Tag Archives: climate change

Strategies of ratification and the Paris Agreement

Ahead of the high-level signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement, which opens on April 22 for signature in New  York, attention has been turning to progress in terms of ratification and entry into force of the Agreement. A little bit of fuss (see also here) has also been kicked up by a memo from think-tank Third World Network, which urges developing countries to ‘wait this year’ and not ‘rush into signing’ the Paris Agreement.

Their memo presents a series of arguments for doing so, namely in terms of maintaining ‘political leverage’ in interim negotiations prior to entry into force, where outstanding issues from the Paris conference are still to be agreed:

“Not signing now keeps the pressure up on developed countries to deliver on their promises and to leverage the outcomes and positions that are vital for developing countries in meeting their obligations under the PA.”

It’s an interesting and important point, evoking memories of the long-delayed entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol, which after US withdrawal, depended on Russian ratification, which was not finalised until November 2004, three years after the conclusion of the Marrakesh Accords and seven after the Protocol itself. Russia’s delayed ratification had a fairly straightforward strategic logic, namely in its linkage to European support for Russia’s World Trade Organisation membership. Indeed, adoption of the Marrakesh Accords was itself dependent on other industrialised countries naming their price for ratification, as the Earth Negotiations Bulletin recounts:

“In the knowledge that their participation was essential for entry into force of the Protocol, the Russian Federation, Japan, Australia, and Canada used this leverage – both collectively and individually – to drive down the “price” of ratification. Playing the ratification card on a number of occasions, they sought to weaken the compliance system, lower the eligibility requirements for mechanisms, undermine opportunities for public participation and transparency, and minimize requirements for providing information on sinks.”

Accordingly, non-ratification as a tool to secure bargaining leverage should be a fairly unsurprising situation.

After Paris, there is still a rather long list of ‘to-dos’, as this list from the UNFCCC Secretariat details. In addition, there are a series of ongoing processes under the regular Convention institutions, as well as the parallel progress of the Green Climate Fund’s capitalisation and disbursement processes. Some of the work resulting from 1/CP.21 has been delegated to a new sub-group of the UNFCCC, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA), and the TWN memo notes the selection of officers (and the system of doing so) at the upcoming May UNFCCC session as one of its first tasks, which is always politically contentious. The TWN memo also goes on to cite specific pending forthcoming deadlines on loss and damage, technology transfer and the provision of finance by developed countries.

As a result, an interesting guidepost might be to look at the pattern and speed of ratifications experienced with the Kyoto Protocol. The following figure divides the period since 1997 into four phases: from the signing ceremony to COP7, where the Marrakesh Accords were completed; from the Marrakesh accords to Russian ratification in November 2004; from Russian ratification to the first meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in November 2005; and since CMP1.

Source data: unfccc.int

Source data: unfccc.int

This division in the sequencing of KP ratifications leads to a few observations, which may be of relevance today:

  • A sizeable number of countries ratified the KP prior to Marrakesh (43) – but twice this number (83) signed the KP during the year from 1998-1999 that it was open for signature in New York. Signatures are a signal of intent, but ratifications are what matter. The 55th ratification (one of two thresholds to bring the KP into force) did not take place until mid-2002, and signatories to the KP included four countries that were to cause a lot of later grief to the KP’s fortunes: the United States, Canada, Russia and Australia. (Incidentally, the first countries to ratify the KP were small, vulnerable ones (Fiji, Antigua and Barbuda, and Tuvalu), much like the first ones to ratify the PA – Fiji, Palau and the Marshall islands).
  • Most ratifications came between 2001 and 2004, i.e. after the Marrakesh Accords were concluded (and of these, most were made in 2002, immediately following Marrakesh). This makes broad sense, because Marrakesh was the point at which many uncertain issues were finally resolved, especially surrounding the KP’s accounting rules, calculations for land-use, and the Clean Development Mechanism. Now, of the numerous elements outstanding from Paris, those related to the new market mechanisms and transparency stand out as being the most contentious that will take more than one negotiating session to resolve. I find it hard to imagine that in particular, those countries that have indicated a use for international market mechanisms in their INDC/NDC pledges will ratify the PA prior to gaining substantial clarity over these new mechanisms.
  • A sizeable number of countries (30) ratified in the one year between the Russian ratification and CMP1/COP11 in Montreal (of which noteworthy ratifications included Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, the UAE, Kuwait and Iran). The obvious explanation is that the particular timing of this was in order to participate fully in the CMP as Parties to the Protocol, which they would not have been able to do so otherwise. I would expect that the TWN ‘wait and see’ advice on signing the Paris Agreement would change in the (what I think is unlikely) event of the Paris Agreement entering into force within the next year, in order to be full Parties to the PA when its first Meeting of Parties convenes, because any bargaining leverage that ensues from withheld ratification would no longer exist.

