By adjunct Prof Alan Pears AM, RMIT University and Sustainable Solutions Pty Ltd


The 2009 Copenhagen COP/MOP (Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change/Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol) was the culmination of an enormous amount of work and hype. It was framed as the time when world leaders would ‘get serious’ about climate change. I attended the full two weeks of the process, then stopped in at the University College London Energy Efficiency Institute, where I presented a seminar and met with some of the UK’s leading energy efficiency researchers and policy thinkers. This report summarises my observations and experiences in Copenhagen.

The Outcomes:

The Copenhagen Accord was negotiated (by a sub-group of 25 of the 193 Parties) and “noted” by the COP (188 to 5). In final discussions, a large majority of Parties supported it, but consensus (required by the UN process) could not be reached. This Accord will include documentation of specific actions and targets by both developed and developing countries that participate in it, including China. See below for more details of the Accord. Already the Accord is looking weaker: the proposed deadline of 31 January for submission of commitments is now described as “soft” by the UN, so it is unlikely that many countries will submit their commitments by that date.

The process at the COP was controversial, with “secret drafts”, repeated suspensions of formal processes, and progressively tougher exclusion of NGOs (including business) from the core processes. A key point of difference was that some parties (mainly developing 2 countries) wanted to build on the Kyoto Protocol while others (US, Australia among them) wanted to develop a separate approach.

Process failure meant that in the last few days of the COP, heads of government were faced with draft text with many options and text that was not agreed. This gave them an impossible task within the time.

There was very little discussion of ‘the science’: it was clearly accepted, and it was also accepted that the lower the temperature increase achieved, the lower the risk of serious impacts. The main focus was on the politics of limiting warming to 1.5C or 2C, and the reality that the offers on the table would allow warming of over 3.5C. [This is in marked contrast to the debate on climate science in Australia’s popular media.]

Specific topics discussed in various working groups:

  • Bunker fuels (fuel for international shipping and aviation, which is not included in the Kyoto framework) – there was no clear outcome, but some progress. Both the airlines and the shipping industry worked hard to explain all the mitigation measures they were pursuing and to look constructive. However, projected growth in air travel and limited potential for efficiency improvement imply that this industry will need to rely heavily on renewable fuels. [The issue relating to air travel that was not discussed is that release of emissions at high altitude, which is not considered under UNFCCC or Kyoto methodologies, has very significant additional climate change impacts, estimated at around 1.9 times the direct impact of the CO2 released (and potentially up to 4 times if the impacts of contrails are considered). So, even if renewable fuels are used, it seems air travel would have ongoing major climate change impacts.]
  • Adaptation, which had previously been controversial, was discussed productively, and this is reflected in the text of the Accord.
  • LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) including REDD-Plus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries+ forest carbon stock enhancement), addressing avoided deforestation and related issues, was discussed.
  • While some major issues were not agreed (such as MRV – Measurement Reporting and Verification, financial arrangements), the Accord proposes to implement REDD+: this could be seen as an attempt to override the formal negotiation process. The COP itself made some modest decisions, requesting developing countries to use IPCC estimation methods, establish forest monitoring systems, identify drivers of deforestation and degradation; encourage capacity building; and recognise that forest reference emission levels take into account historical data and adjust for national circumstances: but there is much ambiguity still. The lack of agreement is reflected in final negotiated decisions that call for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Board to “significantly improve transparency, consistency and impartiality in its work”; take into account host country laws etc; establish procedures for considering appeals; SBSTA (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice) to recommend approaches to develop standardised baselines with 3 “high environmental integrity”; and publish CVs, statements on conflicts of interest and affiliations (past and current) of Board members. A work program for LULUCF issues was mapped out.
  • CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage): some parties (including Australia) wanted this included in CDM. However, this was not agreed. Further work was proposed.
  • Joint Implementation (cooperative action by developed countries): further work was proposed to develop more transparent, predictable and efficient verification.
  • Debate on whether control of HFCs (which are replacements for CFCs) should be shifted from the Kyoto Protocol to the Montreal Protocol (which deals with CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals) continued.
  • Discussions of selection of base year(s), how surplus AAUs (Assigned Amount Units, the basis for international emissions trading) from the first Kyoto period will be dealt with, future commitment periods and rules for flexibility mechanisms continued but were not resolved.
  • Sectoral agreements and approaches were discussed, with no conclusions.

The many unresolved issues will be revisited at the next COP/MOP. In the meantime further work will be done. On the positive side, it can be said that discussions at Copenhagen were more frank than in the past, and focused on basic issues, and that work will continue. On the other side, it is clear that internal issues (such as risk of losing votes or risk of political instability) within countries will shape the views of major players, and that the parties are a long way from consensus on some very basic issues.  There is a growing view that a new approach to decision-making is needed, as the capacity of the traditional UN consensus model is under serious challenge.

