Climate Change Negotiations: A Foreign Policy Perspective

Nigel Purvis
Nigel Purvis Former Brookings Expert

March 28, 2003

Though the Kyoto Protocol will enter into force in all likelihood, climate diplomacy has failed to fulfill major international goals established over the past decade. Not only are global emissions rising (perhaps inevitably), but intensive diplomatic efforts to erect a more forceful climate change regime than existed a decade ago will at best cover only one quarter of worldwide emissions and will not include the United States, the largest emitter. Together these failings are significant.

The shortcomings of international climate negotiations can be explained in part by the reluctance of participants to abide by a few general principles of successful diplomacy. A quick comparison of the Kyoto process to more successful international negotiations in and outside of the environmental arena reveals significant discrepancies. A few golden rules of diplomacy and how the Kyoto negotiations deviated from them are summarized below. Possible implications for future climate negotiations appear toward the end of the paper.

Golden Rules of International Negotiation

Define Clear, Attractive Goals. It is hard to convince any society to embark on what promises to be a long and possibly painful journey if the mission is not crystal clear and the first steps seem particularly arduous. Successful agreements on economic and socially important issues, such as tariffs or fishing, tend to establish clear long term goals and require only modest immediate action. This pattern is both economically efficient and politically expedient.

The Kyoto Protocol would have required the United States to accept a perceived high level of economic risk at the outset without defining concretely a long-term objective.

Keep it Simple. As the complexity of an agreement increases its chances of success diminish exponentially. Not only are complex agreements difficult to explain to the public but complex multivariable problems are much harder to solve than simple formulas. International agreements need not be simpleminded but they need to be straight forward, particularly when they are in furtherance of ambitious goals.

The Kyoto Protocol is the most complex environmental agreement every negotiated and one of the most complex international agreements yet. It creates numerous new institutions and several sophisticated mechanisms that require countries to develop extensive new programs and technical capacities, many of which can not be achieved by poorer nations. The rules presented to the Conference of Parties in The Hague in 2000 spanned 1300 pages.

Only Make Promises You Can Keep. Essential parties should negotiate abroad only agreements they can sell at home. The disparity between the executive treaty making power and legislative treaty approval power in some countries, such as in the United States, creates the risk that international agreements will be ratified. Indeed, the United States has a long history of rejecting or delaying U.S. ratification of important treaties (Law of the Sea, SALT II, CBD, Geneva Convention Protocols, Panama Canal). U.S. Presidents, therefore, must take extra care to negotiate internationally with a solid domestic mandate to help ensure timely U.S. ratification.

The Clinton Administration agreed in Kyoto to terms that as they stood in 1997 were unworkable for the United States. Even the Administration described Kyoto as ‘a work in progress.’ Kyoto was inconsistent with the Senate’s guidelines for U.S. ratification (Byrd-Hagel). President Clinton accepted Kyoto primarily to avoid a perception of U.S. unilateral action after his rejection of the land mines convention and in the face of increasing U.S. criticism of the international criminal court. By creating a perception that it could secure the ratification of the Protocol, however, the Clinton Administration did international climate efforts a disservice.

Seek Evolution not Revolution. International agreements that seek to create new international regimes are less likely to succeed than those that codify established informal norms of behavior already accepted by the great powers. The Geneva Conventions on the laws of armed conflict, which formalized rules developed under customary international law and during World War II, provide a good example. The WTO Agreement, which incorporated trade rules from the GATT, is another. The failed League of Nations, in contrast, was premised on the revolutionary principle of global collective security.

While the Kyoto Protocol built on the UNFCCC, it did so in an area (emission targets) where the great powers were not honoring their past commitments. The effort to control emissions through legally binding targets represented a major departure from the status quo. The compliance regime proposed by most developed countries was almost unprecedented and strict. The market mechanisms had never been tried multilaterally. Most developing countries lacked the capacity to participate effectively in the regime.

Don’t Wag the Dog. Successful international agreements (those that are ratified widely and influence behavior), such as human rights and humanitarian accords, usually mirror the existing domestic values and interests of the great powers. Efforts to use international agreements to force the great powers to act against their perceived self-interests and priorities rarely succeed. Far more successful are efforts to internationalize approaches already adopted by the most influential nations, such as the Montreal Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol sought to regulate internationally carbon although almost no nation already did so domestically.

Address the Needs of Your Partners. Successful agreements address the core needs of all indispensable powers. Securing a short-term victory in the negotiating room is less important than creating a durable agreement. Multilateral agreements must meet the needs of all essential partners to be ratified and implemented widely.

The international community, and particularly Europe, sought to use the Kyoto process to force the United States to take domestic action on climate change beyond any domestic U.S. consensus. Securing U.S. ratification was considered an internal U.S. problem for the President, rather than a common concern. The Kyoto Protocol, whether as negotiated in 1997 or 2000, had almost no chance of ratification from the start.

