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Low targets, goals dropped: Copenhagen ends in failure

Deal thrashed out at talks condemned as climate change scepticism in action

Barack Obama as he walks through the press conference room at the Bella Centre

Onlookers stretch to shake the hand of the US president, Barack Obama, as he walks through the press conference room at the Bella centre. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

The UN climate summit reached a weak outline of a global agreement in Copenhagen tonight, falling far short of what Britain and many poor countries were seeking and leaving months of tough negotiations to come.

After eight draft texts and all-day talks between 115 world leaders, it was left to Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, to broker a political agreement. The so-called Copenhagen accord "recognises" the scientific case for keeping temperature rises to no more than 2C but does not contain commitments to emissions reductions to achieve that goal.

American officials spun the deal as a "meaningful agreement", but even Obama said: "This progress is not enough."

"We have come a long way, but we have much further to go," he added.

Gordon Brown hailed the night as a success on five out of six measures.

In a press conference held after the talks broke up, Brown said the agreement was a "vital first step" and accepted there was a lot more work to do to get assurances it would become a legally binding agreement. He declined to call it a "historic" conference: "This is the first step we are taking towards a green and low carbon future for the world, steps we are taking together. But like all first steps, the steps are difficult and they are hard."

"I know what we rally need is a legally binding treaty as quickly as possible."

The deal was brokered between China, South Africa, India, Brazil and the US, but late last night it was unclear whether it would be adopted by all 192 countries in the full plenary session. The deal aims to provide $30bn a year for poor countries to adapt to climate change from next year to 2012, and $100bn a year by 2020.

But it disappointed African and other vulnerable countries which had been holding out for deeper emission cuts to hold the global temperature rise to 1.5C this century. As widely expected, all references to 1.5C in past drafts were removed at the last minute, but more surprisingly, the earlier 2050 goal of reducing global CO2 emissions by 80% was also dropped.

The agreement also set up a forestry deal which is hoped would significantly reduce deforestation in return for cash. It lacked the kind of independent verification of emission reductions by developing countries that the US and others demanded.

Obama hinted that China was to blame for the lack of a substantial deal. In a press conference he condemned the insistence of some countries to look backwards to previous environmental agreements. He said developing countries should be "getting out of that mindset, and moving towards the position where everybody recognises that we all need to move together".

This was a not-so-veiled reference to the row over whether to ditch the Kyoto protocol and its legal distinction between developed and developing countries. Developing nations saw this as an attempt by the rich world to wriggle out of its responsibility for climate change. Many observers blamed the US for coming to the talks with an offer of just 4% emissions cuts on 1990 levels. The final text made no obligations on developing countries to make cuts.

Negotiators will now work on individual agreements such as forests, technology, and finance – but, without strong leadership, the chances are that it will take years to complete.

Obama cast his trip as a sign of renewed US global leadership: "The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and shape the future that we seek; that is why I came to Copenhagen."

But the US president also said he would not be staying for the final vote "because of weather constraints in Washington".

Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries, said the deal had "the lowest level of ambition you can imagine. It's nothing short of climate change scepticism in action. It locks countries into a cycle of poverty for ever. Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush."

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: "The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport. Ed Miliband [UK climate change secretary] is among the very few that come out of this summit with any credit." It is now evident that beating global warming will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display here in Copenhagen."

Lydia Baker of Save the Children said world leaders had "effectively signed a death warrant for many of the world's poorest children. Up to 250,000 children from poor communities could die before the next major meeting in Mexico at the end of next year."

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Low targets, goals dropped: Copenhagen ends in failure

This article was published on at 00.47 GMT on Saturday 19 December 2009. It was last modified at 10.29 GMT on Saturday 19 December 2009.

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  • peacefulsolution peacefulsolution

    18 Dec 2009, 11:59PM

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  • greggron greggron

    19 Dec 2009, 12:14AM

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  • gulfstream gulfstream

    19 Dec 2009, 12:19AM

    Are you worried about the climate change? It?s time to react. If the leaders don?t come to an agreement about the climate change we must to react. Don?t buy ?Made in China? and ?Made in USA? until they came to an agreement. We are all consumers. It?s in our hands. It?s time to a world boycott.

