Dozens of countries meet deadline to submit emission reduction targets in line with the Copenhagen Accord signed during UN climate summit

Dozens of countries, including the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, have met a 31 January deadline and submitted emission reduction targets to the United Nations in line with the Copenhagen Accord signed during the climate summit in December.

The UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen, held at the end of 2009, failed to produce the world-changing deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions that many were hoping for. However the Copenhagen Accord, which almost 90 countries have now signalled their intention to engage with, may represent one small step towards tackling climate change. 


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Time to cut greenhouse gas emissions

The accord was developed by a small group of countries that included two of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, the US and China, in the closing hours of last year’s summit. The provisions of the accord call for all nations to reduce emissions, invest in clean energy technologies and practices, and help people adapt to the effects of climate change. It also acknowledges that an increase in global temperatures should be kept below 2?C. 

Together, the 90 or so countries that have signalled to the UN their wish to be associated with the accord represent 80 per cent of global emissions. Around half of these countries have pledged specific emission reduction targets. However, the accord is not a legally binding document as the summit delegates only ’took note’ of the agreement rather than fully adopting it. Most European countries are now pushing for the pledges to become legally binding. 

China, which contributes 17 per cent of global emissions, has pledged to endeavour to lower its emissions by 40-45 per cent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, but does not explicitly mention the Copenhagen Accord in setting these goals. The European Union has told the UN that it will stick to its pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 from 1990 levels and may increase this cut to 30 per cent if other major emitters take their fair share of the reduction effort. The US plans to reduce emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 compared to levels in 2005. 

Paul Williams, a climate modeller from the University of Reading, UK, calls these pledges a ’disappointingly small step in the right direction’ and is concerned about longer term commitments. ’Unless they are followed by much stronger pledges for the post-2020 period, I cannot see how the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration could remain below 450ppmv, at which the chances of meeting the 2?C target are only roughly one in three. Is that a gamble we are willing to take?’

Atmospheric chemist Andrew Watson, from University of East Anglia, agrees that the pledged reductions are probably insufficient to reach the 2?C target but thinks they might come close if they were the precursor to continued reduction in emissions beyond 2020. ’With the lack of a binding commitment my worry is that governments will treat these as purely aspirations and will, in practice, not try very hard to achieve them’ he says.

Leila Sattary