The Copenhagen Accords, warts and all, will have laid the foundation for the hoped-for Paris accord in several ways. (Perhaps paradoxically, it also went badly enough to provide organizers a road map of what not to do at a climate negotiation—most notably, don’t bring in world leaders at the end of the talks).
“I think the messy process in some ways obscured some of the substantive progress,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.
It established that all major polluters—not just developed nations—would take steps to rein in emissions that each nation determines domestically, known as a “bottom-up” approach that’s a sharp break with the Kyoto Protocol.
The three-page outcome also included a first-time aspiration of keeping the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, a target that scientists say will help avoid some of the most dangerous climatic changes.
Elsewhere, it also set out a target of mobilizing $100 billion annually from a variety of sources by 2020 to help developing nations fight climate change, and called for establishing some type of checking up on nations’ carbon-cutting pledges (called “measurement, reporting, and verification” in climate-summit-speak).
The basic structure was substantially fleshed out and formally adopted at a smoother conference in Cancun, Mexico, the following year.
Waskow says Copenhagen “left something to be desired” in terms of both process and substance, such as the absence of measures to ensure that nations return to the table at regular intervals over time with commitments to increase their climate efforts.
Still, he credits Copenhagen with establishing important precedents in terms of engagement by a wide range of nations and starting to tackle questions of transparency of national efforts.
That’s a similar verdict to what Obama gave at the time. "[E]ssentially that rather than see a complete collapse in Copenhagen, in which nothing at all got done and would have been a huge backward step, at least we kind of held ground and there wasn't too much backsliding from where we were,” Obama said.
Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a veteran of international climate summits, and others say one reason Copenhagen has such a lousy reputation is because so much was expected of the talks.
“Copenhagen was doomed to ‘failure’ by wholly unrealistic expectations,” he said. “It was perceived as a catastrophe in part because it didn’t deliver what was expected, even though there was no way that it could.”
Still, he said, “The agreement that emerged helped start us on a more productive pathway.”
Recently released troves of email from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of State show that one person who questioned Copenhagen’s crummy reviews early was John Podesta, the influential Democratic strategist who is now chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign.