Getting to Not No: Searching for Consensus in the Climate Negotiations

Up close and personal in a Katowice negotiation room.
(Photo: Tracy Bach)

Multilateralism aims to forge agreement among countries to solve problems that span borders. To achieve success, treaty parties must balance the number of participants with the strength of their commitments and their willingness to enforce them.

In tackling climate change, we see this triad playing out differently between the UNFCCC (197 Parties + qualitative, not quantitative commitments + soft enforcement mechanisms), Kyoto Protocol (much smaller group of countries + quantitative mitigation targets + reviewed by a compliance committee), and the Paris Agreement (185 Parties + pledged quantitative and qualitative contributions + enhanced transparency requirements to promote accountability). It’s safe to say that getting a multilateral environmental agreement’s structure right isn’t easy.

Ditto on its governance.

The international climate change agreements housed under the UNFCCC operate their brand of multilateralism by consensus.  While the Conference of Parties (COP) need not achieve unanimity, one country or group of countries can stop action in its tracks by voicing disagreement. Sometimes dissenting views can be managed through diplomatic techniques.  A recent example is the promise of ongoing consultations made by COP21 President Laurent Fabius to Turkey in 2015 in order to gavel the Paris Agreement into being.  Other times they cannot, and the Parties do not come to consensus, as happened in 2009 with COP15’s “Copenhagen Accord.”  Given that the UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol, and Paris Agreement Parties achieved consensus on their COP24, CMP14, and CMA1 decisions respectively, it is worth exploring how they got to “not no” in Katowice, Poland.

A first consideration is the motivation to keep climate change multilateralism intact.

Despite the United States’ notice to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the anticipation of something similar from the new president of Brazil, the vast majority of Parties want to continue this treaty forum. The European Union states – notably Germany, France, and the UK (still, despite Brexit) – are making a full court press on putting the Paris Agreement into practice. Why? The EU has invested deeply in these multilateral climate change negotiations since the beginning.  Member countries bore almost the entire load of the Kyoto Protocol mitigation commitments.  While member states continue to tussle internally on when and how to move away from fossil fuels – with COP24 host Poland serving as Exhibit A of a coal-dependent European economy dragging its heels – there is no doubt about the EU’s climate change policy direction since the early 2000s.  Whether via carbon markets or renewable energy targets or electric vehicle production prioritization or financial and capacity-building aid to developing countries, EU member states have made significant political and financial investments in climate change multilateralism.

Likewise emerging economies like China and India have moved to the multilateral forefront by bringing developing country interests and concerns to the climate change negotiation table. Along with Brazil and South Africa, they form the BASIC negotiation group that is critical to forging deals.  As industrializing developing countries, they can see the costs and benefits of mitigation and adaptation commitments from both the economic status they have been and the one that they are growing into. China’s early experiments with regional carbon markets have now manifested nationwide. Its use of renewable energy is growing ahead of its pledged targets.  It is THE largest electric vehicle market in the world, fueled by domestic policies that make it easier for consumers to buy them. India highlights the mitigation impact of its majority Hindu population’s vegetarianism.  It also vies for solar energy bragging rights with China and incentivizes the use of electric vehicles.  By taking domestic mitigation and adaptation actions while also pursuing economic growth, these large developing countries provide leadership for the smaller developing countries who are also industrializing. They also partner with the EU to build multilateral bridges strong enough to withstand unilateral defections.

A second consideration is the structure of the Paris Agreement itself, and the rules needed to implement it that were the key deliverable of COP24.

Unlike the UNFCCC, in which country parties imposed on themselves only process requirements like collecting and reporting emissions data, the Kyoto Protocol set country-specific emissions caps that would add up to a collective 5% reduction from global 1990 emission levels. How countries achieved their reductions was up to national governments, in light of the many options embodied in the Protocol. But because only developed countries took on these reduction targets, the Protocol affected the practices of a minority of UNFCCC Party countries who were the historical polluters. By 2005, when the Kyoto Protocol entered into force, China had surpassed the U.S. as the top emitting country. Exhibit A of the growing impact of the emissions from developing countries as they industrialize. The Paris Agreement was specifically designed to include all UNFCCC countries in a mutual system of national “bottom up” pledges governed by a set of international “top down” accountability rules.

It is this treaty language, replete  with its “constructive ambiguities,” that the Paris Agreement implementation guidelines must clarify.  Hence the past three years of negotiations under the Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP) that focused on some seven Agreement articles (4,6,7,9,13,14,15) and culminated in COP24 decisions that total 100 pages.

Of these seven, the COP24 outcomes – sometimes referred to as the Katowice Rulebook – on three of them merit closer scrutiny: Article 4 on NDCs, Article 13 on transparency, and Article 14 on the global stocktake.  The first one focuses on the kinds of mitigation targets countries set for themselves and how to account for their impact.  The second sets the ground rules for regularly reporting on NDC progress. The third holds the entire COP responsible for assessing whether the Paris Agreement parties are achieving the Article 2 goal of keeping the rise in atmospheric temperature to well below 2C degrees.  It is on these three building blocks that current climate change multilateralism is based.  Understanding the details of their implementation guidelines is thus a critical first step to making it work.

Check out my post that captures key guidelines finalized at COP24 and SB50, and how Parties reached consensus on them.

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