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The Legacy of COP15: Reflections on Climate Diplomacy in Copenhagen

The Legacy of COP15

The 15th annual Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convened in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009, hailing a seminal moment in climate diplomacy.


With high hopes to devise a groundbreaking, binding agreement to replace the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol, COP15 attempted to unite global representatives behind a shared vision of addressing climate change. Although the conference ended with the underwhelming Copenhagen Accord, the event remains an important learning opportunity and stepping stone toward more concerted climate action.

Recognizing the Urgency: A Race Against Time

COP15 occurred at a time when the scientific consensus on climate change had become increasingly alarming. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 established unequivocal evidence of human-induced climate change. The report underscored the urgency to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050 and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions before reaching the tipping point of irreversible climate damage. The world turned to Copenhagen with high anticipation that COP15 would deliver the necessary treaty to rise to this challenge.

High-stakes Negotiations: Barriers and Debates

In the two weeks of negotiations, deep-seated inequalities between developed and developing countries emerged, forming seemingly impassable roadblocks. As the historically developed nations are chiefly responsible for emissions, the developing world fiercely advocated for ambitious mitigation targets to be set mandatory by the former. Conversely, the developing nations, facing unique climate adaptation and mitigation challenges, demanded financial assistance, technology transfer, and increased global support for their efforts. These contentious debates led to polarized camps, complicating the negotiation process and diminishing hopes for a viable treaty.

The Copenhagen Accord: A Controversial Outcome

COP15 UNFCCC Climate Change – Opening Ceremony | Photo by UN climate change

The defining moment came unexpectedly outside the official procedure, in a high-stakes meeting led by leaders from the United States, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa—the “Copenhagen Group.”

As a result, the Copenhagen Accord acknowledged the need to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius but failed to commit binding pledges or a clear roadmap to achieve this target.

Consequently, the UN’s plenary decided only to “take note” of the Copenhagen Accord, reflecting widespread dissatisfaction. The Accord fell short in practice, with its lack of binding commitments and mitigation pledges steering the projected global warming trajectory far beyond the 2-degree limit.

Learning from Failure: How Copenhagen Shaped Future Climate Diplomacy

Initially seen as a diplomatic failure, COP15 has since been recognized as a catalyst for change in climate negotiations, paving the way for the successful conclusion of the Paris Agreement in 2015 during COP21. By exposing the fault lines in international climate discussions and the complexities of global power dynamics, COP15 became an important learning experience for the global community. Its shortcomings prompted a shift in future climate diplomacy, emphasizing transparency, inclusivity, and dialogue.

Denmark’s Commitment to Climate Action and the World Stage

Copenhagen’s hosting of COP15 marked a significant moment in Denmark’s climate leadership trajectory. As the host nation, Denmark exhibited a strong commitment to effective and inclusive climate dialogue. In the years since, Denmark has continued to set a sterling example on the global stage:

  • Domestic Policies: Denmark has rapidly advanced its green energy transition, establishing ambitious targets to increase its renewable energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The country’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 demonstrates a firm dedication to climate action.
  • International Advocacy: Denmark plays a significant role in EU efforts to push for higher climate ambitions. Furthermore, the country has become a major contributor to global climate finance, assisting developing countries in their green transition.
  • Innovation and Inspiration: Copenhagen has established itself as a green urban pioneer. The city’s CPH 2025 Climate Plan aims to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, serving as a model for future sustainable urban development.

A Stepping Stone for Progress: The Enduring Legacy of COP15

Despite its initial shortcomings, COP15 remains an integral milestone in the evolution of climate diplomacy. Its setbacks galvanized the global climate negotiations landscape and propelled countries, including Denmark, to take on leading roles in championing impactful climate policies and initiatives.

As the world moves into a critical decade for action against climate change, the experiences and lessons of COP15 will remain a constant reminder of the complexity of global cooperation. Copenhagen and its COP15 legacy continue to inspire hope and determination to face future climate challenges— lessons we must carry into subsequent climate negotiations.

In the search for a more sustainable future, COP15 and the city of Copenhagen stand as testaments to our resilience and capacity for adaptability. While the gathering undoubtedly exposed the formidable challenges that lie ahead, it also highlighted our unwavering dedication to collective action and global cooperation. By learning from our past failures and drawing on our shared strengths, we can illuminate a path forward toward a greener, more secure future for all.

Abdul Rafay Afzal
Author is from Pakistan and a law student at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. He writes perceptive columns on geopolitics, international relations, and legal affairs etc. providing unique insights into the global landscape in different National and International Newspapers and Media outlets in English & Urdu languages.

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