The Copenhagen Accord – Final Nail in the Coffin or a New Beginning for Climate Policy?

Commentary by Bettina Wittneben

The Copenhagen Accord is a beautifully written document and full of good intentions. I encourage everyone to read it. It can be found on the UNFCCC website, is quite short and touches on many of the contentious issues in climate change policy. Unfortunately, it is almost entirely lacking of any consequence or even content. Today, this document is literally empty: it contains two tables that are intentionally blank. Let’s have a closer look.


This is the first UN document that mentions the 2 degree target. This aim of keeping the temperature rise below 2 degrees from pre-industrial times has been championed by the EU and others for a while but was never formally adopted. Over the past year, however, voices have become stronger that temperature rise should really be kept below 1.5 degrees rather than 2 degrees to save human lives and many species from extinction. This challenge of the initial magic 2 degrees target might actually have made it acceptable for mainstream politics to acknowledge a 2 degree target rather than going with the more stringent 1.5 degree target. How we can prevent temperatures from rising above 2 degrees globally and what that means in terms of limiting greenhouse gas emissions today remains unresolved. It is a comfortable goal for policy makers, because it remains fairly vague. That is, of course, not according to the IPCC report which prescribes a radical reduction of emissions urgently to stay below 2 degrees. But who will be held liable when temperatures surge beyond 2 degrees? Will the signatories to the Copenhagen Accord be dragged in front of an environmental court? Right now, we are already at a one degree temperature increase. It is almost a farce that the agreement states to review a 1.5 degree goal in 2015. By then, given that we are not lowering emissions, it is difficult to imagine that we would be able to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.

Further figures are in relation to funding adaptation and mitigation measures in developing countries. The sum of $30bn is to be provided within the period from 2010 to 2012. This money is to be new and additional and to be provided by industrialized countries. This figure is similar to what has been promised by the EU and the US earlier in the negotiations. More significantly, the agreement promises developing countries $100bn per year starting in 2020. This money, however, is to “come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.“ After the financial crisis the imagination is left to run wild on what alternative sources of finance could be. This latter money is to be managed through a newly established Copenhagen Green Climate Fund. Note here that the Adaptation Fund of the Kyoto Protocol took more than a decade to set up, even though its financial implications are not as wide reaching as this new fund.

The reporting requirements of the Copenhagen Accord are not very different from what the Convention set out 17 years ago. The frequency of reporting has increased since then (from ‘periodically’ to ‘every two years’) but the content of national reports by rapidly industrialized countries do not require more stringent attention as emphasised by the US and exact guidelines are to be decided on within the Conference of Parties process.

The Copenhagen Accord also appeals to the forces of the market. “We decide to pursue various approaches, including opportunities to use markets, to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote mitigation actions.“ It is a very hollow commitment to the belief that the market will lower costs of mitigation action. After a decade of experimenting with market mechanisms and debating their flaws, falling for fraudulent behaviour and being exposed to years of arbitrage, this sentence seems to be a weak declaration that market approaches to climate action can still be seen as useful.

Surprisingly, the Kyoto Protocol is mentioned in the agreement. “Annex I Parties that are Party to the Kyoto Protocol will thereby further strengthen the emissions reductions initiated by the Kyoto Protocol.“ Does that mean that somehow, miraculously, the emission reductions promises delivered for information purposes only to the Copenhagen Accord next month will transform into a second commitment period? It is not clear.


Here, the writers of the Copenhagen Accord take a rain check: watch this space after 31 January 2010. Until then, countries have time to enlist (literally, sign up to the currently empty list) and express their intentions. Industrialized countries need to state their emission reduction goal for 2020 and the baseyear they calculate that on. Developing countries need to state their mitigation actions, including a wish list of actions that need financing from the wealthier nations.


Countries still need to sign on.

Emission targets still need to be set.

Mitigation actions in developing countries still need to be declared.

The finances still need to be sorted out.

The extent of the market mechanisms still needs to be determined.

The reporting still needs to be improved.

The planet still needs to be saved.

The Copenhagen Accord does not go beyond the Kyoto Protocol. More ambitious targets including a broader group of countries, more stringent rules on the market mechanisms and limits to using credits as alternatives to reductions could have all been negotiated under a second commitment period. Was it really necessary to start with a new agreement from scratch?

The bottom line

All seemed lost in Copenhagen when the Copenhagen Accord was agreed on as a last ditch effort to come up with something that had the word ‘Copenhagen’ in it. Since many of my American colleagues already call the Kyoto Protocol the Kyoto Accord, this name seems most agreeable to an American public. Whether this document can be called a treaty is another matter. The climate summit in Copenhagen has been marred by poor organization, posturing and arrogance as well as the usual political divisions and struggles. After two years of almost continuous negotiating since Bali, we would have been left with nothing were it not for the Copenhagen Accord. The world leaders have saved the day – just not the planet. One thing is clear: there is a whole lot more work to do. Luckily. The climate conference caravan can now move on. We already have dates for the next COPs – see you in 2010 in Mexico and 2011 in South Africa. In the meantime, climate change will take its toll and irreversible climate chaos is becoming inevitable.

– Bettina Wittneben is Advisor to the Board of Trustees of the Trust for Sustainable Living.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009 at 10:43 pm and is filed under Blog, Forest of Life Blog.

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