  • niccolo niccolo

    19 Dec 2009, 12:19AM

    Something that amazes me, is that 'leaders' such as Gordon Brown and Obama, state to the world that this is unique event in humanity's history, and will re-define politics and our collective behaviour, yet only turn up for 24 hours or so. Whilst all things need a deadline, if the world's future is at stake, would it be so hard to thrash out another day or two on this? Perhaps something akin to a lock-in but without the drunkenness, and a mandate that something legally binding be constructed before anyone leaves.

    Now we see just a rupture, as some of the big boys declare that they have the solution and let i be declared as though it were a global agreement.

  • onemanandhisparrot onemanandhisparrot

    19 Dec 2009, 12:20AM

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  • marziPANIC marziPANIC

    19 Dec 2009, 12:21AM


    In what way is the human possibly on the brink of extinction because of climate change? Extinction? Of six billion people? Have you noticed that some people do actually live in places slightly warmer than average? Or perhaps you're thinking they might all drown?

    Doom-mongering doesn't help

  • knife knife

    19 Dec 2009, 12:24AM

    The outline of a weak global climate agreement was last night concluded in Copenhagen, but it fell far short of what Britain and many poor countries were seeking and leaves months of tough negotiations to come.

    Surely you mean 'Britain and many other poor countries...'?

  • wlaramie wlaramie

    19 Dec 2009, 12:24AM

    It's a relief that no binding agreements were generated from this gathering!!! The UN should never have any authority over any sovereign nation. Anyone willing to give up the slightest bit of autonomy to this inept, corrupt and worthless organization is a traitor to their country. Ironically China, the biggest communist country, understands this.

    Even in AGW is happening, I believe the world would be better off with the effects of global warming, as bad as they may be, than living with the brutal restrictions that would result in an 85% reduction in CO2 emissions.

  • CharlieKX CharlieKX

    19 Dec 2009, 12:25AM

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  • burnieshaun burnieshaun

    19 Dec 2009, 12:25AM

    Given that there was no prospect of concluding an agreement that would actually limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees, and that 2 degrees will be catastrophic for the developing world, greenland ice cap etc. is there in fact a positive to be had out of this failure ? The anger that has built up in recent years will now become even greater, this needs to continue to be focussed to make real change and to secure agreements that will work - and that means way beyond Kyoto and its neo liberal approach to saving the planet - One question: does Obama and the administration really wish to secure meaningful reductions in US emissions ? The Markey legislation, and anything that Kerry come up with are insufficient - but Obama may be calculating with China, India, Brazil and South Africa signed up to the Copenhagen Accord that he is in a stronger position to confront is coal payroll democrats in the senate and even some wavering republicans - or am naively spinning a positive on all this ?

  • Albert123 Albert123

    19 Dec 2009, 12:27AM

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  • ozzydave ozzydave

    19 Dec 2009, 12:27AM

    who would have thought that vested interests would trump the majority? certainly not this true believer.

    we would have been running on sustainable energy 10-15 years after the oil crisis of the early 70's if the oil man didn't run the west.

  • Jez0 Jez0

    19 Dec 2009, 12:28AM


    No, let's not doom-monger. Let's put our fingers in our ears and go "la la la I can't hear you" instead.

    And well done for positing differences in temperature between locations as an attack on the science of global warming. If only the scientists had spotted that years ago, we could have saved ourselves a lot of bother.


