Home > Essays in Diplomacy, Essays in Environmental and Climate Change Diplomacy, University life in Australia > Multilateralism as a diplomatic tool for addressing climate change: Case of US diplomatic practice

Multilateralism as a diplomatic tool for addressing climate change: Case of US diplomatic practice

logo of the United Nations Framework for Climate Change

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

 by Michelle Leonardo*

Multilateralism as a diplomatic tool for addressing climate change:  US diplomatic practice in the 2009 COP15 during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC)  in Copenhagen

(Part 1 of 2 parts)

Abstract

The global response to climate change is, for the most part, negotiated through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This paper considers US diplomatic practice during the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) held in Copenhagen in December 2009, to make an assessment of the challenges to multilateralism as a diplomatic tool for addressing climate change. In particular, this paper argues that multilateralism as institutionalized in UNFCCC processes is inefficient as a means for addressing the crisis because: (1) effective climate change response requires collective action at the international level, yet commitments by states to that collective action are largely constrained by their domestic geopolitical and/or socioeconomic interests, and (2) the decision-making rules that govern the UNFCCC can be taken advantage of to reduce substantive negotiations into simple procedural games.

 

 Introduction

Climate change is arguably the most difficult political problem the world has ever had to face (The Economist 2009, cited in Spak 2010). For one, it is the only global crisis to date from which grave consequences are predicted to occur on a planetary scale and are expected to adversely impact the security and well-being of all human populations. For another, and perhaps more importantly, the policy solutions required to address this crisis has highly divisive consequences. The necessary policy solutions are divisive not only because it challenges the current global geopolitical and/or socioeconomic landscape – for example, scientifically recommended climate change policies are likely to prompt a ‘fundamental transformation of modern societies toward low-carbon development based on new energy production and consumption’ (Dimitrov 2010) – but also because the resulting process of transformation is perceived as highly inequitable.

For instance, while large developed countries such as the United States are primarily responsible for most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that currently exist in the atmosphere, it is small developing countries that will be most affected by impending climate change. Large developing countries such as China and  India, though not (yet) liable for the largest share of emissions in the atmosphere, will also be required to drastically reduce their future emissions in order to avoid the dire consequences predicted of climate change. This is particularly controversial as high per-capita GDP is strongly correlated with high per-capita emissions, and no large country has ever experienced sustained economic growth without increasing its GHG emissions at the same time – hence, the objection of emergent emitters such as China and India is that scientifically recommended climate change policies will inhibit their continued economic development. Finally, the spatial and temporal dimensions of climate change response also contribute to the challenge of addressing the issue. For example, while the costs of climate change adaptation and mitigation are incurred at the national and/or community levels, the benefits arising from such are accrued globally. Similarly, while it is the present global population that will bear the costs of climate change adaptation and mitigation, it is largely future generations who stand to gain the most from such activities (The Economist 2009, cited in Spak 2010). Clearly then, it can be seen that climate change negotiation represents the most ambitious pursuit of collective action ever undertaken on a global scale. 

The global response to climate change is, for the most part, negotiated through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In this regard, it is useful to reflect on the effectiveness of the UNFCCC as a multilateral platform mandated with crafting, deliberating, and enforcing a timely and appropriate response to climate change. To this end, this paper considers USdiplomatic practice during the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) held in Copenhagen in December 2009, to make an assessment of the challenges to multilateralism as a diplomatic tool for addressing climate change. In particular, this paper argues that multilateralism as institutionalized in UNFCCC processes is inefficient as a means for addressing the crisis because: (1) effective climate change response requires collective action at the international level, yet commitments by states to that collective action are largely constrained by their domestic geopolitical and/or socioeconomic interests, and (2) the decision-making rules that govern the UNFCCC can be taken advantage of to reduce substantive negotiations into simple procedural games.

The Copenhagen Conference

The beginnings of the Copenhagen conference can be traced back to the 13th Conference of Parties (COP13) held in Bali in December 2007. During this negotiation round, Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to a ‘loose mandate’ for continuing climate talks, and committed to settle by the end of 2009 – (1) a ‘shared vision of long-term cooperative action, including a long-term global goal for emission reductions’, and (2) ‘enhanced action on climate change adaptation, mitigation, technology cooperation and international financing’ (Purvis & Stevenson 2010). However, the Bali agreement did not expressly define the intended nature of the shared long-term vision, what types of actions are desirable for nations to undertake, whether or not these actions should be legally binding, or the types of international institutions that would be needed to facilitate these interactions (Purvis & Stevenson 2010). Instead, theBali conference set up two ad hoc working groups (AWG) to work toward these goals: the AWG for Long-Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), and an analogous AWG that consisted only of members of the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) (Christoff 2010).

