COP15 – What Happened and What Didn’t

Jan 9th, 2010 | By | Category: Climate Change



The fifteenth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark left many people wondering, “What, if anything, was accomplished?” After review of the major announcements from the conference, I would like to offer a few objective thoughts.


What Happened

1. There was unprecedented discussion regarding climate change and a global path forward. COP15 was attended by more than 125 heads of state, 193 countries and 45,000 attendees. This is more than four times the number of attendees of the COP13 and COP14 meetings in Bali, Indonesia and Poznan, Poland, respectively.

 2. A majority of the world’s countries committed to CO2 emission reductions. For the first time, the People’s Republic of China agreed to emission reductions and pledged to set reduction levels in its next 5-year plan for 2011 to 2015. United States President Obama pledged a 17% CO2 reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels for the United States and has proposed a 66% CO2 reduction from this level by 2050.

 3. Financial assistance was provided for developing countries. A basic agreement was formulated on how to fund clean technologies in developing countries, with a commitment to fund $100 billion dollars over the next 20 years. The United States is the primary contributor to this fund.

 4. A plan of action to help prevent rain forest deforestation was adopted. Unlike with the Kyoto Protocol or previous COP meetings, a plan to eliminate the ongoing deforestation of the global rain forest was agreed to. The United States, Japan, France, Australia, Norway, and the United Kingdom pledged USD 3.5 billion over the next three years for this purpose. This marks the first time that a global rain forest plan has been adopted.

 5. A smaller confederation was formed to continue to promote climate change efforts. A group of 33 of the most significant CO2-emitting countries vowed to work in coalition to continue to develop a specific treaty in anticipation of the COP16 meeting in Mexico City, Mexico next year.

What Didn’t Happen

1. A binding treaty was not signed. One of the main outcomes of the COP13 conference in Bali was an agreement of the 192 countries in attendance to enter into a binding global treaty by the end of the COP15 discussions. This did not happen, as none of the accords or its pledges are legally binding.

2. Aggressive emission reductions for the largest CO2-emitting countries were not established. Three of the largest CO2 emitting countries, the United States, India, and China, failed to establish aggressive, binding emission limits. The United States’ pledge of a 17% reduction over 2005 levels equates to a 4% reduction compared with1990 levels, the baseline adopted by most other countries in the Kyoto Protocol. In contrast, most of the Kyoto Protocol countries have already reduced emissions by 7% to 30% over 1990 levels and have committed to future reductions that would total 25% to 40% by 2020. Both China and India failed to commit to any specific reduction levels, although they have pledged to do so in the near future.


 Progress was made in Copenhagen, but much work is left to be done. For example:

  • In the United States, it is uncertain whether President Obama will succeed in garnering the support of Congress and developing a climate change bill that establishes as law the pledged emission reductions for the United States. Even more uncertain given the ongoing economic downturn is whether the president can obtain support for the USD 100 billion in climate change funding pledged for developing countries.
  • Questions still remain about the timing and magnitude of emission reductions in China and India. Failure to set aggressive reduction levels in these two countries could undermine future discussions.

 Like the COP15 meeting, 2010 offers the promise of progress and the hope that COP16 will bear more concrete results.

About the Author

Steve Hawkins is an environmental consultant and partner at Environmental Resources Management in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. He specializes in air permitting, climate change, compliance auditing and process safety management services.

Photograph: Mermaid sculpture in Copenhagen Harbor by John Nyberg, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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