Negotiate Towards the Same Goal. Negotiations succeed most when the major parties have common and reciprocal goals. Arms control and trade agreements are good examples. The objective there is to convince all parties to adopt similar measures for largely identical reasons.

The Kyoto parties had very different macro-level goals. The primary objective of the Umbrella Group countries was to create an efficient long-term international architecture for reducing emissions while resisting dramatic initial action. The goal of the European Union was to maximize initial emission reductions; efficiency and durability were less important. Major developing countries vacillated between wishing at all costs to avoid new climate commitments and trying to advance their economic development.

Don’t Empower Opponents. International negotiations that occur in a forum that is narrowly tailored to include only indispensable nations making reciprocal commitments are more likely to produce successful agreements. The most difficult negotiations, those over war and peace (such as Dayton, Oslo, Paris), usually succeed when negotiated in the smallest possible groups, shielded from public view. Global trade agreements usually take decades whereas many regional and bilateral accords are concluded in one or two years.

By negotiating emission targets for industrialized countries only under the UNFCCC, developed nations empowered developing nations to shape the terms of those commitments (even though the latter were making no commitments of their own) and allowed OPEC nations an opportunity to obstruct progress. Not only did this make it harder for nations with Kyoto commitments to agree on rules for the Protocol but it also partially changed the goals of the Kyoto process (from mitigation to adaptation, from environment to development).

Make Friends Not Enemies. Agreements that harm powerful non-state actors are less likely to succeed than those that make almost everyone a winner. The Law of the Sea is sensitive to commercial interests. Trade agreements tend to balance the general societal interest in free trade with specific protectionist measures needed to win acquiescence from key economic sectors.

Many of the participants in the Kyoto process made little effort to shape the agreement in a manner that would broaden its appeal to politically powerful groups in countries where ratification would be difficult. Many nations fought vigorously to exclude carbon sinks even though sinks would appeal to powerful agricultural interests. The Kyoto Protocol makes no explicit effort to create or even envision a continuing role for fossil fuel use, through physical sequestration of carbon at source. Consequently, many coal and petroleum companies in the United fought against the Protocol vigorously.

Success Above Fairness. While fairness is the foundation of durable regimes, a less than fair system is often preferable (in economic welfare terms) to no regime at all. The non-proliferation treaty is not fair, insofar as the great powers are allowed to have nuclear weapons while others are not, but the treaty is preferable to no controls on nuclear weapons. Similarly, voting in the Security Council is not fair but it provides a realistic basis for international peace and security in a world where power is not in fact distributed evenly.

The European Union placed a higher priority on forcing the United States to make substantial reductions in emissions than in gaining the United States’ formal participation in the Kyoto process. While Europe’s position is perhaps understandable in fairness terms (Europe is more energy efficient and has lower per capita emissions), Europe misjudged the United States’ breaking point.

Implications for Future Climate Negotiations

  • Conditions for successful climate negotiations may not prove ripe for several years. No domestic consensus exists in the United States on climate change, although one may emerge in the next decade. Negotiations designed to include developing country emission limitations are unlikely to be fruitful for decades. The focus should be on convincing the United States to take strong domestic action to address climate change.
  • The appropriate forum for any future international negotiations should be debated. As developing countries are unlikely to assume commitments any time soon, their influence in the process should be limited. Continued negotiations under the UNFCCC should not be assumed.
  • Any future agreement should be simple. Complex mechanisms that improve efficiency or compliance should be added over time as nations gain experience and capacity. Incorporation of elements of the Kyoto Protocol into a new agreement should not be assumed.
  • Developing acceptance of am efficient, viable long-term regime should be a higher priority than securing large initial emission reductions. To the extent these initial efforts can be framed in the context of an attractive concrete long-term goal that should be done.
  • Any future agreement should limit the economic risk of addressing climate change by (i) minimizing the economic cost of action (to the extent that can be done in a simple agreement), (ii) ensuring that cost is socially acceptable to indispensable parties and (iii) reducing uncertainty about the cost of compliance.
  • To the extent the participation of the United States is sought, the agreement should be designed to secure that difficult objective.

    The agreement should be built on approaches adopted domestically in the United States and supported by the U.S. Congress, which must approve any treaty.

    Future U.S. Administrations must accept only agreements that they can sell at home. This means that initially the actions demanded of the United States must be modest.

  • Securing equality of national effort (marginal costs, energy prices, per capita emissions) should not be a major goal of any immediate effort. Placing success over fairness will be critical given the different willingness of parties to act.
  • Efforts should be made to create strong industry support for any agreement through measures designed to give as large a role as scientifically justifiable for traditional fuels and commercial sequestration.