be completed by 2015. The agreement stipulates that such an assessment would include a consideration of the long-term goal to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5° Celsius. This was the result of a plea from the most vulnerable Island nations at highest risk from rising water levels.

III. Outlook for Efforts to Combat Climate Change through International Mechanisms

While countries such as China and Japan reportedly applauded the agreement, UNFCCC officials cautioned in a first reaction that although the accord is “an essential beginning,” it is mainly a “letter of intent” that is “not precise about what needs to be done in legal terms.”5 They therefore underlined that the next challenge will be to turn the accord into “something real, measurable and verifiable,” and that is more ambitious in terms of efforts to reduce emissions. This assessment was acknowledged by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who stated that the agreement is “clearly below our objective” but nonetheless “a first step in a very important process.”6 The EU also made clear that its policy on the issue will not change and that it will maintain its binding objective of reducing its overall emissions to at least 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, with a possible increase to a 30 percent reduction if further talks lead to a satisfactory international agreement. US President Barak Obama reportedly made a similar statement that although the accord would be a foundation for global action there was “much further to go.”7 However, in the US, the limited results of the Copenhagen conference will make the adoption of national legislation on emission reductions even more difficult than before.

As a first next step, the Parties to the UNFCCC will need to sign the agreement, which will then have “immediate operational effect.” The following objective will be to transform the accord into a full-fledged, legally binding treaty at the next annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP16), which will take place in Mexico City, Mexico towards the end of 2010. Prior to this, a key event will be the preparatory negotiations that will take place in Bonn, Germany from May 31 to June 11, 2010.