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Most nations still haven't met 2009 Copenhagen climate pledges

In 2009, countries worldwide gathered in Copenhagen with promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. But a recent study paints a disappointing picture of progress: a lot of pledges, not a lot of follow-through. Did many countries drop the ball on their climate commitments?

Copenhagen summit 2009 climate goals

The Copenhagen Summit in 2009, formally known as the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was a critical event with high expectations for advancing global climate policy.

The summit brought together leaders and delegates from around the world with the aim of forging a comprehensive and legally binding agreement to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s a more detailed look at the key goals and outcomes of the summit:

Legally binding agreement

The primary objective was to create a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was set to expire in 2012. The hope was to establish a robust, legally binding international treaty that would commit all participating nations, including major emitters like the United States and China, to specific emission reduction targets.

Limit global warming

The summit aimed to secure commitments sufficient to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This threshold is considered critical to preventing the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Financial support for developing nations

Developing countries are often the most affected by climate change while being the least equipped to deal with its impacts. A significant goal of the Copenhagen Summit was to establish a financial framework that would support these nations in adapting to climate impacts and transitioning to cleaner energy sources. This included the proposal to create a “Green Climate Fund” to channel this aid.

Transparency and verification

A mechanism for monitoring, reporting, and verifying (MRV) the emissions of participating countries was a critical aspect of the negotiations. Ensuring transparency in how countries report their emissions and progress toward targets is essential for the credibility and effectiveness of any agreement.

Criticism and impact

The Copenhagen Summit was widely regarded as a disappointment and a missed opportunity due to its failure to produce a binding treaty. The voluntary nature of the Accord meant that it had limited impact on actual emission reductions.

However, the summit did serve to highlight the complexities of international climate negotiations and set the stage for future discussions and agreements, such as the Paris Agreement in 2015, which built upon the groundwork laid in Copenhagen.

The Copenhagen climate promise vs. reality

Researchers from University College London (UCL) meticulously compared climate pledges from over 30 countries to the actual numbers. Here’s the takeaway:


15 countries successfully achieved the emission reductions they pledged to make. This means they implemented changes to their industries and energy sources, resulting in a measurable decrease in their carbon pollution.


12 countries were unable to meet their promised emission goals. This indicates that despite their commitments, they were unable to make sufficient changes to reduce their carbon pollution levels as intended.

Stuck in the middle

Seven countries made some progress in reducing their emissions, but not enough to fully meet their pledged targets. Additionally, their progress was partly achieved by shifting their pollution elsewhere, rather than making significant reductions within their own borders.

This means they may have imported more goods manufactured in countries with less strict environmental regulations, thus reducing their own emissions on paper while still contributing to global carbon pollution.

“Our concern is that the countries that struggled to reach their commitments… will likely encounter even more substantial difficulties reducing emissions even further” says lead researcher Professor Jing Meng.

Significance of Copenhagen climate goals

If you’re wondering why all this matters, here are the main reasons:

The clock is ticking

When we talk about uncontrolled emissions, we mean releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate. This directly contributes to a warming planet, which has serious consequences:

  • Rising temperatures: Global average temperatures are increasing, leading to more extreme heat events that are harmful to human health, agriculture, and ecosystems.
  • Melting ice: Warming temperatures cause glaciers and ice sheets to melt, leading to rising sea levels that threaten coastal communities and displace populations.
  • Extreme weather: Climate change disrupts weather patterns, leading to more frequent and severe storms, droughts, wildfires, and other disasters.

Accountability is key

We can’t address the climate crisis if we don’t know where we’re succeeding and where we need more effort. Here’s why tracking progress is so important:

  • Identifying success stories: We need to learn from countries that are effectively reducing emissions so we can replicate effective strategies around the world.
  • Highlighting areas for improvement: Understanding which countries aren’t meeting their targets helps us focus resources, offer support, and find solutions to overcome those challenges.

Why Copenhagen climate successes and failures matter

It’s important to understand the reasons behind both the successes and failures of different countries. Countries that achieved their goals likely implemented effective policies, invested in clean technology, or made positive changes to their industries. Understanding these strategies can help other countries learn and adapt them to their own circumstances.

Moreover, identifying why some countries struggled reveals specific challenges they face. This allows for focused support, collaboration, and development of solutions tailored to their needs.

Some Eastern European countries successfully met their emission reduction goals in part due to a unique historical situation. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they were left with outdated and highly polluting industries from the previous era. Modernizing these industries naturally led to significant reductions in emissions.

Countries focused on economic growth and expanding their industries often face a difficult challenge. They need increasing amounts of energy to support their development, but this can lead to higher emissions.

Finding ways to balance economic growth with sustainable energy solutions is crucial, particularly for countries whose populations are increasing rapidly.

Carbon leakage

Remember those countries ‘stuck in the middle’? They found a loophole called “carbon leakage” or “carbon transfer”.

Imagine a country passes strict environmental regulations, making it more expensive for their factories to produce certain goods. To save costs, companies might move production to countries with less strict environmental rules. The result is that the original country lowers its own emissions, but the pollution simply happens elsewhere.

On paper, the country with strict regulations appears to have made progress in reducing emissions. However, they haven’t actually reduced global emissions. They’ve merely shifted where the pollution occurs. This makes it difficult to track true progress in fighting climate change.

Carbon leakage highlights the interconnected nature of the world economy and the climate crisis. Solutions require international cooperation, not just individual countries working in isolation.

We often focus on emissions from production. But, carbon leakage shows the importance of considering the environmental impact of the goods we consume, even if those goods are made far away.

This is where things get tricky. As Professor Dabo Guan explains, “It’s important to be able to completely track carbon emissions, even when they’re offshored”.

Copenhagen 2009 climate goals significance

While the specific goals from the 2009 Copenhagen Summit are now outdated, this study serves as a crucial reminder of several things:

  • While the 2009 pledges weren’t met by all countries, they provided a starting point. It demonstrated that nations are willing to make commitments, even if those initial commitments weren’t ambitious enough.
  • Progress in combating climate change often happens incrementally. The Paris Agreement builds upon those earlier pledges with stronger goals, and future climate agreements will likely continue the trend.

This study highlights that we can only create effective solutions if we have an accurate picture of both our successes and failures regarding emissions.

Using standardized methods for tracking emissions across countries provides a fair and comparable way to measure progress for everyone.

Moreover, countries with advanced economies often have the technology and resources to transition to cleaner industries more easily. They have a responsibility to support less wealthy nations, sharing technology and offering financial assistance.

Climate change is a global threat. Even if developed nations make strong progress, everyone will suffer the consequences if developing nations cannot also reduce their emissions.

Results of 2009 Copenhagen climate goals

Curious about which countries aced the test and which need remedial climate action? Here’s the breakdown:

Least successful

Australia, Austria, Canada, Cyprus, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland.

Halfway group

Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, and Poland.


Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The study is published in Nature Climate Change.


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