Copenhagen: a stepping stone

Anita Talberg, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section

There were high expectations for the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 (15th Conference of the Parties—COP15). However, the participating countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were not able to reach a legally-binding agreement.

What Australia brought to the COP15 table

Coming into those negotiations, Australia was advocating a global legally-binding agreement that targeted an atmospheric stabilisation level of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Australia sought commitments of comparable effort from all countries and presented its own version of a framework to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, known as the National Schedules proposal. This proposal required all nations to record their own commitments, whether they be emission reduction targets or specific mitigation actions, in a central registry. Countries would then be accountable to that registry. As well as the National Schedules, Australia went to COP15 hoping for agreement on a market mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), especially in countries like Indonesia, where Australia already has bilateral programs on this. The outcome of COP15 was the Copenhagen Accord; it fell short of many of the Australian Government’s expectations.

Copenhagen Accord

The Copenhagen Accord was a decision that the Conference ‘took note of’, without formally accepting. As such it has no legal implications. The key elements of the Accord are:

  • a temperature increase ceiling of two degrees
  • emissions reduction targets by developed countries and ‘Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions’ from developing countries, all to be registered with the UNFCCC (see table)
  • promotion of REDD and the enhancement of existing forests (collectively known as REDD-plus), and
  • fast-start mitigation and adaptation finance of US$30 billion for 2010–12 and longer-term mitigation funding of US$100 billion by 2020, some of this via a newly-established Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.
Some Copenhagen Accord country commitments
Party Emissions reduction in 2020 (a) Base year
(a) Almost all commitments are contingent on the criteria of any global agreement
Australia -5% up to -15% or -25% 2000
Canada -17% 2005
EU -20% or -30% 1990
Japan -25% 1990
New Zealand -10% to -20% 1990
Russian Federation -15% to -25% 1990
US -17% 2005

What has happened since COP15

A new Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, has been appointed and she continues to direct efforts towards reaching a legally binding treaty. Two more meetings have taken place since COP15, with a final one planned in October 2010 before the next high-level meeting in December 2010—COP16. These meetings have seen little progress on the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, and that of a broader agreement on climate change.

What to expect from COP16 and COP17

In contrast to those of COP15, expectations for COP16 in December are modest. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed doubt that a treaty can be finalised at COP16 (to be held in Cancùn, Mexico). This view is shared by many countries, which are now focussing more on COP17 in 2011 in South Africa. It is hoped that the Cancùn meeting will discuss the core issues of climate change adaptation, capacity building, finance, REDD-plus, and technology transfer, and that it will also pave the way for an international treaty at COP17.

Who is at the negotiating table?

There are currently 194 Parties to the UNFCCC. Each Party has an equal voice, but negotiations tend to take place between Party groupings, or blocs. These are usually regional but can also be based on common positions. The major blocs are:

  • G77 and China: a diverse group of more than 130 developing countries
  • Africa Group
  • Association of Small Island States: 43 countries almost all included within the G77
  • Least Developed Countries: about 50 nations
  • European Union (EU)
  • Umbrella Group: Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Russian Federation, Japan, Norway, Ukraine, Canada and the US
  • Environmental Integrity Group: Mexico, Republic of Korea and Switzerland
  • Central Asia, Caucasus and Moldova (CACAM)
  • Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
  • Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA)
  • BASIC: Brazil, South Africa, India and China, and
  • Cartagena Group/Dialogue for Progressive Action: a diverse group of 27 countries including Australia.

The major players

Of the developed countries under the UNFCCC, the EU has always been the strongest campaigner for climate change action. Within its own jurisdiction, the EU has mandated a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (on 1990 levels) and is currently seeking to increase this to 30 per cent. To achieve this target, the EU has had a functioning emissions trading scheme (ETS) since 2005. The EU bloc of 27 countries is anxious that a new international agreement be reached before the end of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period in 2013, as the success of its own ETS depends on it.

On the other side of the spectrum, the United States (US) has always been, and remains, a major obstacle to a new treaty under the UNFCCC. The US has been unable to pass climate legislation through its Congress. This has spurred the individual American states to take on the responsibility, with many cooperating in a regional ETS. The US Environment Protection Agency is also investigating ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through regulation. However, until there is support from Congress, the US cannot agree to international demands. With the likelihood of a Republican majority after the upcoming Congressional election, the chance of such support is slim.

Finally, the BASIC group of high-emitting emerging economies, which only started to form shortly before COP16, have become one of the strongest negotiating blocs. The BASIC countries are lobbying hard for a legally-binding follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol by the end of 2011. They want deep emission reduction commitments, transparent actions, and fulfilment of finance promises from developed countries before obligations should be imposed on developing countries.


The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will end in December 2012. If a new agreement is not reached soon, there will be a break between the first and the next international framework. There may be legal implications associated with this break, and a danger that significant funds and momentum will be lost.

Library publications and key documents

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) website, and International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Reporting Services website,