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The Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in 1997, specified greenhouse gas emission targets for the developed Annex I countries. It also specified that the first "commitment period" would run from 2008 to 2012. With the protocol set to expire at the end of 2012, it was intended that the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009, would finalize a new agreement. However, the failure of the conference to reach agreement on a new legally binding agreement has created great uncertainty about what, if anything, will replace the protocol after 2012. The COP16 conference will be held in Mexico in December 2010.[1]

COP15 was the fifteenth 'Conference of the Parties' (thus, COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The conference began on December 7 and ran through to December 18, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.[2] The COP is the highest body of the UNFCCC and consists of environment ministers who meet once a year to discuss the convention’s developments. It was attended by 192 nations with 115 heads of government in attendance.[3]

The conference was ultimately unsuccessful in reaching an agreement on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol. The Copenhagen Accord, a minimalist framework agreement brokered by Barack Obama and the U.S. delegation, also failed to win consensus support. As a result, there is significant uncertainty about what the future is about the content and form of future international climate negotiations.

On the Road to Copenhagen

Ahead of the COP15 conference, the official Denmark website stated that the "the goals of the climate change convention are to stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous man-made climate changes. This stabilization must occur in such a way as to give the ecosystems the opportunity to adapt naturally. This means that food safety must not be compromised, and that the potential to create sustainable social and economic development must not be endangered."[4]

It was widely agreed that there was little prospect of reaching final agreement on a post-Kyoto agreement at the COP15 meeting. Central to the prospects of reaching an agreement at COP15 was whether the developed Annex I countries, which have emitted the bulk of the human-induced carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere, agree to deep binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Amongst the Annex I countries, the European Union has displayed more willingness to take action, while the Umbrella Group countries -- including the United States, Canada and Australia -- have traditionally played more of a spoiling role. The United States in particular refused to make binding commitments unless major developing economies, such as China, are included in an agreement. The U.S. had also made clear that it would not agree to the Kyoto Protocol or a legally binding successor agreement. Developing countries - most actively represented by the G-77 block -- have indicated a willingness to cut emissions from the 'business as usual' scenario, but only if developed countries take a leadership role.

However, early action by developed countries alone will not be enough to prevent dangerous climate change. Central to the ability to win support from developing countries was the issue of financing of low-carbon emission technologies in order to allow low income countries to develop, compensation for developing countries that reduce deforestation, and funding for adaptation measures for those developing countries most at risk from rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

At the conclusion of pre-COP 15 negotiations in Barcelona in early November 2009, Yvo de Boer expressed pessimism about how far COP15 talks would get. "I don’t think we can get a legally binding agreement by Copenhagen," he told Bloomberg Television. "I think that we can get that within a year after Copenhagen."[5] This pessimism was reinforced when Mike Froman, Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser told reporters at the conclusion of the APEC Economic Leaders summit in Singapore that "there was an assessment by the leaders that it was unrealistic to expect a full internationally legally binding agreement to be negotiated between now and when Copenhagen starts in 22 days."[6] (see Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and global warming for more details).

A few days later, Froman stated that at the APEC meeting Obama had spoken in support of a proposal by Denmark's Prime Minister to resolve what was possible at COP15 and extend negotiations into 2010 of the outstanding details. Froman said that "there was a widespread consensus among the leaders there that the aim should not be a partial accord or just a political declaration, but an accord that covers all the main areas of the negotiations and had immediate operational effect, even as negotiations towards a legal agreement continue."[7]

The week before COP15 opened, Yvo de Boer told Radio Australia that "I think we can get a clear agreement in Copenhagen and an agreement that specifies 2020 emission reduction targets for rich nations and an agreement that specifies what major developing countries like China will do to limit the growth of their emissions," he said. "[We can get] an agreement that specifies financial support to developing countries and an agreement that specifies that some time in the course of 2010, I hope by June 2010, this all needs to be put into treaty language so you get the legally binding package as well."[8]

What de Boer was referring to was the Danish text, an outline of an agreement that was being secretly negotiated by a coalition of countries in the expectation that it would be adopted by the conference. However, the draft text became public after being leaked to the Guardian newspaper, prompting concern from a number of countries.

At the commencement of the high-level segment of the conference for ministers and heads of government in the final days of the conference, Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change outlined the challenge. "Much of the ground work has been laid for prompt implementation of action on mitigation, adaptation, technology cooperation, finance, REDD and capacity-building. Much of the ground work has been laid for ambitious emission reduction targets and mitigation actions. Much of the ground work has been laid for far-reaching adaptation. And some progress has been made on finance and its governance. It is now up to you to resolve outstanding issues and to lead the world into action. It is up to you to ensure that the world initiates ambitious mitigation action and mobilizes the streams of funding needed to get action on adaptation, technology cooperation, REDD and capacity-building."[3]

However, the conference failed to agree on a binding legal replacement to the Kyoto Protocol, with differences on key issues such as the magnitude of emissions reduction targets for developed countries, the nature of commitments from major developing countries, financing adaptation and technology transfer. Faced with the prospect that there would be no agreement, the U.S. negotiated the Copenhagen Accord with a small number of other countries. However, while the accord received significant if grudging support, it was not formally adopted by COP15 as it could not gain consensus support. As a result it was simply "noted".[9] As a result, there is significant uncertainty about how the "accord" will relate to the work undertaken by the main UNFCCC committees.

