Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

Whether you like it or not, for the time being the most important product of the December meeting in Copenhagen of the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the “Copenhagen Accord,” which I assessed in my December 20th blog post (“What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord”).  In the long term, however, it is quite possible that another outcome of the December meetings may prove to be equally or more consequential.  I’m referring to the decreased credibility of the UNFCCC as the major institutional venue for international climate policy negotiation and implementation.

One has to be cautious about taking too seriously some of the assertions that have been made in the printed press and the blogosphere about the death of the UNFCCC, partly because many of those commentaries come from people in the press and NGOs who – like me – suffered in Copenhagen because of the terrible logistics provided by the UNFCCC, which kept thousands of people standing outside in the bitter cold for 8 hours waiting to receive their credentials (for which they had been pre-registered) only to be turned away from the Bella Center.  I’ve written about that in my December 18th blog post (Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?).  However, the problems with the UNFCCC that became so apparent in Copenhagen are more fundamental than the logistical failures.

Problems with the UNFCCC Process

The two weeks of COP-15 illustrated four specific problems, most of which were apparent long before the Copenhagen meetings.  First, the UNFCCC process involves too many countries – about 196 at last count — to allow anything of real significance to be achieved.  As my colleague, Professor Jeffrey Frankel, observed in a panel session in which he and I participated at the ASSA meetings in Atlanta, “it’s difficult enough to reach agreement in a room with 30 people, let alone close to 200.”  What is particularly striking about involving 196 parties in the discussion of international climate change policy is the reality that just 20 of them account for about 90% of global emissions!

The second problem – again, illustrated in spades at the Copenhagen sessions – is that the UN culture tends to polarize many discussions into two factions:  the developed world versus the developing world.  This is troubling, because the world is much more diverse than such a dichotomous distinction would suggest.  Clearly, emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa have more in common – along some key economic dimensions – with some countries in the so-called developed world than they do with the poorest developing countries, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa.

The third problem is that the voting rules of the UNFCCC process require consensus for nearly all decisions, that is, unanimity.  It was lack of unanimity, by the way, which resulted in the Conference not “adopting” the Copenhagen Accord, but rather “noting” it.  After all, only 190 of 196 countries supported it.  Six nations threatened to vote in opposition, ironically accusing the 190 of “undemocratic procedures:”  Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, Tuvalu, and Venezuela.

Fourth and finally, the UNFCCC leadership in Copenhagen was – to phrase it politely – problematic, not only administratively, but substantively as well, according to delegates from a diverse set of countries.  (It should also be acknowledged that some responsibility for the problematic leadership of the Conference — both administratively and substantively — rests with the Danish presidency of the Conference.  Members of a diverse set of delegations, as well as other observers, have commented on this.)

These problems (as well as others on which readers will probably comment) have caused many observers (as long as eight to ten years ago in the case of some academic economists and political scientists) to question whether the UNFCCC is the best institutional venue for productive negotiations and action on global climate change policy, or at least whether it ought to be the sole venue.  So, what are the possible alternatives?

Potential Alternative or Supplementary Institutional Venues

One promising venue was initiated in 2007 by the Bush administration as the “Major Emitter Meetings” – the “MEM process.”  It was roundly condemned by environmental advocacy groups and by many supporters of the UNFCCC process.  Greenpeace labeled it a “dead-end diversion” – “an attempt by the Bush Administration to deflect international criticism on their do nothing attitude on climate change.”  Whether or not that was the Bush administration’s cynical motivation, the fact remains that it was a sensible venue for discussion.

Fortunately, the Obama administration recognized that this was a promising approach, adopted it, changed its name to the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, and continued the process, now commonly referred to as the “MEF.”  Several meetings have taken place – in Washington, Paris, and Mexico City – bringing together Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  Those 17 countries and regions account for about 90% of global emissions.  The U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs, Michael Froman, chairs the meetings.  Naturally, some nations (and some advocates) are concerned about a small set of large countries reaching decisions; and no doubt some are not comfortable with a process chaired by the United States.

Another conceivable institutional venue would be the G-20, the “Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors,” established in 1999 to bring together the leading industrialized and developing economies to discuss key issues.  They recently turned their attention to climate change policy (in Pittsburgh in September, 2009).  The make-up of this group is similar to that of the MEF, but there are differences:  Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  For some people, the good news about the G-20 playing a key role as a venue for negotiations is the presence of economic thinking; of course, this is precisely what troubles many others.

No doubt, there are other conceivable multilateral negotiations that could be convened, as well as bilateral approaches, including, of course, ongoing talks between China and the United States.