It was agreed that the next COP/MOP would be in Mexico from November 29 to December 10, 2010.


This COP showed that national leaders are not prepared to move beyond actions that are widely supported by their own constituencies. So formal global action is likely to be based on lowest common denominator agreements. While the discussion exposed the core issues of concern for
many parties, which is positive, the lack of progress on almost all fronts does not bode well for rapid progress. The reality is that individual parties and groups of parties will set the pace at the national and multi-national levels. It will be critical to mobilise and empower communities, business and individuals to act, and for them to be able to gain credit for additional action beyond national targets, which seem likely to be completely inadequate.

Other issues:

Organisation was a major issue. Over 40,000 delegates (including over 21,000 NGOs (Non Government Organisations), 5000 media and 12,000 party delegates) were registered for a facility that held only 15,000. This led to major problems with registration (with some people 4 queuing all day in the cold) and progressively tighter controls on access for NGOs in the second week, initially reduced to 7000, then 1000 and, on the final day, 90-300 (I heard both figures). In any case, given the large numbers it was very difficult for many NGOs to attend open negotiation and briefing sessions due to overcrowding of rooms.

On Saturday 12 December, 100,000 people walked from central Copenhagen to the conference centre (approx 6 km) and conducted a vigil. The demonstration was largely peaceful, but some violence occurred at the back of the crowd: police reacted strongly to this, and seem to have detained innocent bystanders as well as troublemakers. The only police I saw apart from an expected presence was a row of them in riot gear in front of the McDonalds and KFC stores we walked past! Many other smaller demonstrations occurred throughout the COP. ‘Approved’ demonstrations occurred within the conference centre.

NGOs Avaaz and Climate Action Network International each day awarded ‘Fossil of the day’ awards to countries that had played negative roles in negotiations. Australia jointly and individually won some of these awards. Our individual award was on day 10, for attempting to bully Pacific Island countries into accepting a 2C target instead of their 1.5C one. On the same day, Canada, Australia and Japan placed joint second and third for lack of commitment to long-term financial aid to developing countries. As part of the ‘umbrella Group’ (most Annex 1 countries apart from EU and USA), we scored two second places for lobbying to include CCS (carbon capture and storage) in the CDM scheme, and for lack of commitment to long term financial aid. (see for details and pictures).

A number of independent events were run around Copenhagen for those who could not or chose not to register. For example, the Klimaforum was the major community conference, while the International Emissions Trading Association and industry groups ran a full program at a nearby hotel. Within the conference venue itself, there were many ‘side events’ run by governments and other groups. I spent most of my time at these, and found many very worthwhile. I report on these below.

Neither business and industry NGOs (BINGOs) nor environmental NGOS (ENGOs) seemed able to access good information, and all had difficulty accessing negotiators to influence their positions. Even government delegates struggled to find out what was happening: I met with delegates from an Australian state government who were attending ‘side events’ because they felt they were unable to play a useful role in the negotiations.

An important development outside the COP, but with significant implications for global abatement, was the announcement that the US EPA has issued an ‘endangerment’ ruling, declaring greenhouse gases to be pollution. This allows the EPA to regulate emission of greenhouse gases without requiring congress and senate approval.

Australia’s role

Australia emerged from the COP somewhat tarnished. We were seen by some to have colluded with others to prepare ‘secret’ drafts, and to have actively worked against continuation of the Kyoto Protocol (preferring to align with the USA and others to support a completely new approach). Our Prime Minister was accused of ‘bullying’ Pacific countries to try to bring them into line on some issues including the 2C versus 1.5C debate. Our Climate Change Minister spoke on behalf of the ‘umbrella group’ that included a mix of progressive and problematic parties, including Canada (who won fossil of the conference award for their failure to meet their Kyoto obligations and general resistance to progress). Australia was seen to have offered a weak target, and to be actively lobbying for self interest on forestry and land-use issues.

Other Countries

USA: This COP was probably too soon for President Obama. His health bill was still in the senate, and the climate bill was also pending. So he was not in a position to promise much, despite many painting him as the white knight who would ride in and fix everything. Nevertheless, some important and significant developments were discussed:

  • EPA ‘endangerment’ ruling: the US EPA has declared that greenhouse gases are pollutants and are covered by the Clean Air Act. This means EPA can regulate their emission and management without requiring congress or senate approval. This gives Obama a powerful lever to drive change and apply pressure to the Senate.
  • Stephen Chu, the new Energy Secretary, spoke at two sessions. He is the first senior bureaucrat I have heard who really understands sustainable energy. This is not surprising, as he played a senior role at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the premier energy efficiency research facility in the USA. See below for some of his key points. He mapped out some exciting developments and substantial funding to drive an energy transition.


