Australia: The Copenhagen Accord: Implications for Australia

Maddocks Sustainability & Climate Change Update
Last Updated: 31 March 2010

By Maddocks Sustainability and Climate Change Team

In December 2009, the United Nations Climate Change Conference held its 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark. The primary aim of COP15 was to establish a new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to expire in 2012.

While COP15 has been widely labelled as a failure because it did not yield an international post-Kyoto agreement, it did produce the 'Copenhagen Accord', which is viewed – at least by some - as an interim step towards a binding international agreement. We outline some of the main elements of the Accord in this article.


The Accord is a political agreement, rather than a binding legal instrument. While it was supported by most COP15 parties, there were a number of detractors. This lack of consensus meant that the Accord could not by formally adopted.


The framework of the Accord contrasts starkly with the Kyoto Protocol. Whereas the Kyoto Protocol imposes legally binding emission reduction targets and timetables for developed countries, the Accord allows all parties - developed and developing – to nominate their own national commitments with a view to achieving the overall objective of limiting global temperature rise.

Cap on emissions

To achieve the ultimate objective of stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to prevent dangerous global warming, the Accord specifically recognises the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius. In practical terms, this imposes a theoretical cap on emissions, although the Accord does not dictate how the cap translates into national emissions allocations.

National commitments

Developed countries

Under the Accord, developed countries agreed to implement emissions targets for 2020. These emission targets were submitted by 31 January 2010 and include the following commitments:

  • United States: Target to reduce emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, 42% below 2005 levels by 2030, and 83% below 2005 levels by 2050.
  • European Union: Target to reduce emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 and a pledge to increase the commitment to 30% if other countries commit to ambitious efforts.
  • Australia: Target to reduce emissions by 25% on 2000 levels by 2020 if the world agrees to an ambitious global deal. Unconditional commitment to reduce emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020, and by up to 15% by 2020 if there is a less ambitious global agreement.
  • New Zealand: Target to reduce emissions by between 10% and 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, if there is a comprehensive global agreement.

The Accord states that the delivery of emission reductions in developed countries will be measured, reported and verified in accordance with existing and any further guidelines adopted by the Conference of the Parties, which will ensure that accounting of such targets is rigorous, robust and transparent.

Developing countries

Developing countries also agree to implement mitigation actions under the Accord. These were also submitted by 31 January 2010 and include the following:

  • China: Target to reduce emissions per unit of GDP of 40 to 45% below 2005 levels by 2020 and a commitment to increasing energy from non-fossil fuels to supply 15% of China's primary energy consumption by 2020. Also committed to increase forest cover by 40 million hectares by 2020 and increase forest stock volume 1.3 billion cubic meters above 2005 levels by 2020.
  • India: Target to reduce emissions per unit of GDP of 20 to 25% below 2005 levels by 2020.
  • South Korea: Target to reduce emissions to 30% below projected levels by 2020, which equates to a target of approximately 4% below 2005 levels.

Mitigation actions taken by developing countries pursuant to the Accord will be subject to their respective national domestic measurement, reporting and verification mechanisms.


The Accord also addresses adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change. The Accord does not include specific adaptation commitments. However, it emphasises the need for enhanced action and international cooperation on adaptation to reduce vulnerability and build resilience in developing countries. Under the Accord, developed countries agree to provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology and capacitybuilding to support the implementation of adaptation action in developing countries.

Implications for Australia

In the medium term, the focus of emissions reduction activity will be based on nationally determined commitments made under the Accord. As noted above, Australia has unconditionally committed to an emissions reduction target of 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.

The Accord does not dictate nor pre-empt the means by which emissions reduction commitments are not be achieved. This leaves open the use in Australia of a cap-and-trade scheme, such as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which has not yet been passed by the Senate. Other types of 'direct action' may also be used, provided that Australia's national commitment is adhered to.

The next step in the international climate change process will be the COP16, which will be held in Mexico City in December 2010, and will seek to build upon the Copenhagen Accord.

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The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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