  • niccolo niccolo

    19 Dec 2009, 12:29AM

    And to all the naysayers, and those who for some reason still suspect this is a leftist plot, do you still not even accept that we live in a world of finite resources, we have a problem with peak oil heading up in 2020, and we have increasing ocean acidification from CO2 absorption? (Yes I do realise that the oceans are Alkaline, but we are pushing the upper layers away from alkaline towards a neutral Ph, and the presence of carbonic acid also leads to damage to coral reefs which support around 30% of marine diversity)

    One deal could construct an over-arching narrative about how to deal with a more equitable sharing of resources, manage a steady withdrawal from oil, and reduce CO2 emissions for both the purpose of avoiding anthropogenic climate change and ocean acidification?

    Does this seem somehow objectionable or illogical?

    And if you want to persist in the leftist plot ideas, come up with something which contradicts the past environmental behaviour of many communist and far-left countries. Secondly, can you not separate the science from the politics? Believing in the science does not mean adopting a new world view.

  • rowingrob rowingrob

    19 Dec 2009, 12:32AM

    Of course we won't be extinct but the lives of our children will be very different - and not in a good way.

    Oh I wish I was as naive and short sighted as some of the earlier posters on here.

  • Jiri Jiri

    19 Dec 2009, 12:33AM

    "We have come a long way but we have much further to go," said Obama. He cast his trip as a sign of renewed US global leadership: "The time has come for us to get off the sidelines and shape the future that we seek that is why I came to Copenhagen." But he said he would not be staying for the final vote "because of weather constraints in Washington".

    "...Weather constraints in Washington." See. The effect of the bad deal is already having its impact.

  • Briggflatts Briggflatts

    19 Dec 2009, 12:33AM

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  • frankverismo frankverismo

    19 Dec 2009, 12:37AM

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  • walterkovacs walterkovacs

    19 Dec 2009, 12:40AM

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  • imtnbke imtnbke

    19 Dec 2009, 12:41AM

    Global climate change is an economic problem and it will require an economic solution, consisting of a nudge that gets individuals to emit lower quantities of greenhouse gases. Moral suasion directed to particular countries (the U.S., China) will be comparatively ineffective. I don't know the particulars of the negotiations, but if they were about getting countries to agree to impose caps on their own carbon emissions, the result likely would be widespread cheating and the pace of climate change would not be much affected.

    I see the Guardian's reference to African countries' desire for an accord resulting in a maximum 1.5 degree temperature rise, but I wonder if this isn't a fig leaf for yet another demand to have wealthy countries fill up the coffers of ineffective and corrupt African governments (not all African governments are, I hasten to add). The U.S. Senate will never ratify a climate-change treaty that hands over billions of taxpayer dollars to unaccountable, inept, and corrupt governments, be they in Africa or elsewhere.

    I like the Guelph University (Ontario, Canada) economist's idea (reported in Tuesday's New York Times) of imposing a worldwide carbon tax that would increase each year the earth's temperature rises, and rise dramatically if the temperature does. It takes the heat off current political leaders and gives them an incentive to vote for it, because the tax begins at a low level. Eventually, assuming continued global warming, our SUV and pickup drivers (I'm in the U.S.) will have an incentive to get rid of, reduce the use of, or modify their monstermobiles. Carbon users in poor regions like parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, i.e., individual citizens who are probably much smarter than their governments, will also figure out efficient ways to conserve. (I realize people will say they're too poor to conserve any more than they already are, but that's not true of everyone; moreover, we can subsidize the actions of the very poorest that will lead to more efficiency, e.g., stop burning cowpies or charcoal for cooking.)

    If a few months' delay leads to a workable set of incentives directed to individuals everywhere around the world, and if that's different what Copenhagen was headed toward, it'll be more effective in the medium term and the delay should be tolerable. So I say, be optimistic.

  • oneyoungturk oneyoungturk

    19 Dec 2009, 12:43AM


    Shameful shameful shameful.

    But this proves one thing: we cannot rely on the political classes. We have to ensure change ourselves.

    System change not climate change.

  • mindopener mindopener

    19 Dec 2009, 12:46AM

    The nimbys who are so fast to judge, fail to see the reality of what has really happened in Copenhagen.

