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Is It Time to Move Beyond the UN Climate Talks?

by Michael Levi
December 12, 2011

It has become a tradition after the annual United Nations climate negotiations for analysts to lament the dysfunctional nature of the process, and to argue that we’d be better off cutting the talks down to the few countries that really matter. After all, the world’s twenty top greenhouse gas emitters account for north of eighty percent of global emissions. Why bother with all the extra complexity entailed in the UN talks?

I’ve been guilty of making the argument myself. In 2008, a task force for which I was staff director argued that if the UN talks couldn’t be made to work, a smaller group would need to take up the task. I made an even more categorical case for a shift away from the UN talks in a Foreign Affairs article the next year, and followed that up, after Copenhagen, with further arguments in the same vein.

Over the past year, though, I’ve become considerably more skeptical of the idea. To understand why, it’s useful to ask why one would expect a smaller group to make progress where the UN talks haven’t. The most popular argument proceeds on simple efficiency grounds: with nearly two hundred countries, energy is sucked away by fundamentally unimportant negotiations, leaving little time to make real progress. As defenders of the UN talks point out, though, the big countries regularly step aside to negotiate final outcomes. There is little to prevent them from negotiating efficiently within the broader UN milieu.

The other case, which gets a lot less attention, focuses on the fact that negotiating in small groups allows parties to more carefully tailor the deals that they make. In a small group, for example, the United States could agree to help facilitate access to nuclear technology for India in exchange for greater cuts in Indian carbon intensity; in the UN talks, such trades can only be accomplished through a messy proliferation of side agreements that are not integral to the ultimate outcomes. This is, in essence, the case that David Victor has made for a small group that would pursue “Climate Accession Deals” akin to the deals that countries make in order to join the WTO.

This is a much more compelling case for the virtues of small group negotiations, but it has a big Achilles heel. Its premise, which is often ignored by its partisans, is that there is a group of enthusiastic nations that are willing to pay – in political favors, access to carbon markets, or cash – for emissions-cutting action by more reluctant powers. The purpose of the intimate negotiations is to arrange those transactions.

But where are the enthusiastic nations? They are few if any today. Most Europeans remain more eager than anyone else, but they are increasingly strained, both economically and politically. They are willing to lecture others, and to act at home, but their ability to help out abroad is more limited. The United States can offer political assistance that might aid with others’ low-carbon development, but neither much money nor access to a robust U.S. carbon market is in the foreseeable offing. Japan, which has stepped up in the past, remains preoccupied with other matters.

All of this suggests that were leaders of, say, the G-20 or the Major Economies Forum to meet and discuss climate, not much different would result. Such a grouping could have other advantages: in particular, it could be used to force leaders to defend progress on past climate commitments, with greater personal embarrassment in the case of failure. Moreover, fundamental changes in the attitudes of several key powers could bring the world to a point where small group negotiations could add serious leverage to the system. For the time being, though, it isn’t the shape of the table that’s the main thing retarding progress.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by josh busby

    As you know, I’ve made similar arguments. I still think that discrete topics can be addressed in smaller groups. For example, France hosted the forest/REDD talks in 2010 that I think were quite successful in moving the issue forward and getting the major interested parties together.I could see value in any number of interim meetings like this on sectoral emissions, addressing methane or super greenhouse gases. Decomposing the problem into more manageable chunks seems like it could yield more results than annual megameetings. Maybe the SBSTA meetings do this, but I’m not so sure.

    I understand the argument that having the affected countries in the room puts pressure on the big emitters and lends the process legitimacy. I just wonder if the annual meetings aren’t perennially going to be sideshows. I just have trouble believing that environment ministers can credibly commit their countries to significant emissions-cutting action. This is a task that exceeds their mandate and portfolio. I’d be really curious what former negotiators think about this. I saw that Dan Reifsnyder says he’s been at this for 22 years!

  • Posted by former negotiator

    Mr. Busby, The annual COPs are, in many ways, just sideshows. The main action occurs in the hundreds of small meetings, training sessions, exchanged documents, etc. that occur throughout the years and follow a very coordinated pattern across many different organizations. The annual COPs mark whatever progress may have been made — or at least what will be admitted to publically — and arguably are more for the public audience. (Who would tune-in or come to a meeting that didn’t promise some drama?)

    I was surprised by Mr. Levi’s dismissal of the Durban Platform as so meaningless, given the allusion in his last sentence of his commentary here: It’s true that the shape of the table is not the issue, but it can be an obstacle, and the negotiators in Durban just agreed on its shape (or at least not to put too many corners on it). That doesn’t mean they will negotiate an effective treaty, but maybe they will at least begin to talk about it….

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    I’d rather more progress on simply replacing coal burners by nuclear power plants. That would be a goodly step forward.

  • Posted by Tim Quijano

    I think you made a stronger case that a G-20, or other small, international group, could be successful at climate policy than the UN. The nations you enumerate, I would propose, feel most responsible for solving the climate crisis.

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