Legislation: The Copenhagen Accord and Beyond


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The United Nations Climate Change Conference,1 held in Copenhagen in December 2009, revealed the inability of the international community to coordinate objectives and strategies for an ambitious response to climate change. The Conference highlighted divergent views on substantial legal and political questions around any post-2012 climate regime. Crucial stumbling blocks included:

  • the legal architecture of the future international climate change regime;
  • the stringency of developed countries' mitigation targets;
  • the necessity of substantive pledges from developing countries;
  • the level of financial support; and
  • respect for state sovereignty in the context of measurement, reporting and verification of the actions of the developing countries.

This Note illustrates the background, content and implications of the 'Copenhagen Accord', which emerges as the most significant outcome of this Conference.


Before the Conference, proposals for adopting a new protocol to replace the Kyoto Protocol were tabled by Japan, Australia, Tuvalu and Costa Rica, while the United States presented an Implementation Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). India and Saudi Arabia opposed the adoption of a new protocol, with the support of China, which called for the implementation of existing pledges under the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol.

National positions at Copenhagen

Conflicting positions emerged before and during Copenhagen.

After initial resistance, China was ready to agree to a reduction in its CO2 emissions by 40 to 45 per cent per unit of GDP compared to 2005 levels by 2020. The link between emissions reduction and units of GDP provides a mechanism to ensure the possibility of future national economic growth at the same time as committing to limiting CO2 emissions. China's position, supported by India and the African Union, was that developed countries should reduce their GHG emissions by 40 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2020, and also financially support developing countries' adaptation, by paying 1 per cent (or 0.5 per cent, according to the African Union) of GDP per annum. India's pledges were also linked to the growth of its GDP, corresponding to an 'implicit target' of 20 to 25 per cent reduction per unit of GDP from 2005 levels by 2020. India, however, rejected any legally binding targets for developing nations.

On the other hand, the United States was ready to commit to cut its emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (corresponding to 4 per cent of 1990 levels), but firmly called for developing nations to slow down their growth in emissions. The European Union (EU) was more ambitious, confirming its willingness to cut emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. A more stringent pledge to reduce by 30 per cent will be undertaken if other major emitters take equivalent actions. In the long term, the EU points to a reduction of developed countries' GHG emissions by 80 to 90 per cent by 2050, in conjunction with a deceleration of developing countries' growth in emissions.

OPEC States supported carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies — in particular, their inclusion among Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) activity projects. They also backed a proposal for financial contributions for oil-producing countries in case a new agreement results in a drop in demand for fossil fuels. Finally, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) stressed the urgency of reaching an ambitious deal and called for international recognition of a maximum of a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels as the scientific benchmark for the negotiations. They called for global CO2 levels to peak by 2015, and for greenhouse gas emissions to fall to 85 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. They also backed an expenditure of at least 1 per cent of developed countries' GDP for damage caused by adverse climate change in the most vulnerable countries.

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