Of course, the past is not the future, and the purpose of the Paris Agreement is, after all, to establish a new political framework different to that of the past and enable action with far greater urgency than hitherto seen. In recent days, the US and China jointly announced their intention to sign the PA at the April 22 signing ceremony, followed by India (although its minister was quoted as saying ‘ratify’). All of the above of what I’ve said may be proved wrong very shortly.

But while the signing ceremony matters as a political event, for a collective high-level reaffirmation of the commitments made in Paris and to maintain the sense of momentum, I can’t help but think that it is a bit of a red herring. What ultimately matters for entry into force of the Paris Agreement is ratifications, not signatures. Rather than getting all excited about its entry into force (even this year), the slow progress in ratifying the KP’s Doha Amendment – now approaching four years since adoption – should also provide a cautionary experience. Ratification is not just a procedural exercise, and the TWN memo usefully highlights the substantive hurdles that are still there to be negotiated in fully elaborating the Paris climate architecture.

This post was re-posted on 7 April 2016 at ClimateHome, and on 12 April 2016 in Chinese at ChinaDialogue

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French diplomacy, the Paris Agreement, and the structural power of the COP President

“He got a decent deal and everyone said they liked him”, was ClimateHome’s pithy assessment of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 climate summit in Paris. Other reports concurred, praising France’s successful management of the final days and hours of the summit to bring COP21 to a close with the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

“Mr Fabius and the formidable French diplomatic machine steered the conference to a successful conclusion”, said the FT, while others highlighted the personal investment of time through the many visits that Fabius had made to China, India and Saudi Arabia to build trust and confidence. Laurence Tubiana, France’s ambassador and envoy for climate change appointed by Fabius to steer the French diplomatic effort, also received a name check, as did France’s network of foreign missions spread throughout the world and their public outreach in the year leading up to COP21.

This due attention to the role of the French chairmanship and presidency of the conference, however, highlights an interesting and curious feature of this UNFCCC intergovernmental negotiating process, where the conference host holds a privileged and pivotal political position in directing the final outcome of the meeting. (This probably seems utterly self-evident and unremarkable to others who follow the process – but which I think is reason to step back for a moment). 

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via 'COP Paris' flickr, public domain.

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via flickr.com/photos/cop21/, public domain.

The authority to propose
In a previous post I wrote about how it is not parties who ultimately ‘hold the pen’ in actually drafting and writing the final outcomes, but the chair. At the annual COP meetings where the most contentious issues are finalised, this task is handed over to the conference host, who is then responsible for producing proposals that serve as final compromises acceptable to all, presented as a package.

The ‘authority to propose’ that the COP President possesses is a distinct form of power – agenda-setting power, to set the terms of the debate. The COP President has the discretion to propose and experiment with the methods of work that influence the character and content of discussions – such as the in-session indabas at COP21, tasking small spin-off groups, or appointing facilitators; or larger scheduling decisions, notably such as front-loading the COP21 Leader’s Event for Paris, as opposed to the previous back-end practice that puts it in sync with the normal high-level ministerial segment. While all parties have, of course, the ability to make proposals at any time, the COP President is endowed with a special legitimacy to do so.

It is, in short, a role of considerable structural importance in understanding the way in which the UNFCCC process delivers its outcomes to govern intergovernmental action on climate change. It is from the COP President where judgements about which pronounced ‘red lines’ are the ones that really matter to induce agreement, where the political effort to broker, cajole (and even coerce) acceptance of an agreement is made, and where the all-important decision on when to bring the final gavel down, and declare a consensus, is made.

None of the three iterations of the draft Paris Agreement presented by the French during the final week were ‘put on the screen’ for a line-by-line resolution of brackets and options. Instead, after comments aired and further revisions suggested by parties, returned to the black box of the French presidency to make the judgement about what to change, and presented afresh for further rinse-and-repeating.

This method of work is, for better or worse, the current social practice, part and parcel of the negotiating culture of the UNFCCC process. Indeed, the intervention of the COP President in making that compromise proposal is anticipated at the outset, leaving countries often unwilling to budge from their positions in the ‘technical’ preparatory work. Unlike many other travelling multilateral conferences that journey beyond the seats of their secretariats, the COP Presidency is anything but a ceremonial role, requiring a considerable political investment by the host country.

A “Proposal by the President”


Deep pockets
And yet, at the same time, this pivotal political role is one for which the first criteria is a logistical one: whether that country can comfortably host a conference of 10,000+ attendees (as in ‘normal’ recent years), or more like 30,000+ for marquee years such as 2015. The UNFCCC secretariat estimates the cost of hosting a COP meeting at €35-150 million, which is entirely borne by the host country. France’s provisional budget for COP21 was €187m, which will have surely further increased with additional security measures after the November 13 attacks. Peru, the host of the COP20 meeting in Lima, needed a €5m contribution from the EU to host the meeting.

