International Climate Governance: Will Redefining "Insiders" Enable Global Progress?

After the fizzle of Copenhagen, international climate change discussions entered a dull hibernation, in part because the intense and largely unsuccessful negotiations sapped the previous momentum of cooperation between governments, NGOs and other groups trying to strike a post-Kyoto global climate change bargain. Having envisioned yet failed to achieve such a grand compromise, many stakeholders retreated in subsequent months to analyze the causes of failure and to outline their next steps. After this convalescence, climate policy discussions are now restarting both internationally and in the United States.

Yet, despite some superficially obvious reasons for optimism—such as the global economic recovery, and the on-again, off-again prospect of U.S, climate legislation—there is still no clarity on the path toward a global climate agreement. Many vexing technical issues remain unresolved, such as reducing deforestation, reforming the Clean Development Mechanism, funding adaptation, transferring technology and more. But the major and familiar challenge that has re-emerged is the longstanding argument about who should be negotiating global climate policy.

In mid-April, climate negotiators reconvened at their regular half-year meeting in Bonn. While the usual technical issues were on the agenda, this year’s participants had to contend with an unusual set of tensions that precluded substantial negotiation on these technical details. Foremost among these was the challenge of quelling flare-ups between developed and developing country blocs and among the developing countries. While one might have hoped that any lingering tensions between these groups would have dissolved, a series of unfortunate missteps during and after Copenhagen left some of the smaller-economy developing country participants feeling marginalized. Three events in particular stand out:

First, many of the smaller developing countries were upset during the Copenhagen negotiations over the introduction of a compromise text, which they were never consulted on. The so-called “Danish text” was prepared by host country Denmark and was circulated to a number of key countries. However, it was not fully vetted and its premature introduction damaged the tenuous détente between developed and developing countries. India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, even went on record asserting that the Danish text leak was the most important factor in undermining the negotiations, creating a “trust deficit”  that has still not been fully redressed. Other heated discussions at Copenhagen focused on the seemly trivial question over whether the next treaty would be a new treaty or simply a revision of the Kyoto Protocol. Many developing countries, including China, see Kyoto’s cleaving of the world into two groups as a central pillar of any future agreement. Others, however, view this as anachronistic and insufficiently flexible to allow for the diversity of interest across countries in taking climate-related actions. The recent events at Bonn underscore the continuing lack of resolution on these perspectives.

A second factor that exacerbated tensions was the method of negotiation of the Copenhagen Accord and the ensuing disagreement about its legal status. The Danish text drew valuable time and attention away from negotiations to the point where no draft agreements were ready when world leaders convened. Several world leaders took it upon themselves to set to paper a few key elements of agreement. While this effort succeeded in producing the Copenhagen Accord and in setting out some new areas of agreement, many member states were not included in the discussions in order to reach agreement in the short time period. As a result, the usual procedures for consultation, plenary debate and discussion were not followed, and the resulting Accord was not a legally adopted text of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

A third factor underscoring tensions of climate governance is the sense that the U.S. may be pressuring reluctant countries to participate in the Copenhagen Accord. The Accord was always an agreement with President Obama’s imprint since he exerted considerable effort in Copenhagen to solidify consensus around the document. However, not all countries have embraced it because of its unusual legal status with respect to the UNFCCC and its narrower scope of negotiation. To date, approximately 110 of 192 parties to the UNFCCC have reported goals to the Accord, signaling a type of accession. Nevertheless, a few countries have remained ambivalent, such as Ecuador and Bolivia, who indicated their opposition. In response, the U.S. has denied climate-related aid to these countries. The linking of aid to U.S. climate goals, particularly to the Copenhagen Accord, is a clear escalation of pressure from the Obama administration. The U.S. is arguing simply that the right to draw from funds stipulated in the Copenhagen Accord flows from accession to the Accord, but other countries rightly point out that the funding in the Accord was being discussed in the wider UN framework before it was co-opted by the late movement toward this alternative agreement.

These three elements all contributed to the sense of aggrievement at the recent climate meeting in Bonn. Indeed, tensions between the developed and developing country blocs have been embedded in climate negotiations since their beginning. But equally early—at the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992—negotiators realized that a blanket insistence on cleaving the world into a simple dichotomous framing of “developed” and “developing” would be insufficient to tackle the complexity of national situations and national interests. As such, the central tenet of international climate negotiation was defined in the Rio Convention and in the UNFCCC as responding to “common but differentiated responsibility” to protect common resources.

While that principle remains a universally recognized pillar of climate negotiations, unfortunately there remains no guidance for “common but differentiated representation” in global climate talks. Moreover, the attempt to reach agreement flexibly at Copenhagen has had the unintended consequence of antagonizing the many countries who were not invited to negotiate, but who are now feeling that they are unfairly being asked to adhere to an agreement handed to them by the world’s major economies. While sound arguments can be deployed about the desirability of negotiation on emissions targets within smaller groups—such as a cluster of the world’s top 15 or 20 major greenhouse emitters—there remains a strong argument for retaining representation of all countries on those elements of climate policy that affect all parts of the world, such as adaptation, technology transfer and capacity building. As such, while the relatively narrow Copenhagen Accord was a reasonable bandage for an ailing meeting last December, it should be seen less as an end in itself than as the basis for future negotiations in these areas.

However, of the many lessons from Copenhagen, these recent events have irritated a latent tension that must be acknowledged and addressed if there is to be the broad and comprehensive treaty that many in the climate community are hoping for. The tensions between the new, key-emitter group and smaller countries underscore the need for a governance structure that recognizes a voice for all interested parties but affirms the need for smaller clusters of countries to negotiate among themselves and grants them sufficient flexibility to do so. It must be recognized that the Copenhagen Accord arose out of relatively dire circumstances. Nevertheless, without acknowledging the interest of smaller or less-developed countries, the key emitters risk further vexing countries who have demonstrated their ability to throw the UN negotiating process into disarray. On the other hand, without flexibility for the key emitters, progress on medium and long-term emissions targets is unlikely; and if such flexibility is not granted within the UN negotiating process, the smaller countries risk pushing negotiations on emissions targets to other forums.