The Minimal compromise in Copenhagen:

A target – but still no plan of action

Berlin/Copenhagen, 20 December 2009. The Copenhagen climate summit fell far short of expectations. The only substantial result was the Copenhagen Accord, which was worked out by the heads of state of the most important countries and merely “taken note of” by the remaining community of states. Neither the much-hoped-for new forms of global cooperation nor internationally binding commitments towards reducing levels of greenhouse gases were achieved, not to mention the setting of a new course for the transition to a low-carbon world economy. Despite their wholehearted efforts, the European Union and the Federal Republic of Germany were unable to assert their demands for an ambitious climate agreement.

The only ray of hope at the end of the two-week marathon summit is the hedged recognition of the two-degree-Celsius guardrail as a guideline for all efforts in protecting the climate. John Schellnhuber, the chairman of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) described the result as “a tragic triumph for science”. „Although the upper limit for global warming recommended by climate researchers has finally been adopted, the measures actually necessary to observe the “2°C guardrail” – particularly the reducing of global emissions by well over 50% by the year 2050 – were not even mentioned. In this respect a target has been agreed upon but we are still in the dark regarding how it is to be achieved.”

What is missing

Although the Copenhagen Accord emphasises the necessity to rapidly introduce greenhouse gas emissions reductions, it completely relies on voluntary contributions towards climate protection that the states are supposed to specifiy by 1 February 2010. John Schellnhuber’s statement: “This collection-plate principle, by which each state gives what it considers appropriate, already proved to be unsatisfactory prior to the Copenhagen summit. If we put all of the currently available climate protection offers from all of the states together, we are moving towards a 3-to-4-degree world with practically uncontrollable risks.” It is therefore obvious that the states involved in the climate protection negotiations in 2010 will have to make significantly higher contributions if dangerous climate change is still to be avoided. The WBGU emphatically supports the demands of Chancellor Merkel and Minister of the Environment Röttgen to increase both national and international efforts to bolster climate and energy security, particularly now.

In Copenhagen, however, valuable time was wasted in the battle for climate protection. A down-to-earth scientific analysis shows that the global trend reversal in greenhouse gas emissions output must be achieved by between 2015 and 2020 if there is to be a realistic chance of remaining below the 2°C guardrail. Dirk Messner, deputy chairman of the WBGU, says: “The mode of negotiation employed up to now is not going to save the climate. Even the attendance of numerous state and government leaders was unable to overcome the obstacles to negotiation. Without renewed exertions in climate policymaking, there is a distinct danger that the negotiations will be conducted at a snail’s pace in the coming year. In the worst case the world would break up into various interest groups that adopt their own policies on climate protection. For this reason, international climate policy needs to be re-modelled in 2010.”

What needs to be done

In the view of the WBGU, the German federal government and the European Union should now act on two fronts. On the one hand it is essential to unite alliance partners in order to bring about an ambitious climate agreement next year. The budget approach proposed by the WBGU could serve as a basis for these negotiations. It constitutes a straightforward, transparent and fair approach to sharing the international burden of climate protection. The Chinese, Japanese and Indian climate advisors also put forward similar proposals in Copenhagen. The central idea behind the concept is to determine a global greenhouse gas budget compatible with the two-degree guardrail and break this down to national “cumulative carbon credits” on the basis of equal emissions rights for each separate individual. Using this approach, high-emission and low-emission countries would then trade emission certificates in return for climate technologies and financial transfers in order to create scope beyond the national budgets. The approach combines economic efficiency with a global development partnership and makes all of the states responsible for climate policy at the same time, including the emerging countries. The WBGU puts forward the following argument: “Particularly after the disappointing results of the Copenhagen summit, innovative, feasible approaches have to be placed on the negotiation tables.”

On the other hand, particularly due to the state of uncertainty threatening international climate diplomacy, sustainability initiatives from below will now have to be reinforced in order to speed up the transition to a low-carbon world economy. Germany and Europe should significantly increase their research efforts and investments in public-private alliances with regard to renewable sources of energy and climate-friendly mobility concepts. For example, European cities could promote climate-friendly urban development in international partnerships, particularly together with pioneering cities such as Sao Paulo or Seattle, which have already formulated ambitious climate protection targets. European development policy should designate climate-friendly economics as the key point of their work. Technology-, innovation- and energy-oriented climate partnerships with China, India and other emerging nations could be accelerated. The WBGU is of the opinion that both the civil society and the business world should maintain their pressure for an ambitious and binding global climate policy and thus support governments that are aware of their responsibility. In this way, the WBGU sees opportunities to create an international, regional and global network of “sensible climate policy” in which both public and private actors promote the setting of a course that the heads of state and government were unable to achieve in Copenhagen.


Press release (pdf) (212 KB)

Enquiries to: or +49 (0) 30-26394812.