This logistical prerequisite rules out a vast number of countries from assuming the political leadership role of the COP President – certainly, at a minimum, no least developed country and most small island states. The result is that that moderately deep pockets, probably of at least being a middle-income country, are required to host the COP in order to be able to exercise that political, agenda-setting discretion on what kind of agreement to propose. There is a quite profound inequality of opportunity going on here.

From working group chair to COP President
It is worth dwelling on this misfit between logistical capability and political opportunity for a couple of reasons. The first is that this is not a element of the UNFCCC process that has always been around, but part of its evolution at some point in the past 15 years of negotiations. In reflecting on the Paris Agreement’s significance, it is notable that in the agreement of its predecessor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Japanese hosts of the conference were broadly absent from the cut-and-thrust final phase of negotiations. Instead, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Berlin Mandate was chaired throughout its entire 1995-1997 lifespan by Raul Estrada-Oyuela of Argentina, and whose judgement and nerve in gavelling through agreement of key areas of contention receives regular mention in the academic literature

Similarly, the Framework Convention on Climate Change itself was agreed at the final meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in May 1992, such that the document was closed in advance of the Rio Earth Summit itself. The INC had been presided over throughout only by Jean Ripert of France, with no conference ‘host’ to turn to, as the INC, had been generally hosted at various UN conference hubs.

By contrast, after handing over their working document mid-way through COP21 that they had shepherded through four-and-a-half negotiating meetings in 2015, the two co-chairs of the Durban Platform AWG, Ahmed Djoghlaf and Dan Reifsnyder, the final pair in the merry-go-round of ADP co-chairs, were largely absent from the podium and public eye.

At some point in the past 15 years, there has been a distinct transfer of authority from the working group chairman to the COP President.

Intergovernmental arrangements
The second is that this dual-role of both logistical host and political broker is up for discussion in the next couple of years, recognising the intensive demands of hosting the COP. Under the jargon-banner of ‘intergovernmental arrangements’, a slow-burning SBI discussion on the organisation of the COP that has been going for the past few years will now look to be more intensively addressed, following the shift into an ‘implementation’ phase of work as opposed to full-blown political negotiations culminating in the Paris Agreement.

(This segment of discussions is also looking at when the COP President is elected, a procedure normally undertaken at the beginning of the COP. This election means, however, that the incoming COP President actually has no formal role in the meetings preceding the COP – as in all of 2015 up to the beginning of COP21 for France – when a lot of the political expectations and potential areas of compromise are actually being socialised).

One of the more interesting possibilities being mooted (another idea is a shift to biennial rather than annual COPs) is to divorce the hosting responsibilities from the political position of the COP presidency. This would see COPs being rotated between host countries and the UNFCCC’s conference facilities in Bonn, Germany – which would allow for a country to take on the role of the COP President without the commensurate logistical demands. (see para.38-44 of this SBI42 document). Could one of the ‘particularly vulnerable’ small countries thus find themselves holding the pen and being responsible for the gavel, hitherto an impossibility?

(In fact, this has happened twice before, inadvertently – COP2 was supposed to be hosted by Uruguay (21/CP.1), but it later withdrew and Zimbabwe served as the president for COP2, which was convened in Geneva; Jordan initially offered to host COP5 in 1999, but also later withdrew (see para.12 of the SBI10 report), and Poland served as the president for COP5, which was convened in Bonn).

The ADP is dead, long live the APA
In the meantime, until a decision is made, the travelling COP continues, on to Marrakesh in November 2016, and the Asia-Pacific the following year. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform will now be replaced by the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, in all likelihood with a protracted argument over chairing arrangements similar to that experienced by the ADP at its first session in June 2012. These chairs will guide further tricky details that still need to be agreed on (set out in 1/CP.21) to be able to implement the Paris Agreement when it enters into force. The real hotseat, however, to broker agreement and maintain momentum on climate action, will continue to be that of the COP Presidency. And to take on that role, first, host the COP.

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‘Climate security’ and developing country voices

“The impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress”, said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a major set of remarks on climate change and security. Emphasising the threat that climate impacts poses to US national security and broader global peace and stability, Kerry said:

“[T]he reason I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State is not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment. It’s because – by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world – climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere.

“…when we talk about the impacts of climate change, we’re not just up against some really serious ecological challenges. We also have to prepare ourselves for the potential social and political consequences that stem from crop failures, water shortages, famine, outbreaks of epidemic disease, which we saw a near brush with Ebola in three African countries last year. And we have to heighten our national security readiness to deal with the possible destruction of vital infrastructure and the mass movement of refugees, particularly in parts of the world that already provide fertile ground for violent extremism and terror.”

