COP15 and the Copenhagen Accord – A Flawed Process, A Flawed Outcome

As the huge build-up and anticipation of the COP15 climate conference begins now to recede into history and the world peers down the road to Mexico City and COP16, I take stock of my own experience in Copenhagen and what I think of the process and result of the two-week climate negotiations.

“On the brink of collapse”

Every morning, as I crunched my bowl of corn flakes and fortified myself for another cold, Copenhagen day, it seemed that my morning updates typically consisted of how negotiations teetered on the “brink of collapse.” By the start of the second week, the phrase began to loose its impact. “On the brink of collapse” was standard operating procedure – or so it seemed to me.

Much of the reason for this, apparently, is fundamental to how UN climate negotiations work. All decisions on how to proceed require unanimous consent among all participants, and it was evident by the third day that there wasn’t going to be a lot unanimity going around. When the small island nation of Tuvalu refused to go forward unless a course was set for a legally binding agreement to come as a result of the 10-day negotiating session, presiding conference president Connie Hedegaard suspended the plenary session, bringing the process to a grinding halt (it wouldn’t be the last time) as other of the most vulnerable nations backed Tuvalu’s proposal. Delegates were greeted by a “rapid response” demonstration outside the plenary in support of tiny Tuvalu.

And thus marked the way things would continue throughout the talks, through to the final hours of the summit.

“This process is not particularly well-suited for the problem it’s supposed to confront,” Michael Levi, climate and energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told ClimateWire. Levi said that the complexity of creating the mechanism through which 193 countries can discuss issues of reducing emissions, leveraging financing, technology transfer, and all that come with an international climate treaty is “forbidding.”

“The idea that one institution can do all the work flies in the face of not just the last two weeks, but a basic analysis of the problem,” said Levi.

Emerging in the wake of the past two are calls to review  and reconsider the role the United Nations will play in further negotiations. The “flawed outcome” of the Copenhagen talks highlight the “underlying weakness” in the UN climate negotiating process said Andrew Light, coordinator of international climate policy at the Center for American Progress. Suggesting the experience should bring some soul-searching to find better options for dealing with climate change

“We need to start investigating other options, or at a minimum start using some alternative forums,” he said, suggesting in a Reuters article possible substitutes such as the G20 and the Major Economies Forum.

What finally saved COP15 from total and final collapse (though some argue that conference was indeed a complete failure) was the arrival of 120 heads of state and the ability of a few nations to broker any sort of deal – no matter how tepid and unsatisfactory. Principal negotiations involved 30 countries, but the final outcome was mediated by only five: China, Brazil, India, South Africa, and the United States.

Many point to this fact – that in the end it was a handful of nations and not the UN negotiating body as a whole – to show that real progress on dealing with climate change lay with bilateral talks between nations, and not with the UNFCCC.

COP15 may see an evolution in how the UN engages in future climate talks, but Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute’s climate and energy program, maintains that the UN will still play an important part in future negotiation, saying it wasn’t “the end of the UN’s climate role.”

Proponents of the UN insist there is no other process that can bring the world together to address the full spectrum of issues that arise from climate change. Equability – “climate justice” – requires participation from all countries.

While negotiations in the final hours of the conference included leaders representing blocks of African and small island nations, no time was given for them to report back and sell the idea to their constituents. Claiming the final deal brokered stepped outside the UN process, infuriating many developed nations who felt “railroaded” into accepting what was handed to them, whether they liked it or not.  Even as protestors outside the Bella Center were condemning the outcome and press reports where talking of a done deal, many delegates inside had barely been given a chance to read the draft document, leaving many delegates “fuming.”

A way forward or failed opportunity

What seems fairly certain is the nobody is very satisfied with the result of the Copenhagen climate talks – and for some that is a painful understatement.

South Africa, one of the key nations in forging the final draft of the Copenhagen Accord, has now blasted the effort as an “unacceptable” failure. Buyelwa Sonjica, South Africa’s environmental minister, laid partial blame for that failure at the feet of the Danish hosts, saying an “atmosphere if distrust and suspicion” pervaded negotiations because many feared Denmark was plotting to “force its position on other nations.” Others blame president Obama for not taking a stronger leadership role and proposing tougher emissions targets than the 17 percent over 2005 levels already on the table (and already passed through the House of Representatives).

Some, however, offer cautious optimism that the Accord will at least lay a foundation for future negotiations. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Copenhagen Accord an “essential beginning” that must be codified into law within the next year. British Environmental Secretary Ed Miliband insisted that calling the accord a failure was not fair, pointing to the flow of financing that it facilitates as an important step forward.

But many are bitterly disappointed, mincing no words and calling the outcome a “climate shame.” Outside the Bella Center early Saturday morning, founder Bill McKibben laid blame principally on Barack Obama, saying he did no more than John McCain would have done.


And so all but four or five nations have not quite adopted, but “noted” the Copenhagen Accord. It specifies a goal to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels through the end of the century – but offers non-binding emissions targets that fall far short of reaching that goal. It promises $100 billion in financing for developing nations, but doesn’t specify where from where the money will come.

In the sometimes bewildering, often circus-like atmosphere of the Bella Center, a human drama played out on a thousand different levels. From earnest young hunger strikers to men in polar bear suits asking if anyone has seen Phil Jones (and providing Fox News the perfect photo op) and, almost secondary to the circus it seemed at times, an international intrigue plodded through ten long days of endless speeches, impassioned pleas, “leaked texts,” and acrimonious debate.

That is until the final few hours, when what we had all come there for was finally offered to the world – the Copenhagen Accord. A flawed process led to a flawed document. It is frustrating, baffling, and discouraging. So be it. We are all, to some degree, responsible for what happened on the “road to Copenhagen”, what happened in Copenhagen, and where we go from here.

On that tenuous foundation we have no choice but to move forward.

The Copenhagen Accord (pdf)

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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