The Copenhagen Agreement: What Went Down in Denmark

“We have a deal in Copenhagen.”  Those are the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, spoken after days of debate among the 193 nations that attended the COP15 conference.  Many people around the world saw Copenhagen as a symbol of hope that the world’s leaders could come together to make a pact that would stabilize climate change.  Hundreds of thousands rallied under the banner of “350.”  Just last week, tens of thousands of activists in Copenhagen demanded action against climate change.  On the other hand, many people predicted that a political agreement would likely take the place of a legally binding treaty.

So what went down in Denmark?  It all came down to the final day, when President Obama met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the leaders of India, Brazil, and South Africa.  They all made compromises and produced an agreement.  This in itself is important; as Andrew Light says,

“the Copenhagen Accord was not forged among our closest allies in the developed world; it was the product of cooperation between the US and a group of the largest carbon emitters in the developing world.”

But what about the agreement itself?  Well, it’s just that: an agreement, part of a two-step process that was actually proposed last month by the Danish prime minister.  According to the plan, the Accord will serve as a framework for the legally binding treaty, which will probably be formed in 2010.  This is disappointing for those who wanted a treaty this year, but it doesn’t make the conference a complete failure.

Here’s what you need to know about the Copenhagen Accord.

  • In general, the nations acknowledged a need to stabilize warming at 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, without making specific requirements for emissions reductions.  The major polluters did agree to voluntary reductions.  The big news: China is in the game now, pledging to reduce its carbon intensity — use of fossil fuels per unit of economic output — by 40 to 45 percent.  India, Brazil, and South Africa followed suit.
  • Probably the most progress was made in humanitarian aid to poor countries.  Richer nations will finance a $30 billion, three-year program to help poorer nations deal with climate change and develop clean energy, with more funding possible in the future.
  • Several countries, including the U.S. promised a total of $3.5 billion to reduce deforestation.
  • And probably the biggest fault is the lack of an explicit deadline for a binding treaty in 2010.  There is also no specific peak date for carbon emissions.

That’s the basic info.  For more details, check the Guardian article, these two posts on Climate Progress, as well as Grist’s (rather negative) coverage, and the AP report.

Here’s my take:  The Copenhagen Accord could have been much better.  As it is, it definitely isn’t enough.  If the goal was to solve the climate crisis, then COP15 failed miserably, but if the goal was to make a step forward in solving our crisis, then it turned out all right, considering the political challenges.  Aside from the Accord itself, there’s another important thing that COP15 has shown us.  Of all the delegates and heads of state who worked on the Copenhagen deal, I don’t know of any that stood up and declared global warming a hoax (Well, Inhofe was there, but no one paid much attention to him).  Not every country agrees on how to deal with climate change, but the most powerful leaders on earth take the threat seriously.  That counts for something.


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