2019 was another strong year for the EPO and a defining moment in terms of shaping a future vision for our Office. Our performance remained high, which helped us to manage a larger volume of incoming applications compared to 2018. Clear improvements in opposition timeliness were accompanied by significant reductions in our classification backlogs for published documents, marking a major milestone in our efforts to master prior art. But 2019 wasn't just a year of business as usual. It was a year that saw the launch of the EPO's new Strategic Plan (SP2023) and our first steps towards turning that vision into a reality. The plan's five goals will be implemented as project portfolios co-ordinated by a project management office in our new Corporate Governance Service (CGS).
In 2019 our goal 1 projects to build an engaged knowledgeable and collaborative organisation included creating talent pipelines and launching a new employer branding campaign to attract the brightest minds. To nurture young talent, we also welcomed 51 new Pan European Seal trainees to the EPO last September, taking the total number of participants to over 400 to date. Learning journeys for our IT staff and other critical roles marked our first steps towards promoting greater internal mobility and upskilling Office-wide. These training initiatives were complemented by the launch of a cutting-edge online learning platform for all staff. In February we also launched an office-wide staff engagement survey. With an 85% participation rate, this survey was the starting point for a new project that will help us respond more effectively to staff feedback.
Last year the EPO also launched a broad range of goal 2 projects aimed at simplifying and modernising IT systems. They included a project to equip all staff with laptops to create a more flexible workforce. On top of multiple upgrades to existing tools and strengthening our IT security, we also started work on an ambitious programme to digitalise the back-office for our patent granting process. This programme will deliver huge benefits in terms of improving quality and timeliness, cutting costs, reducing paper usage and enhancing services for our users. By the end of 2019 we also successfully completed a paperless search pilot, marking the first milestone in a momentous journey.
Goal 3 of SP2023 focuses on delivering high-quality products and services, but with a new, user-centric focus. Forging closer ties with users and adopting a more consultative approach in 2019 helped us to target our improvement efforts towards meeting their needs.
To promote meaningful dialogue, we ramped up the role played by the SACEPO Working Party on Quality and extended our Praktika Extern scheme to formalities officers. As closer collaboration is clearly another way of enhancing quality, the EPO launched a "collaborative quality improvements" (CQI) in 2019. The pilot, involving 450 examiners who performed around 7 700 consultations, increased our quality levels in 28% of files and led to the subsequent launch of a fully-fledged SP2023 project.
2019 was also a momentous year for the EPO in terms of its goal 4 efforts to build a European patent network with a global impact. The organisation expanded its geographical coverage significantly last year, mainly due to a validation agreement with Georgia and seven reinforced partnership agreements with Ethiopia, Argentina, Malaysia, Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil and ARIPO. This brings the potential coverage of our products and services up to 1.9 billion inhabitants across 38 member states, two extension states, four validation states and eight reinforced partnerships. Another highlight of 2019 was the EPO's agreement with CNIPA to launch a two-year pilot to allow Chinese applicants filing their international applications with the CNIPA as receiving office to select the EPO as their international searching authority (ISA). This was a landmark agreement in the history of the organisation and in the co-operation between Europe and China on patent protection.
Finally, goal 5 of SP2023 focuses on securing the EPO's long-term sustainability. Our environmental footprint improved in 2019, largely thanks to a 25% decrease in our carbon dioxide emissions. Our paper consumption, however, emerged as an area with scope for improvement and an SP2023 project will focus on delivering reductions in 2020. In 2019 the EPO also commissioned external consultants to assess its long-term financial sustainability, leading to a Financial Study published in May. The study revealed a substantial funding gap over 20 years, which the EPO is now taking steps to address. To strengthen governance, we also signed Memoranda of Understanding with both the Boards of Appeal and the Council to support them in their activities; and adopted an integrated approach to managing areas such as risk, business continuity and health and safety.
Going forward, we will monitor our progress towards realising SP2023 in a Balance Scorecard and share our achievements with stakeholders in this Annual Review.