Unfortunately, neither ad hoc working group made much headway in formal climate negotiations during the two years between the Bali and Copenhagen conferences – the COP15 opened with Parties still in wide disagreement not only as regards the broader goal of the conference, but also about its specific targets. For example, despite high public expectations for Copenhagen to produce a strong enforceable outcome in the form of a global climate treaty, Parties to the conference, in fact, still had divergent views on whether or not the negotiation round should produce a legally binding agreement that would extend the mandate of the Kyoto Protocol, whose provisions end in 2012 (Christoff 2010). Further, Parties were also in disagreement as regards what constitutes an effective global stabilization goal. For instance, China, India, and Brazil, along with most Western countries, support limiting the average increase in global temperature to 2°C above 1900 levels, and lowering the current concentration of atmospheric carbon to 450 parts per million (ppm). Meanwhile, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) maintain that temperature rise must be limited to 1.5°C at most, and that the concentration of atmospheric carbon must be brought to less than 350 ppm. Finally, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (or the ALBA group of countries) prefer an even lower upper limit of 1°C to temperature rise (Christoff 2010, Dimitrov 2010, Purvis & Stevenson 2010). According to a plenary statement by Grenada, more than half of the UN membership supported the AOSIS goal (Dimitrov 2010).

Also, as earlier indicated, other points of contention that remained unresolved at the beginning (and indeed, throughout the duration of the COP15) include: (1) the division of ‘labor’ in climate change adaptation and mitigation, or who should be involved in climate change response, (2) financing and technology transfer for climate change adaptation and mitigation, or who should finance climate change response, and (3) the legal framework for climate change adaptation and mitigation, or how should climate change response be enforced (Christoff 2010, Dimitrov 2010). In so much as any particular response to climate change would necessarily impact on other geopolitical and/or socioeconomic interests of Parties to the UNFCCC, the COP15 is rightly seen as a critical moment in climate change diplomacy. This is undeniably reflected in the scale of high-level political engagement at the Copenhagen conference, where more than 120 heads of state and government physically attended the negotiation round.

The Unraveling of the Negotiation Process

Despite the COP15 Parties’ differing views on what constitutes the appropriate climate change response, the international community was hopeful of a finalizing a global deal to address the crisis. The months preceding the Copenhagen conference saw a flood of positive developments with one country after another pledging domestic action on climate change, thus giving the public the impression that agreement on a global climate treaty might actually be possible (Spak 2010). Inside negotiators, on the other hand, did not see this as a practicable option. Citing ‘political expedience and time constraints,’ the AWG-LCA instead proposed to target a ‘comprehensive core decision’ inCopenhagenand to continue negotiations in 2010. To this end, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC petitioned the EU and other major players to pursue and settle for a COP decision containing ‘substantive policy elements, [that will] eventually [be] nonbinding in nature’. The EU and other countries looking for a strong treaty arrangement reluctantly agreed (Christoff 2010, Dimitrov 2010).

Yet, this concession notwithstanding, positions of the COP15 Parties on other issues, including those enumerated earlier, still proved to be irreconcilable. In particular, disagreement over the next steps to the Kyoto Protocol resulted in an impasse in negotiations on the second day of the conference. On the one hand, developing countries put forward the strict ultimatum that a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol must be negotiated at Copenhagen. They contended that a discontinuation of Kyoto would be a ‘deal breaker’, and gave a clear indication that they would block any Copenhagen agreement without a second commitment period for the protocol. Meanwhile, countries like Canada, Japan and Russia were very much against a second run of Kyoto, and instead wanted to work on a brand new global agreement. The US was also in favor of just a single agreement, but without any domestic policy commitments yet confirmed by its Congress, it was in a weak bargaining position. The EU was prepared to consent to a continuation of Kyoto, but on the condition that the US,China,India and Brazil also participate in the second agreement (Dimitrov 2010, Purvis & Stevenson 2010).

Complicating negotiations further, the developing country coalition fell apart on the third day. The AOSIS, along with a few Latin American countries, drastically changed its position and instead demanded a new global legally binding ‘Copenhagen Protocol’ based on a proposal formally submitted by Tuvalu earlier in the year. The proposal gives obligation to large developing countries such as China and India, as well as to developed countries like the US, to keep global average temperature rise to 1.5°C and concentrations of atmospheric carbon to 350 ppm.Tuvaluinsisted on formal negotiations on this text in  Copenhagen, but while several small countries supported the proposal, their repeated motions to negotiate on the basis of the submitted text were not acknowledged by either other delegations or the presiding chairpersons (Dimitrov 2010).

Finally, the matter of financing voluntary climate change actions by developing countries also represented another deadlock. Western countries eventually offered to partially subsidize such activities, putting forward a collective amount of at least USD 25 billion on the table. However, while the provision of real money was one of the few substantive offers made in Copenhagen, it is worth noting that the ‘money trump card’ seemed to have had no definitive impact on negotiations – Grenada, seconded by many other AOSIS countries, stated strongly that their primary concern was that of survival and not financial aid.China,Venezuela and other countries also responded frankly that money was not what they wanted, but none offered any other policy alternatives, again bringing negotiations to a standstill (Dimitrov 2010, Spak 2010).

