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..

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.