The portrayal of climate change as a security challenge – or in academic terms, the ‘securitisation’ of climate change – is not new. The ‘threat multiplier’ language has been around for much of the past decade, the UN Security Council has held two debates on climate change (in 2007 and earlier this year), and the socioeconomic consequences of drought as a trigger to the Syrian phase of the Arab Spring (and what descended into civil war) is being increasingly noted. There is a lot of talk about ‘greening’ military operations, about the qualitative changes that might be wrought for military missions, implications for ‘other’, conventional efforts at addressing climate change, especially adaptation and resilience-building efforts, and so on.

What does seem new – as an on-off observer of this debate – is not the character of the argument, but who is making it. The novel recent development is not Kerry’s comments (even if there was a very interesting climate mainstreaming announcement about convening a “task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities”), or the welter of reports examining the various aspects of climate security agenda.

Instead, it is the engagement of defence ministries from developing countries on this subject that is the interesting new development. While many of the cases cited as signs of the clear and present need to think of climate change in security terms – Syria, Nigeria, Darfur, etc. – are obviously in developing countries (but not all, cf. the Arctic), the broad argument has not been principally made by Southern voices. Many of these linkages and ‘securitising acts’ have, rather, been led by US, European, and NATO officials and politicians, and by thinktanks and research efforts in developed countries such as CNAS and Chatham House. I interned at the Royal United Services Institute in London for a few months in 2009 on exactly such a climate security project, a sign of how a very traditional, armed services-oriented British thinktank was trying to dip its toe into these waters of the ‘new security’ agenda.

This rarity of having developing country policymakers active in this climate security debates was highlighted by a recent conference in mid-October hosted by France ahead of the COP21 Paris conference, ‘Climat et Défense : quels enjeux?’ – which caught my eye because defence officials from developing countries were indeed participants. There was fairly minimal reporting of this meeting (see VOA here and IISD here), but what is of interest for the moment is who was there: defence ministers from Ghana, Niger, Haiti, Chad, Morocco, Gabon, and the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security (in addition to representation from ‘usual suspects’ of France, UK, Italy and Spain).

Here’s Ghana’s defence minister, Benjamin Kunbuor (bringing to mind David King’s very early contribution on climate change being a greater threat than terrorism):

“Terrorism is significant, but naked hunger is as significant as terrorism,” he said. “And the relationship between terrorist activities and naked hunger are obvious. If you look at the vectors of recruitment into terrorist cells, most of the most vulnerable are hunger-prone areas.”

Roundtable on ‘Extreme Climate Events and Human Security’, at the ‘Climat et défense : quels enjeux?’ conference, 14 October 2015. Photo via defense.gouv.fr

The type of linkage being made is itself now new, trying to sketch the causal chain between climate impacts, scarcity, stability and potential conflict. What is new is when it is made by high-level policymakers in developing countries, especially from defence ministries and not the environment, forestry or energy departments that normally do the running on climate change. This sort of involvement can give climate action a different kind of traction in those countries, especially where climate issues may not be terribly well integrated into conventional ‘economic development’ planning and efforts.

Of course, too, such successful securitisation can have both positive and negative implications on how national response to climate change is structured. The language and political attention of ‘security’ may be offset by the militarisation of the issue and narrow security referents of ‘state’ rather than ‘human’ security. Bureaucracies may battle for budgets, and debate over the relative assessment of ‘risk’ within a society may have its own competitive rather than cooperative dynamics.

‘Climate security’ discourse is notable for having been largely championed by Western officialdom over the past decade. That defence and security establishments in precisely the countries on the frontlines of the impacts of a warming world are now publicly engaging with this subject may make it a more global conversation in the years to come.

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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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A constructivist take on ten years of the Kyoto Protocol

A short while ago, the Kyoto Protocol marked its tenth anniversary of entry into force, to a deafening silence. If it hadn’t been for a useful RTCC piece on this anniversary, it would have entirely passed me by. (An entry into force anniversary is not insignificant for the KP, but a little out of place in broader terms as most treaty anniversaries probably take the conclusion of negotiations on the treaty text as the main symbolic marker).

These ten-year retrospectives have tended to focus on the core single question of whether the protocol has been effective in meeting its objective of emissions reduction, with the UNFCCC Secretariat offering an ebullient comment (a “timely reminder [that] climate agreements work”), and more measured comment elsewhere (a “failure” and that reductions attributable to the the KP’s provisions are “unlikely”). But there are certainly other ways to take stock of the Kyoto Protocol – and in this post, I want to offer a few that are probably of less interest to climate wonks, but perhaps more so to IR constructivists interested in how ideas and norms play out in international politics. What are the ideational takeaways from ten years of the Kyoto Protocol?