Arriving at the Copenhagen Accord

Faced with impasse of the sort described above, along with several others not presented in this paper, the Copenhagen conference faced the very real possibility that negotiations would fail. In this regard, the priority of the conference shifted from reaching a COP decision containing ‘substantive policy elements’, to simply reaching a COP decision. There was no text to be formally adopted when heads of state arrived in the second week to officially close the negotiation round. To this end, the hosts of the conference pushed for the creation of a small ‘Friends of the Chair’ group of countries to break the political stalemate (Christoff 2010, Dimitrov 2010). The decision was ‘made for political convenience and dictated by the necessity for problem solving’ (Dimitrov 2010).

The intention was to establish a group of key countries representing all global regions that would consult broadly with one another and ensure that everyone’s concerns are properly taken into account. While initially met with vehement opposition, almost all Parties later agreed that major political hurdles could only be addressed in smaller forums. To this end, the ‘Friends of the Chair’ group was created on the last day of the conference, consisting of the following 25 countries: the US, the UK, Sweden, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway, Mexico, the Maldives, Lesotho, South Africa, Bangladesh, Algeria, Denmark, Germany, France, India, Ethiopia, Colombia, Korea, China, and Brazil (Dimitrov 2010). Heads of these states then proceeded to draft a text by themselves, in and of itself representing a rare and remarkable occurrence in the practice of diplomacy (Spak 2010).

The heads of state of the US,China,India and Brazil also convened a small private meeting on the last Friday of the conference to discuss aspects of the anticipated climate negotiations in 2010. While what exactly transpired during this meeting remains undisclosed, it seems apparent that at least one of its important outcomes was the deletion of any references to ‘legally binding’ outcomes for future climate negotiations. In other words, the four great and emerging powers decided that future negotiations on climate change do not need to produce a legally binding treaty. When the draft text was finally printed and circulated, many delegates were in disbelief that the ‘legally binding’ reference had been stricken out. The EU in particular had been sidelined and only grudgingly accepted the arrangement (Dimitrov 2010).

The Copenhagen Accord

In the end, the COP15 produced the Copenhagen Accord, which includes provisions on emission reduction commitments, transparent international review of the implementation of said commitments, and financing for climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries (Spak 2010). The Accord basically provides a framework for countries to pledge their own domestic mitigation targets and actions, supports the establishment of a new system for monitoring, reporting, and verifying these actions, and contains new commitments from developed countries to fund climate change adaptation and mitigation activities in developing countries. But as the COP failed to reach consensus and merely ‘noted’ rather than adopted the text, the Accord is essentially a ‘political agreement without legal standing under the UNFCCC and is not legally binding even on its supporters’ (Christoff 2010).

to be continued…

Note:

*Michelle Leonardo recently graduated with a dual  Master of Diplomacy/Master of Environmental Management and Development  at the Australia National University. She received  the James Ingram prize for excellence in the 2011 Master’s class at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy (APCD) as well as the Elspeth young prize for social contribution at Crawford School of Economics and Government. She is also  a recipient of the 2009 Australia Leadership Award (ALA) scholarship grant.  Michelle is a guest blogger of the Reflective Diplomat.

References

Carrington, D 2010, ‘Wikileaks cables reveal how US manipulated climate accord’, The Guardian, 03 December 2010, viewed 20 May 2011,
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/03/wikileaks-us-manipulated-climate-accord>

Christoff, P 2010, ‘Cold climate in Copenhagen: China and the United States at COP15’, Environmental Politics, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 637-656.

Dimitrov, RS 2010, ‘Inside UN climate change negotiations: the Copenhagenconference’, Review of Policy Research, vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 795-821.

Falkner, R 2010, ‘Getting a deal on climate change: Obama’s flexible multilateralism’, in N. Kitchen (ed.) Obama Nation? US Foreign Policy One Year On, LSE Ideas Special Report, LSE Ideas,London,UK, pp. 37-41.

Houser, T 2010, ‘Copenhagen, the accord, and the way forward’, Peterson Institute for International Economics Policy Brief, viewed 25 May 2011,
<http://www.iie.com/publications/pb/pb10-05.pdf>

Newman, A 2010, ‘Wikileaks reveal US and EU climate bullying, bribery, espionage’, The New American, 06 Dec 2010, viewed 20 May 2011,
<http://thenewamerican.com/index.php/usnews/foreign-policy/5398-wikileaks-reveals-us-a-eu-climate-bullying-bribery-espionage>

Purvis, N & Stevenson, A 2010, ‘Rethinking climate diplomacy: new ideas for transatlantic cooperation post-Copenhagen’, Brussels Forum Paper Series, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, viewed 18 May 2011,
<http://www.gmfus.org/brusselsforum/2010/docs/BF2010-Paper-Purvis-Stevenson.pdf>

Spak, B 2010, ‘The success of the Copenhagen accord and the failure of the Copenhagenconference’, American University Washington, viewed 18 May 2011,
<http://www.american.edu/sis/gep/upload/Brian-Spak-SRP-Copenhagen-Success-and-Failure.pdf>

Traufetter, G 2010, ‘The US and China joined forces against Europe’, Spiegel Online International, 08 Dec 2010, viewed 20 May 2011,
<http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,733630,00.html>

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