Notes from the climate talks: A party-driven, not party-written, process

One of the mantras of the UNFCCC universe is that the negotiating process should be “party-driven”, reflecting the primary role that the State Parties to the climate convention should have in shaping its outcomes. While this might seem obvious at first glance, much of this insistence arises from the experience of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, where closed-door meetings of a limited number of countries gave rise to criticism that the negotiating process that was far from transparent, inclusive, and genuinely multilateral, with the result that many countries did not feel that they ‘owned’ the negotiating outcomes. Over the four-year course of the Durban Platform (ADP) discussions intended to conclude at this December’s Paris COP21 conference, this ‘party-driven’ notion has been elaborated into a troika of principles on the conduct of the process: that the “process is Party-driven”; “built upon inputs from Parties”; and “that any outputs of the process will reflect such inputs from Parties.”

But while the ‘party-driven’-ness of the UNFCCC process is now a common refrain, what it doesn’t seem to imply is that the negotiating documents are necessarily ‘party-written’.

Instead, the dynamic that seems to be at work is a heavy reliance on the hand of the chairs and facilitators to do a lot of the actual drafting in cobbling paragraphs together: the co-chairs produce a draft document, hear views and comments on this draft, then go back and make changes based on these comments, then produce a revised draft. Rinse and repeat until a draft acceptable to all is reached (on the inevitable Saturday after the scheduled Friday close of the conference).

Tracing the stages of the COP decision on the Durban Platform agreed at last year’s COP20 session in Lima illustrates this, as shown below. (A similar pattern is at work in previous years too.)

Drafting the Lima Call for Climate Action (1/CP.20)

Draft version

Date released



Pre-sessional draft 









Presidential proposal, adopted as the Lima Call for Climate Action

There are a few things about this sequence that highlight interesting aspects of the negotiating process.

The first is that the judgement of the co-chairs becomes critical, in trying to produce a draft that contains an acceptable balance to all across all the proposed outcomes as a package. The term ‘landing zone’ is often used to describe the zone of agreement, but it is the co-chairs who set where the initial ‘touchdown’ point for ‘landing’ the draft is. There is a certain amount of space within which countries’ so-called ‘red-lines’ are respected (and seen to be respected), and once the co-chairs have a mandate from countries to produce a draft, as individual agents they have a tremendous amount of discretion, despite the best efforts of their principals (the countries) to place conditions and qualifies on the expected draft document.

But the co-chairs have this role on them because countries, left to their own devices, struggle to reach that compromise on their own. Discussions on the different thematic areas are necessarily fragmented, with different sections of the text being addressed simultaneously or in different rooms during breakout (or spin-off) meetings, and countries will be and have been reluctant to make compromises in one area of the text if they do not know or feel that reciprocal compromises are being made in other areas. The only way, it seems, to edge towards that landing zone is in the ‘big bang’ manner of having the co-chairs produce a single effort at compromise, so that countries can look at the document as a package in order to see that compromises have indeed been made across the whole document, where achieving only their second, third, or fourth-preferred options on some issues is balanced against realising some first preferences on other issues.

The second is that countries themselves only essentially tinker around the edges for particular phrases or words. For instance, a final huddle at the conclusion of the 2013 COP19 session in Warsaw, gave rise to the phrase ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, a phase in which countries now find themselves in the midst of. And of course, the Durban Platform’s mandate of possibly including ‘an agreed outcome with legal force’ was the result of another last-night(+1) huddle in 2011.

But while these edits in phrasing are indeed far-reaching, the basic structure and content of the draft documents is something that has come from the co-chairs’ keyboards. Interventions expressing views on bits of the text are made orally, written paragraphs are submitted – but rarely do the co-chairs seek to integrate proposed edits and revisions during the course of the meeting, instead preferring to collect all of them, let them stew, and then craft compromise language that rarely takes any one suggestion verbatim.

These observations seem relevant now because after three negotiating sessions in 2015, with two still to come before the adoption of the Paris agreement, the new documents proposed by the current co-chairs finally return the process to something back to this basic pattern.

Last December’s Lima conference, and the first session of this year in Geneva, were in effect giant brainstorming exercises, producing the ‘Geneva Negotiating Text’. The subsequent version, produced before the third session of this year in August (called a ‘tool’ by the co-chairs), began to try and sort through this jumble by separating things into three parts – for the draft legal agreement, draft accompanying COP decision, and other issues. This, however, was a largely organizational exercise that was necessarily limited by the understanding that no options would be lost from the text. In-sessions discussions at the June and August meetings, trying to grapple with both the GNT and the ‘tool’, faced the challenge of trying to manage the duplications, overlaps and incoherencies by trying to redraft, on an overhead screen, the compilation text down to something more readable, and not really succeeding in this respect.

The draft now proposed by the co-chairs now goes beyond this, presenting a document that is at least manageable for countries to track future changes and see the balance across to reach a conclusion that it is acceptable to them. The inevitable first question to be confronted in the forthcoming October Bonn session is ‘is this an acceptable basis for negotiation’? But beyond this, the theory for the road to the end of the Paris conference is thus much clearer – drafts are presented, comments are made, drafts are iterated.


While I am waxing on at length about process themes, two interesting little procedural innovations have also developed under the current co-chairs.

The first is the de facto expansion of the co-chairs team to include the facilitators for thematic issues. Part of this is a practical purpose to allow for parallel discussions to enable the entire document to be discussed relatively efficiently, a job that could not be done if it was simply chaired by the same two people. But part of it also serves to increase buy-in of the draft documents, by having a wider range of countries also collectively responsible (if only in an informal sense) for the next iteration of the draft proposals.

The co-chairs’ scenario note for the upcoming meeting, detailing the process by which they produced the current non-paper, highlights the back-and-forth with the facilitators, whose judgement about the potential landing zones for agreement then also becomes fairly influential in shaping the iterated draft documents. ‘Yes, this is under our responsibility’, the co-chairs seem to be saying, ‘but we have not done this all on our own’.

The second is the emergence of a ‘heads of delegation consultation’ with the co-chairs, a new kind of meeting introduced at the conclusion of the August session, which the chairs now indicate will be convened as necessary at the next session, and certainly before the final closing plenary. I suspect that this setting is probably intended to clarify and settle procedural issues about the how work is conducted during and after the session, and not have these arguments in plenary or simply in bilateral consultations.

Any institutional setting evolves its own culture and norms about its method of work, and the UNFCCC has had its own fair share of these, from ‘friends of the chair’ meetings to huddles. This new heads of delegation one is just the latest, and its usefulness remains to be seen.

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One thought on “Notes from the climate talks: A party-driven, not party-written, process

  1. […] authority to propose In a previous post I wrote about how it is not parties who ultimately ‘hold the pen’ in actually drafting […]

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