Don’t Nail Shut the Coffin

Anyone who predicts the death of the UNFCCC is probably letting their hopes infect their predictions.  It is simply much too soon for obituaries to be written for this quite durable institution.

The Kyoto Protocol continues at least until the end of its first commitment period, that is, through 2012.  The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and annual national reporting functions (such as those that are key parts of the Copenhagen Accord) are likely to work through the United Nations, most likely the UNFCCC.

Also, the UNFCCC has a very large constituency of support, including at a minimum most, if not all, of the G-77 group of developing countries, which actually numbers much closer to 140.  In addition, the UNFCCC has significant international legitimacy, and is potentially key for implementation, no matter what the venue may be for initial negotiation.

The Path Forward

Whether the next steps in international deliberations should be under the auspices of the UNFCCC or some smaller deliberative body, such as the MEF or the G-20, is an important and open question.  Given the necessity of achieving consensus in the United Nations processes as currently defined and the open hostility of a small set of countries, other bilateral and multilateral discussions could be an increasingly attractive route, at least over the short term.

There are many questions, however, that need to be addressed before anyone can identify the best institutional venue (or venues) for international climate negotiations and action.  Such questions are now among the major foci of research by the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.  More about this in future posts.

About Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Faculty Group at the Kennedy School, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Programs in Public Policy and Political Economy and Government, Co Chair of the Harvard Business School Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements. He is a University Fellow of Resources for the Future, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Editor of the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, and a Member of: the Board of Directors of Resources for the Future, the Board of Academic Advisors of the AEI Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, the Editorial Boards of Resource and Energy Economics, Environmental Economics Abstracts, B.E. Journals of Economic Analysis & Policy, and Economic Issues. He is also an editor of the Journal of Wine Economics. He was formerly a member of the Editorial Board of Land Economics, The Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, the Board of Directors of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, a member and Chairman of the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Science Advisory Board, the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, a Lead Author of the Second and Third Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a contributing editor of Environment. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Northwestern University, an M.S. in agricultural economics from Cornell, and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. Professor Stavins' research has focused on diverse areas of environmental economics and policy, including examinations of: market based policy instruments; regulatory impact analysis; innovation and diffusion of pollution control technologies; environmental benefit valuation; policy instrument choice under uncertainty; competitiveness effects of regulation; depletion of forested wetlands; political economy of policy instrument choice; and costs of carbon sequestration. His research has appeared in the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Economic Literature, Science, Nature, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Ecology Law Quarterly, Journal of Regulatory Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Resource and Energy Economics, The Energy Journal, Energy Policy, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, Explorations in Economic History, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, other scholarly and popular periodicals, and several books. He is the co-editor of Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World (Cambridge University Press, 2007), editor of the fifth edition of Economics of the Environment (W. W. Norton, 2005), co editor of Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms (Resources for the Future, 2005), editor of The Political Economy of Environmental Regulation (Edward Elgar, 2004), co editor of the second edition of Public Policies for Environmental Protection (Resources for the Future, 2000), and the author of Environmental Economics and Public Policy: Selected Papers of Robert N. Stavins, 1988 1999 (Edward Elgar, 2000). Professor Stavins directed Project 88, a bi partisan effort co chaired by former Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Senator John Heinz, to develop innovative approaches to environmental and resource problems. He continues to work closely with public officials on matters of national and international environmental policy. He has been a consultant to the National Academy of Sciences, several Administrations, Members of Congress, environmental advocacy groups, the World Bank, the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development, state and national governments, and private foundations and firms. Prior to coming to Harvard, Stavins was a staff economist at the Environmental Defense Fund; and before that, he managed irrigation development in the middle east, and spent four years working in agricultural extension in West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer.
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9 Responses to Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

  1. Phil Kithil says:

    Let’s jump to the future desired end result, and work backward:

    1) Every national economy must abandon fossil fuel energy by 2050 at the latest.
    2) Laggards should pay more than early adopters.
    3) To begin this difficult task and avoid turning off the lights, every country needs more supply of non-fossil energy.
    4) Therefore it’s a supply-side, not demand-side, problem.
    5) To bring forth the supply of non fossil energy, the price paid for it must be sufficient, and guaranteed over long enough period to justify the (huge) investment.
    6) Contrary to previous posts, in the real world, non-fossil energy subsidies are necessary.
    7) Where does this subsidy money come from?
    8) Global imports & exports of goods and services was ~$30 trillion before the economic downturn. World trade is the biggest pot of money.
    9) A modest trade tariff earmarked to support purchases of non-fossil energy (at subsidized prices which undercut fossil energy) should bring forth ever-increasing supply.
    10) A small tariff means everyone pays a little, but developed economies with robust trade obviously pay much more than developing countries – which seems right.
    11) By assessing the tariff on both imports and exports, it levels the playing field between trade-surplus and trade-deficit countries.
    12) The World Trade Organization (WTO) may be a venue for administering and enforcing this regime.
    13) Laggards who don’t adopt non-fossil energy pay the tariff but don’t receive transitional subsidies in return. They lose.
    14) The structure should reward early adopters so they become the lowest-cost non-fossil energy economies.
    15) The UNFCCC is sidelined, becomes a debating society.

    Comments and ideas welcome.

  2. paulina says:

    I find the structure of the article problematic.

    Starting out, you write:

    “First, the UNFCCC process involves too many countries – about 196 at last count — to allow anything of real significance to be achieved. As my colleague, Professor Jeffrey Frankel, observed in a panel session in which he and I participated at the ASSA meetings in Atlanta, “it’s difficult enough to reach agreement in a room with 30 people, let alone close to 200.” What is particularly striking about involving 196 parties in the discussion of international climate change policy is the reality that just 20 of them account for about 90% of global emissions!”

    One by one:

    “First, the UNFCCC process involves too many countries – about 196 at last count — to allow anything of real significance to be achieved.”

    This is a stunning claim. It directly states that the UNFCCC does not achieve anything of real significance. The burden of proof is on the person making this claim.

    This burden cannot be met by a throw-away comment about how hard it is to work in large groups:

    “my colleague, Professor Jeffrey Frankel, observed in a panel session in which he and I participated at the ASSA meetings in Atlanta, “it’s difficult enough to reach agreement in a room with 30 people, let alone close to 200.””

    And then:

    “What is particularly striking about involving 196 parties in the discussion of international climate change policy is the reality that just 20 of them account for about 90% of global emissions!”

    Yes, it is hard to work in large groups, so it makes sense to *also* work in smaller groups. Some of these smaller groups should and will continue to be bilateral and multilateral groups of leading polluters.

    But the sentence quoted immediately above implicitly suggests, or rhetorically moves toward suggesting, that these polluters are the only ones who need to be part of the discussion of international climate change policy. The remarkable fact that such a small number of nations account for such a large share of pollution does the heavy lifting, shifting attention on to this group.

    The body of the article then focuses on options for this smaller group, the group of main polluters, to hash things out.

    Then the article concludes by acknowledging that the UNFCCC may be essential to “implementation,” no matter what the initial venue[s] for negotiation.

    More needs to be said to explain the claim that the UNFCCC does not achieve anyting of significance.

    I also think the questions of what venue is the “best” and whether the UNFCCC shouldn’t be the sole “venue” are academic.

    One, what about the whole “let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” thing?

    Two, the UNFCCC *isn’t* the sole venue; obviously there are several bilateral and multi-lateral “venues” currently.

    But, again, it seems odd, even for this academic exercise, to start out by assuming that the UNFCCC process does not, cannot, achieve anything of real significance.

    Thanks.

  3. Although the number of participants can be hard to control, the conference should have considered grouping countries together into discussion groups which could have presented solutions to the greater body. The groups would be more productive if major emitters were paired with emerging economies and those on the other end of the scale. First, we may wish to have everyone on the same page as to the problems that need to be addressed.

  4. koçluk says:

    This guest post by Robert Stavins, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, was first published here

  5. sunucu says:

    Phil Kithil… I have to add these ones too…

    17) Laggards who don’t adopt non-fossil energy pay the tariff but don’t receive transitional subsidies in return. They lose.
    18) The structure should reward early adopters so they become the lowest-cost non-fossil energy economies.
    19) The UNFCCC is sidelined, becomes a debating society.

  6. GoldStone says:

    I also think the questions of what venue is the “best” and whether the UNFCCC shouldn’t be the sole “venue” are academic.

  7. Tekirdağ says:

    it is hard to work in large groups, so it makes sense to *also* work in smaller groups. Some of these smaller groups should and will continue to be bilateral and multilateral groups of leading polluters.

  8. erhknt says:

    What is particularly striking about involving 196 parties in the discussion of international climate change policy is the reality that just 20 of them account for about 90% of global emissions

  9. Linda says:

    This is important: More needs to be said to explain the claim that the UNFCCC does not achieve anyting of significance.

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