China played a very tough game, including insulting the US president and other heads of state by sending their vice-foreign minister to the final negotiations with heads of state instead of their premier. China seemed determined to ensure that no agreement wouldthreaten its ongoing economic development and independence of action. This caused a split with many of the less developed countries, who were seeking strong commitments to abatement targets: this was a significant rift which may have long-term implications.

At the same time, China emphasised that it is taking many strong actions on mitigation, including aggressive renewable energy, energy efficiency targets and a commitment to cut its emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020. Since the COP, it has been claimed that their vice-foreign minister has been shifted sideways: some see this as punishment for the damage he did, while others see it as a smart way of clearing the baggage but not an indicator of any softening of the Chinese position. The Chinese government has issued a denial about the punishment of the minister, and essentially confirmed the analysis above: China claims it is genuine in wishing to contribute responsibly to global response, but is determined not to be pushed into committing to targets it is not confident it can meet.


India played the ‘cracked record’ option. Its representatives repeatedly emphasised that developed countries had caused the problem, so they should act first and strongest to fix it. At one level this is a reasonable position. But the problem is that we all share the planet, and things are now so desperate that it is really a case of ‘all hands on deck’. So it may backfire on a country that has a lot to lose through climate change.


Tuvalu played a lead role in the push for a 1.5C target, and brought together a number of least developed countries who are already experiencing impacts from climate change.

Key elements of the Copenhagen Accord

  • This was negotiated by more than 25 parties (and is expected to be adopted by the majority of parties) and, for those who have agreed, it is ‘operational immediately’. But ‘noted’ rather than ‘adopted’ by the COP – so it is not legally binding
  • Other parties may choose (and many are expected to) to associate themselves with it over time
  • Agrees deep cuts to emissions are needed ‘to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2C’
  • Annex I parties commit to implement quantified economy-wide emission targets for 2020, to be submitted to the Secretariat by 31 Jan 2010. (Post COP comments by the UN indicate that this is a ‘soft’ deadline.) Delivery of reductions and financing by developed countries will be monitored, reported and verified (MRV) in accordance with guidelines adopted by the COP
  • Non-annex I parties will implement mitigation actions, including those submitted by 31 Jan 2010 . LDCs [Least Developed Countries] and SIDS [Small Island Developing States] may undertake actions voluntarily and on the basis of support. Actions not supported by external funds/resources will be subject to domestic MRV under clear guidelines for international consultation and analysis. Externally supported NAMAs (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions) will be subject to international MRV (Monitoring Reporting and Verification). This responds to China’s concerns about national sovereignty – if it self-fund action it can do its own MRV
  • Parties are expected to cooperate in achieving a peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible, recognising that the timeframe will be longer in developing countries
  • Calls for enhanced action on adaptation, with developed countries providing ‘adequate,predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology and capacity building’
  • Agrees to the need for positive incentives relating to forest degradation, deforestation and removal of emissions by forests through a mechanism including REDD+
  • Decides to pursue various approaches, including markets, to enhance cost-effectiveness of and promote mitigation actions
  • Developed countries will provide new and additional resources approaching US$30 billion in 2010-2012 for adaptation and mitigation, and commit to a goal of US$100 billion a year by 2020 for developing countries
  • Establishes the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund to manage financial aspects
  • Establishes a Technology Mechanism for technology transfer and development
  • Calls for assessment of implementation of the Accord by 2015, including consideration of the science and a possible 1.5C target. On the positive side, this recognises the need to limit temperature rise to less than 2C (but not 1.5C as preferred by many parties). It requires all participating countries to put their targets and (for developing countries) actions on the table by 31 Jan 2010 (except that this is a ‘soft’ deadline), and requires credible monitoring and verification (subject to development of and compliance with guidelines). New funding and technology transfer mechanisms are proposed to assist developingcountries.

It includes provision to implement the controversial REDD+ scheme for forests, and the substantial funding for developing countries is a ‘goal’.

Overall, the Accord is a weak instrument which is essentially voluntary and not easily enforceable. It is expected that the sum of all likely commitments to abatement will allow warming well above 2C.

Much of the fine print will have to be worked out over the next year or so, and would have to be agreed at the Mexico COP late in 2010 – or meetings beyond that. So we cannot be confident of any significant outcome.