    Obama and Wen Jiabao have created history, in that they have green lighted climate change projects for the future, ie a low carbon economy.

  • trefjon trefjon

    19 Dec 2009, 12:50AM

    Obama's charge to the rescue obviously had a stone in its shoe, called reality.China has shown that the balance of power in the world has shifted, and it could well be very dangerous to world peace. It was no coincidence that the USA apent a large part of the eveining in talks with their old foe,Russia. The day of the India and China has arrived, this has never been anything at all to do with climate, but all to do with power.

  • thegreatfatsby thegreatfatsby

    19 Dec 2009, 12:50AM

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  • imtnbke imtnbke

    19 Dec 2009, 12:52AM

    A followup to my post above:

    See this critique of the Guelph University economist's idea:

    I agree that the economist's proposal requires tweaking to ensure a price signal that's clear and timely. Resting the carbon-utilization tax rate on the size of the Arctic ice sheet each year might be a way to achieve that.

    Also, correcting an omitted word in my prior post, the penultimate sentence in my prior post should read " . . . if that's different from what Copenhagen was headed toward . . ."

  • Autonova1 Autonova1

    19 Dec 2009, 12:53AM

    You know your species is in deep shit if people on here can't even recognise there's even a problem with all the information a few clicks away.

    Geoengineering ahoy. Things are looking up lads!

  • fabiusmaximus fabiusmaximus

    19 Dec 2009, 12:59AM

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  • imtnbke imtnbke

    19 Dec 2009, 12:59AM

    Another followup . . . to align the incentives, the temperature-based carbon tax should be imposed on individuals in each country and allow the individual governments that collect it to spend it any way they want, be it for energy-efficiency measures, a new freeway (motorway) from point A to point B, or a new palace for the king. However, each government would keep only a certain percentage of the revenues, perhaps 90%. The rest would go to a worldwide fund to (for example) preserve the Maldives, Nauru, and the less elevated Cape Verdean islands.

  • everchanging everchanging

    19 Dec 2009, 1:03AM

    This meeting was unique in that a global (human) emergency was the agenda but the leaders haven't "done" global emergencies recently. The upshot is this new problem means everyone doing the "same thing" specific for their country or it does not work and checking that this same thing is ratified for each country according to what the scientists say. But this may mean going against vested interests in each country and each government will be massively affected by such interests. Unless each leader and his team can square this circle the thing will fail. Richard Feynman said that "reality [natural processes] must take precedence over public relations". Squares and circles can be deformed to fit but it's a tough fit.

  • HowSoonIsNow HowSoonIsNow

    19 Dec 2009, 1:04AM

    Of course it failed. It could never have done anything else. It even failed my low expectations of managing to come up with a deal which could be spun for a while to look like triumph before the truth emerged.

    Common sense wins the day.

  • globalburning globalburning

    19 Dec 2009, 1:05AM

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  • TerribleLyricist TerribleLyricist

    19 Dec 2009, 1:05AM

    The level of political leadership we have now is reminiscent of 1914. We (the world over) have leaders who are completely detached from the concerns of ordinary people. Instead they are in the pockets of corporations and the military, or are following private agendas. They will not be remembered well.

  • arkitkt arkitkt

    19 Dec 2009, 1:11AM

    What did you expect from this summit. The host country was not able to control the negotiations. It was obvious from the beginning that the Danish government was in over their head. It seems they put more emphasis on cracking down on peaceful protests than on crafting and arranging a climate deal. The logistics of the Bella Center were a mess from day one. Why hold a darned global conference of this stature in a place that has no capacity for organizing it? It would be like holding the World Cup in Zimbabwe. It was run by a bunch of dilettantes.

  • antipodean1 antipodean1

    19 Dec 2009, 1:12AM

    This is not the last word. There is still hope and there always will be for those not sacrificed on the altar of incompetence meanness and stupidity; more efficient and deeper transnational organisation is indicated. More innovation and pressure will eventually produce results. Every delay is harder to recover and means more suffering though.

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