International climate negotiations: Consensus on the need for change

by Bill Chameides | November 29th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Expectations are low for COP18 in Doha, Qatar.

For all the publicity it’s receiving (i.e., nil), it’s likely that most Americans are not even aware that Qatar is hosting the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) — the official name for the climate talks held annually since the official establishment of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the 1990s.

In principle the COP negotiators are busy ironing out a deal in Doha that will determine the fate of the planet’s climate and arguably the well-being of generations to come.

In reality, there is little likelihood that much will come out of the meetings. In fact ever since the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen, where high hopes for a comprehensive pact on limiting greenhouse emissions were ultimately dashed, the entire COP process seems to have become increasingly irrelevant while greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations continue to increase — and thus the need to address them ever more critical.

Now don’t get me wrong. The COP process has had some notable successes. These include identifying ways to address deforestation, committing to an adaption fund for developing countries, and official but non-binding pledges to reduce emissions (known as the Copenhagen Accord). But in one of its key, arguably most important objectives — “to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system” — it has failed.

What’s the problem? Are there flaws in the very process of the climate talks that are impeding progress? Two recent papers — one a commentary published in the journal Nature Climate Science by Heike Schroeder of the University of East Anglia and coauthors and the other a comment in the journal Nature by Dieter Helm of the University of Oxford — address this question.

Delegation size choking out progress and leading to ‘negotiation exhaustion’

At the first COP held in 1995 in Berlin, a total of 757 delegates representing 175 countries were in attendance. Flash forward to 2009’s COP15 held in Copenhagen and witness a 14-fold increase in official attendees: Schroeder et al report that 10,591 delegates from 194 countries participated in the talks, and that most of the increase came from countries with developed economies.

In addition to such a vast increase in numbers, the types of delegates have varied from one country to another and even for a given country over time. For example, Bhutan and Gabon have tended to send delegates with expertise in the “environment, forestry and agriculture.” For China the emphasis has been on foreign affairs and economics. The U.S. delegation, initially dominated by environmental and energy experts, has moved toward representation by members of Congress. And on top of all that, there has been a growing role for so-called non-state actors (i.e., non-governmental organizations).

Schroeder et al argue that this mishmash of representation impedes meaningful negotiation and puts smaller, developing countries at a disadvantage. They propose, among other remedies, that “countries consider capping national delegations at a level that allows broad representation across governmental departments and sectors of society while maintaining a manageable overall size.”

Count carbon differently

A much more radical approach is championed in the Helm article headlined “The Kyoto approach has failed.” That approach: throw out basic pieces of the existing architecture and start over.

For example, the current Kyoto Protocol approach focuses on carbon emissions and more specifically on cutting carbon emissions nation by nation. The problems with this approach, Helm argues, is that it leads to free-riding, where some nations avoid having to make cuts, and, because it solely focuses on where emissions are produced, more importantly it doesn’t address carbon consumption.

“Take the United Kingdom: from 1990 to 2005, its carbon production fell by around 15%. But carbon consumption went up by around 19% once the carbon embedded in imports is taken into account. … From a Kyoto perspective, this is a triumph; for climate change, it is a disaster. It explains how emissions can apparently fall in Europe but go up globally as rapidly developing countries, such as China and India, export energy-intensive goods to Europe and the United States, which together make up around 50% of the world’s gross domestic product.”

The solution for Helm: focus on carbon consumption rather than carbon production. If adopted, such an approach would lead to radical changes in the way we do carbon accounting and, by the way, make it a lot more complicated. It could fundamentally change the economics of international trade. And, it would radically change the nature of the COP negotiations on carbon.

Yeah, but you got to be able to make decisions

Both of these suggestions are sensible. I am especially intrigued by Helm’s ideas. But I fear that both are working around the edges and not confronting the core issue — the inability of the COP to make the hard decisions.

For example, Schroeder et al point that while “the framework convention adopted in 1992 stipulates that the COP ‘shall at its first session adopt its own rules procedure,’” here we now are at the 18th conference and those rules have yet to be established. Why? Because the framework convention prescribes that decisions are to be made by consensus — that all decisions essentially require unanimous consent by all participating countries.

Picture trying to reach a unanimous agreement on anything with 190-odd voters, and now extrapolate that to a meeting of people representing 190 nations that have widely varying needs and agendas — and it fast becomes clear why the COP process has largely stalled on the major issues.

So, is the solution to move to a majority-rules paradigm? No, that won’t work either. Imagine the majority of the delegates voting that the United States cut its emissions by 50 percent by 2025. The majority notwithstanding, it would not be very likely to happen.

It could be that an assembly of almost 200 disparate nations is simply not the forum for hammering out wickedly hard issues like devising a plan for the relatively small number of major-emitting countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The backroom deal may be the only deal in the offing.

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