What Went Wrong at Copenhagen?

Posted on January 24, 2010 in Environment

Madhushani Pandipperuma:

“Climate change is real. The science is compelling. And the longer we wait, the harder the problem will be to solve”. — Senator John Kerry

The United Nations Climate Change Conference or the Copenhagen Summit was a major international conference wherein a number of countries of the world came together in order to negotiate and make decisions on how to tackle with international climate change in 2009. The conference was held at the Bella Center, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In the current international agreement on combating global warming, the Kyoto Protocol (adopted in 1997), a commitment was made for reducing global warming until the year 2012. The Copenhagen conference was held to negotiate and renew a fresh international policy towards climate change in the world.

After talking to 115 Heads of State and Government, gathered from all around the world in the assembly, ultimately the issue of bringing about a political agreement was left to Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier. The goal of the strategy was scientifically recognized maintaining the temperature rises to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. However, it does not contain any commitments in order to reduce the emissions and achieve this goal.

While some of the American officials say that the agreement is meaningful, Barack Obama said that the progress of the agreement is not enough. Besides, he mentioned that the agreement has come a long way and it has much further to go. The goal was reducing the emission of green house gases. Also cutting down the emission of Carbon-dioxide by 80 percent by 2050 was a goal of the conference. The deal was brokered between China, South Africa, India, Brazil and the US.

The agreement was giving $30 billion to the poor countries to adjust to climate change from 2010 to 2012 and after 2020 $ 100 billion per year. But it disappointed African and other vulnerable countries that had been holding out for far deeper emission cuts to hold the global temperature rise to 1.5C this century. As widely expected, all references to 1.5C in previous drafts were removed at the last minute, but more surprisingly, the earlier 2050 goal of reducing global CO2 emissions by 80% was also dropped.

A deal was also set up regarding forestry. Growing trees help to absorb the surplus amount of carbon that exists in the environment. As climate change is something that moves with the economy in a country, a-forestation has a lot to execute with the agreement by reducing the emission of carbon.

A point of disagreement arose between nations because developed countries do not commit themselves to legally-binding emission reductions. Similarly, there is no quantification of a long-term global goal for emission reductions, or specific timing for global emissions to peak. As Europe has already signed the agreement, it needed US and other developed countries to agree with them in order to bind the reductions. Conversely, according to the president of the Environmental Defense Fund in the United States, developing countries have not agreed to this because United Nations did not.

Was Copenhagen a failure?

There seems to be no question that the deep divisions and ill will that characterized the negotiations and the resulting Copenhagen Accord were disappointing to many negotiators and observers alike.

However, when looking back through the history of the UNFCCC, there has been important progress in the past five years. In other words, long-term discussions have evolved from an informal one-day seminar for government experts in May 2005, through the Convention Dialogue and Bali Roadmap, to the Copenhagen Conference, where, for the very first time, the majority of the world‘s leaders gathered to frankly and seriously discuss climate change — now commonly recognized as a serious threat to humanity. Their discussions also covered a full range of formerly ―unmentionable issues, such as adaptation and mitigation by developing countries. Agreement was reached on mitigation actions by both developed and major developing countries, and billions of US dollars were pledged for short- and long-term finance.

Had the threat posed by climate change not been so urgent and serious, delegates would therefore have had every reason to be satisfied with their achievements over the past few years. However, as things stand, the Copenhagen outcome highlights that an enormous amount of work remains to be done before people can safely believe that the world has seen a turning point in the fight against climate change. It remains to be seen whether the political and public profile created in Copenhagen can be translated into a binding and ambitious international agreement on climate


Act on CO2PENHAGEN. “International Negotiations”. The UK Government’s Ambition for a Global Deal on Climate Change. http://www.actoncopenhagen.decc.gov.uk/en/ambition/faq-listing/test/faq-1. (accessed January 20, 2010).

Watts Up With That?. “Low Targets, Goals Dropped: Copenhagen ends in failure”. Guardian Headline. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/18/guardian-headline-low-targets-goals-dropped-copenhagen-ends-in-failure/. (accessed January 20, 2010)

US and World News. “Europe feels Left out in Cold on Climate change”. CBS2. http://cbs2.com/national/europe.climate.deal.2.1384627.html. (accessed January 20, 2010)