Why Did Copenhagen Fail?

In the aftermath of the failure of the COP15 conference, a range of factors have been identified for why it failed to reach a legal agreement. These include:

  • the opposition to a legally binding deal by several key governments;
  • the constraints impost by the U.S. political system imposes limits on what can be agreed to by the U.S. President;
  • mismanagement of the negotiations by the Danish government, which hosted the conference;
  • the role of the European Union in wanting a legally binding agreement and then supporting Obama's Copenhagen Accord.

Beyond Copenhagen

Christopher Flavin from the WorldWatch Institute concluded that the failure of COP15 signaled a limited role for future international climate negotiations. Progress on climate change, he argued, "will be driven more by domestic economics and politics rather than the international negotiating process."[10]

"The United Nations climate process will go on, and the challenge now is to prevent it from turning into an angry, rhetorical talk shop. That can best be accomplished if it focuses on practical and critical goals that need to be accomplished: providing financial support for the world's poorest countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change; accelerating international cooperation on technology; and mounting an international effort to protect the world's remaining forests."[10]

Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that the way the accord was negotiated had created considerable uncertainty about where future negotiations would occur. "It remains to be seen whether elaboration of the Accord takes place under the auspices of the UN process, through other multilateral processes such as the Major Economies Forum (MEF) launched by President Obama or the G-20 Economic Summit meetings, or most likely, through some combination of the two. After last Friday's events, fears in Europe and Japan that the future climate policy landscape will be determined in a "G-2" process involving only the U.S. and China don't seem so far-fetched," he wrote.[11]

In early 2010, debate over which forum climate change talks would occur in resurfaced. Achim Steiner, the undersecretary general and executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, argued that while "a lot of soul-searching" needed to be done after the failure of the COP15 conference, the UNFCCC remained the only viable forum where agreement could be reached. "Neither the G-20 nor the major emitters forum [Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate] nor any other forum managed to reach any form of agreement in the run-up to Copenhagen ... So I think one has to be careful to assume that another forum will deliver something that cannot be negotiated in the context of the U.N. framework convention," he said.[12]

Events ahead of the COP16 meeting in Mexico, December 2010

  • January 31st: deadline signatories to the Copenhagen Accord to submit national emission reduction and mitigation actions;
  • May 31 – June 11: the first round of talks leading to COP16 - see Bonn Climate Change Talks - May/June 2010
  • November 8 – November 19: the second round of talks;
  • November 29 – December 10: COP 16 in Mexico City

Negotiating Texts

Early in the first week of the Copenhagen conference a a draft of the Copenhagen Agreement was leaked to the Guardian. The draft climate change agreement, which has also been referred to as the "Danish text", had been developed by the "Circle of Commitment" comprising representatives from the governments of the UK, US, Denmark and Australia. The sweeping nature of the proposed changes provoked outcry from many developing country delegations.

A few days later preliminary draft texts were released by the two main sub-groups of the COP15 Conference. These were:

Prospects for a Post-Kyoto Agreement

Issues Discussed at COP15

Key issues which will be under discussion in the lead up to and at COP15 will include:

Main Negotiating Groups Involved Directly in the Negotiations

The main groups of UNFCCC signatory nations involved in the formal negotiations are:

Denmark's Official Website for Cop15

Daily Bulletins Published During the Meeting

Official COP15 Media Feeds

Media Portals on COP15

Articles and Resources


  1. Morten Anderson, "COP17 host has been found", AFP, December 9, 2009.
  2. "Rio Conventions Calendar", United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, accessed January 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,"Statement at the high-level segment", United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, December 15, 2009.
  4. "UN Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC)", Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, April 9, 2008.
  5. Alex Morales, "Climate-Agreement Deadline May Slip to End of 2010 ", Bloomberg, November 6, 2009.
  6. Caren Bohan and John Chalmers, "Obama backs two-step plan to reach climate deal", Reuters, November 14, 2009.
  7. "Press Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs; and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman; Senior Director for the Nationao Security Council for Asian Affairs Jeff Bader and Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Forman and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes", White House Office of the Press Secretary, November 17, 2009.
  8. Marianne Bom, "Yvo de Boer: Hope for treaty by June", December 2, 2009.
  9. "Copenhagen Accord", United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, December 18, 2009.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Chrisopher Flavin, "Escape from Copenhagen", Worldwatch Institute, December 23, 2009.
  11. Alden Meyer, "The Copenhagen Accord: Not Everything We Wanted, But Something to Build On", Union of Concerned Scientists, December 23, 2009.
  12. Brand Radowitz, "U.N. Seeks Responsibility for Climate Talks", Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2010.

SourceWatch Resources on COP15

SourceWatch Resources on Climate Change Issues

Portal:Climate Change

Host Country Denmark as a Model for Climate Progress


External links