The socialization of carbon markets in developing countries
One legacy of the Kyoto Protocol that is widely acknowledged is its use of market mechanisms and emissions trading – not just among developed country parties with binding emission reduction commitments, but including developing countries via the Clean Development Mechanism. The UNFCCC Secretariat counts some 7,800 CDM projects registered since 2005, each intended to facilitate investment and tech transfer from developed countries to developing ones for emission-reduction projects that also contribute to sustainable development.

This marks a pretty dramatic normative change, however, in the normalisation of the idea of emissions trading among developing countries. Before and during the 1995-1997 negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, the very idea of emissions trading between developed and developing countries was viewed with considerable suspicion and wariness by many developing countries – variously, that it would open the doorway to binding mitigation commitments by them; that such trading was an attempt to claim the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of ‘easy’ mitigation opportunities in poorer countries for credit by rich countries; that it was a way for richer countries to avoid domestic mitigation action; and that such trades would violate the sovereignty of developing countries. These were largely reflected in debates on ‘joint implementation’ (JI) – now a mechanism solely between countries with Kyoto mitigation commitments, but initially mooted as a developed-developing country process, and in those Kyoto-era debates, the G77 had opposed even having a clause in Kyoto on JI or emissions trading at all.

Fast forward to 2015, where only a handful of countries retain a principled opposition to the use of markets in addressing climate change (Venezuela and Bolivia the chief protagonists in this regard). This difference in developing country attitudes to markets is striking. While concerns about the environmental integrity and robustness of such market mechanisms (especially in relation to deforestation) remain, the greater concern that has been expressed over the life of the CDM is not that ‘this is the wrong way to address climate change’, but ‘why is my country not on the receiving end of CDM projects’. The normative rise of market mechanisms is perhaps the dramatic example of rapid social learning and ideational change among developing countries over the lifetime of the Kyoto Protocol.

Achievements of the Clean Development Mechanism. Credit: UNFCCC Secretariat


The standard of civilisation and Protocol membership
Another, but more subtle, constructivist perspective on the Kyoto Protocol over the lifetime of its first commitment period has been how it has served as a sort of ‘standard of civilisation’ in early 21st-century international society. This is obviously a reversal of the way in which this term is conventionally applied, as a normative standard imposed from Western states upon the rest – from the original racial hierarchy expressed in colonial practice, to more recent echoes in debates over state failure and humanitarian intervention – but the place of Kyoto Protocol membership and ratification in larger debates on appropriate behaviour in world politics is another remarkable achievement.

The global opprobrium faced by the United States for its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol is the case in point, where the KP was taken as a key example (alongside similar behaviour towards the ABM treaty and the International Criminal Court) of the US turn to hegemonic unilateralism during the George W. Bush administration. In doing so, not ratifying the KP was seen as an abdication of any claim to responsible great power leadership, making it the pariah and rogue state of international environmental politics and remaining ‘outside’ international society. Conversely, Australia’s own belated ratification of Kyoto in 2007, one of the first acts of the Kevin Rudd administration upon assuming office, was also held up as a return of Australia’s return to good international citizenship. Obviously one also needs to add Canada’s own formal withdrawal from the Protocol in 2011 – the only country to have done so, but an act for which it has also faced considerable international censure of a different character to those others (Russia, Japan) who declared that they would not be taking on commitments in the KP’s 2012-2020 second commitment period.

Defying the Kyoto Protocol. Credit: Wolverton/CagleCartoons.com

Defying the Kyoto Protocol. Credit: Wolverton/CagleCartoons.com

Critics point out that the fact that countries can and do walk away from the Kyoto Protocol with no punitive consequences (as well as for noncompliance generally) means that it has been a weak and toothless agreement. But such punitive consequences are rare in international environmental law, however, and we might better understand the KP’s importance through its social significance as a marker of what responsible behaviour in international politics has consisted of over the last two decades.

Path dependence and the road to Paris
Finally, in looking ahead to the anticipated Paris agreement at the end of 2015, taking measure of the Kyoto Protocol also lies in where and how the ideas expressed in the Kyoto Protocol are likely to remain sticky in the design of the new agreement.

For instance, the universality of the UNFCCC regime remains paramount (despite some contention over ‘applicability to all’), which does not seem minor when measured against the flurry of mini-lateral efforts in the late 2000s – the Asia-Pacific Partnership, Major Economies Forum, and all the other institutions giving rise to the ‘fragmentation’ and ‘regime complex’ analyses of the diverse sites of climate action. At the same time, the Paris agreement is not the third commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. At least one thing that is markedly different from Kyoto is the way in which commitments will be reached – ie. not ‘negotiated’ at the international level, but simply submitted via the now-initiated INDC process following being determined domestically.

There are a glut of analyses about what the Paris agreement should ‘learn’ from Kyoto, and in any case, the reality will be upon us very soon. But the package of ‘things to be done’ that will make up the Paris agreement are really a package of ideas and their assumptions about how to go about addressing climate change – things that are fertile ground for constructivists and the study of where these ideas come from.

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The Durban Platform’s procedural innovation – the ‘Chairs’ Informal Reflections’

A new year in the intergovernmental UN climate negotiating process begins soon, following last November’s Warsaw conference with the first session of the Durban Platform working group (ADP) in early March. In this post, I want to offer an observation about a small, but politically and procedurally interesting development in the ADP process – the emergence of the co-chairs’ ‘informal reflections’ on the progress of talks.

It has now become customary for the ADP co-chairs to produce “informal reflections” following each negotiating meeting. These comments have come to serve as a sort of stock-take of recent developments and highlight key areas to be addressed in the coming sessions, across the two workstreams (the 2015 agreement and pre-2020 action) of the Durban Platform. Surprisingly (at least to me), their emergence in the negotiating process has not received much attention, which I will try and highlight here.

The Warsaw ADP ‘dumping ground’
The first and most immediate reason for the importance of these informal reflections is highlighted in the effort to conclude the ADP negotiations at the COP19 Warsaw conference. While one of the stumbling blocks to get over the finishing line was the trade-off between mitigation ‘contributions’ and ‘commitments‘ in the 2015 agreement, a second area that was in dispute in the ADP’s final hours, to which less attention has been subsequently devoted, was a list annexed to the draft conclusions, titled ‘Non-exhaustive list of areas for further reflection’.

This annex effectively listed the main topics to be included in the 2015 agreement and sub-issues needing to be further elaborated in the future: institutional arrangements, differentiation, commitments, mitigation, adaptation, finance, and so on. For instance, the bullet point on adaptation read: “Adaptation: exploring a global goal; ways of strengthening the implementation of national adaptation plans; linking national and global efforts”.

The annex had first emerged in the first draft decision produced by the co-chairs earlier in the week, when it had been titled ‘Indicative elements of the 2015 agreement’ as part of the draft decision (not conclusions). By the fifth draft of the ADP decision, produced on the final night, it had been revised and moved to the conclusions and re-titled as above. Nonetheless, objections were still raised in the interventions that began in the resumed ADP plenary (now lunchtime of the Saturday after the conference was due to close).

First, India commented that the contents of the annex had not been discussed “as elaborately as we would have liked”, and that in their current form that “disturb the balance that we are trying to strike in the decision text”. India thus suggested, however, that the annex be taken out of the conclusions – and that the co-chairs could  “probably capture not only these [the contents of the annex], but all aspects of our discussions, including divergent views, in a reflection note from your side.”

The next intervention, from China, similarly emphasised that the annex included elements that had not yet been fully negotiated and that the list was “firstly, not balanced, secondly, very selective, and thirdly, maybe misleading”. China then added that “We’re not calling for the elements, or the list of areas for further reflection to [be put] into the trash can, but positively recommend [that] you capture [this] in your reflection note after the session. Certainly we will come back to the reflection note…”

A passage that made me sit up, however, was the following response from one of the co-chairs, Kishan Kumarsingh (see approx. 41:00 on the webcast recording here):

“…while the co-chairs are flattered by the many suggestions that should be put into the reflection note…the chairs’ reflection note remains the chairs’ reflection note. It is not for negotiation nor consideration by parties. It remains under the full responsibility of the chairs, and belongs to the co-chairs, but we thank you for the kind suggestion in any event.”

This exchange raises a number of points, but the first is that the co-chairs’ informal reflections seemed to provide a sort of ‘dumping ground’ for ideas and elements in a draft decision that were not fully negotiated, and hence still contentious, but perhaps not completely so – a place to relocate them without completely discarding them. This may be an interesting way of how to handle issues that countries are not in complete disagreement about, but which they have not yet had the time to negotiate over in a line-by-line manner. At Warsaw, once countries agreed to strike the annex, the rest of the draft conclusions proceeded to be be adopted (see the final ADP session report here).

‘Let the co-chairs include these in their reflections, but take it out of the text at hand’ may be a new halfway house in the negotiating process.

Non-negotiable common ground

The second interesting aspect of these informal reflections, however, is the comment cited above about the non-negotiability of the reflections: “It remains under the full responsibility of the chairs”. Something that is “not for negotiation” is a striking comment amid the constant refrain of ‘party-driven process’. Again, this appears to mark a sort of halfway house that is neither just the submissions and views of members, nor draft or agreed language itself, but an attempt to set out in a somewhat impartial way what they see as the common ground. It appears to be a novel way of attempting to capture ideas that do not yet have full agreement, but may be on the way to doing so, and perhaps to avoid losing momentum between negotiating meetings and a reversion to previously articulated positions that a long, drawn-out negotiating process may be prone to.

One earlier note, published after the first Bonn ADP session in 2013, echoes this more directly, when it included two-and-a-half pages of ‘perceived areas of common ground’ as an annex to the reflections proper. This initiative received some pushback from countries at the second Bonn ADP session in 2013, but it nonetheless points to the broad potential of these informal reflections to capture progress in ways short of formal negotiating language itself. The fact that they are not negotiated may be cause for reticence in using them too closely during negotiations themselves, but this same fact may also be a bit of a guiding hand for countries who may be nervous about putting forward a proposal themselves.

The role of the (co-)chairs

The third interesting aspect of these informal reflections, thus, is more generally about the entrepreneurial role of the co-chairs in this UNFCCC negotiating process in their novel creation of this new procedural device. This new method was introduced by the first set of ADP co-chairs in 2012, and then seamlessly continued by their successors such that they are no longer, in this brief span of time, seen as exceptional.

As Joanna Depledge pointed out a few years ago (£), chairpersons in the UNFCCC process already have considerable discretion in the management of conference proceedings. Chairs, as a result of their election, are endowed with a certain degree of authority, even while their leadership is expected to be impartial. They can “act as a third party, and intervene in the negotiating dynamics among parties to cajole, persuade, pressurize, arbitrate, intermediate, or otherwise broker deals”.

In practical terms, they make judgements about the balance of the text, whether in take-it-or-leave-it scenarios or as a result of mandates given by states to synthesize and consolidate proposals into a single text (as in the ‘consolidated negotiating text’ prepared by chair Estrada-Oyuela in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations). During the AWG-LCA negotiations in 2010, a series of ‘indicative questions’ on each issue area was issued by the chair in order to prompt a more focused method of discussion, questions that are perhaps not too dissimilar from the ones being raised by the ADP co-chairs now.

These new ADP reflection notes very much emerge out of this lineage, and they also reflect the even greater roles of the co-chairs in the ADP process (they are also distinct from the ‘scenario notes’ which are typically issued ahead of negotiating meetings that lay out the proposed way of organising the work of the session, see the one issued for the March 2014 ADP session). The UNFCCC website now features a ‘co-chairs’ corner‘ section alongside ADP documentation, perhaps another indication of their status as independent third parties within the negotiating process.

When the first such note was issued after the Bangkok 2012 ADP session, it was caveated at the outset: “This note has been prepared under our own responsibility, and is without prejudice to future negotiations. It is not a basis of negotiations, but made available to Parties to help them in their preparations for Doha”. That first note was also issued without any formal document symbols or formatting. In 2014, a few such informal notes later, there is no need for such caveats about the status of the document – instead, as the co-chair’s comments quoted above suggest, the status of their independence is more assertively put.

The irony may be that this development takes place alongside discussions on the organisation of the UNFCCC negotiations, raised by Russia in wake of the Doha COP, a key element of which seeks to scrutinize the conduct and roles of the chair and presiding officers, as well as the assisting secretariat. Formally titled ‘decision-making in the UNFCCC process’, these ’17(d)’ discussions were the reason for the Bonn sessions of the subsidiary bodies being held up in June 2013, but were convened in an open-ended way in Warsaw to offer  a discussion space for questions on how the negotiations would be conducted. Even as these discussions begin in a formal manner, however, the co-chairs have continued to demonstrate the agency and independence that they possess – as the informal notes indicate.

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Geneva’s Iran nuclear agreement and Warsaw’s climate outcome

“A recent set of international negotiations in a cold European city concluded with a landmark agreement, one that while far from comprehensive, represents a breakthrough in building trust among the different countries. If successfully implemented, it could pave the way for a broader, more far-reaching agreement in the near future that is able to bridge thornier, longstanding differences that have previously proved insurmountable, and make real progress on this issue of wider international concern.”

This was, of course, not the report coming out of the end of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 19th Conference of Parties meeting in Poland last month. But while hundreds were huddled in Warsaw for its late-running closing, this was the news from Geneva over the same weekend, where the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) were successfully concluding a round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Excitement at the Geneva agreement has been striking in comparison with the despondency at the Warsaw conclusions. While the two issues at stake – climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation – may appear distant, some broad parallels may be apt in how a process towards an international agreement is built through monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) procedure.

Monitoring Iranian nuclear enrichment
The broad shape of the Geneva agreement is a commitment whereby Iran will limit its various uranium enrichment activities, and in exchange will receive ‘sanctions relief’ from Western countries. This is an interim agreement, to be implemented over the next six months as a prelude to further discussions on a comprehensive, permanent settlement. It comes on the heels of over a year of Israeli threats to unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability – and many more years of international diplomacy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Iran insists have only peaceful intentions.

Stages of enrichment: Benjamin Netanyahu’s diagram of Israel’s red line in his 2012 UN General Assembly address. Photo: Reuters

The agreed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, however, are meaningful only in the context of assurances that these restrictions are being implemented and lived up to. A core element of the Geneva agreement, therefore, is an increased monitoring process by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors – daily access to Iran’s uranium enrichment plants, increased access to other nuclear-related facilities, and updated information about its heavy-water plant (a key part of the plutonium production process).

While the overall restrictions are themselves significant, it is in this monitoring and inspection process that success of the Geneva agreement (and any long-term agreement) rests. The P5+1 countries brokering the Geneva agreement (and their allies in the region) will need to be satisfied that the agreement is being implemented satisfactorily in order to move towards longer-term issues. Put in more general terms, this is little more than the core challenge of international cooperation (amid international anarchy etc.): how do you work towards realising joint gains amid uncertainty about others’ intentions and the possibility of being taken for a ride?

Thus, this IAEA process is intended to assure Western countries that Iran is indeed in compliance with the agreement by providing greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities. More extensive monitoring and inspection processes raise the likelihood, for Iran, of being caught conducting secret enrichment activities and thereby raises incentives to remain in compliance with the terms of the Geneva agreement. It agrees to bind itself – despite its professed ‘nuclear rights’ – as a means of demonstrating its credibility to its Western interlocutors. A term used frequently in arms control processes (but less familiar in environmental contexts) to describe the value of this stage of negotiation is as a “confidence-building measure”. As Brookings analyst Kenneth Pollack put it, the Geneva agreement is such a step towards reducing suspicions and demonstrate good faith, necessary towards a more comprehensive future deal:

“Neither side trusts the other, but both sides needed to see some tangible manifestation ahead of time, that the other would be willing to do what would be required in a final deal. We needed a demonstration of Iran’s willingness to halt its nuclear progress, give up much of what it has already accomplished, and submit to more comprehensive inspections. And Iran needed to see that the international community (read: the U.S.) would be willing to provide sanctions relief and allow Iran to retain some limited enrichment capacity, albeit with guarantees and safeguards that it would be solely for civilian purposes.”

These elements of the Geneva agreement – the importance of reporting and verification, and the larger process of building mutual confidence – are instructive in turning to the outcomes of the Warsaw climate conference.

Monitoring climate progress
While much of the headlines at COP19 and its aftermath focused on progress (and lack thereof) on loss and damage, finance, and the Durban Platform process towards the envisaged 2015 agreement, on two other issues agreement was more forthcoming: the climate regime’s MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification) processes, and detailed rules on deforestation (REDD+), the latter being described as COP19’s “singular achievement”.

While I am not an expert in the details of either topics, both are crucial building blocks for the prospect of stronger commitments in the future. The MRV outcomes included agreement on the the ‘team of technical experts’ to carry out the ‘international consultation and analysis’ (ICA) process in developing countries; new guidelines for reviewing periodic reports (i.e. national communications, GHG inventories and biennial reports) by developed countries; and general guidelines for the domestic MRV of domestically supported actions in developing countries. These MRV provisions for developing countries are not insignificant (once upon a time, wariness at developing countries having to ‘report’ anything about their emissions to the international level led to the original Framework Convention on Climate Change’s reporting procedure being called ‘national communications’), and were first outlined back in 2010 at the Cancun COP. Agreement on their terms of operation is an important step forward and sets the stage for “2014 being a big year for MRV” with many of the first deadlines for these new procedures looming. Indeed, the rather uneven levels of commitments being taken (some states are Kyoto Protocol members, others are not; different countries use different frameworks of measurement, and so on) has highlighted the importance of MRV processes to ensure that different types of action are indeed “comparable” in the bigger global picture.

Monitoring, reporting and verification issues also loomed large on the REDD+ agenda and reached a package of related decisions (see fuller summaries of the COP19 REDD+ progress here and here). The question of how developing countries should be supported for reducing deforestation/forest degradation has centrally been about how progress is to be ‘MRVed’ in order for “results-based finance” to flow: how are safeguards for impacts on indigenous communities to be met; how are baselines against which progress is to be judged to be measured; how countries will report on and show that emission reductions from deforestation are genuine, and so on. The gestation of the REDD+ agenda has also been a long-winding one since its formal entry onto the UNFCCC agenda in 2005, and agreement on the important scientific minutiae of how to count progress on reducing deforestation/degradation is, to a certain extent, playing catch-up with action taking place outside of the UNFCCC sphere.

In both these areas the main concern is the same –  as it is with the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme: building a set of rules that can provide transparency about the action that governments are taking, in order to prevent backsliding and provide a basis for more far-reaching international cooperation. The same trade-offs exist in both the climate and nuclear domains, between intrusions on sovereignty and providing assurances to others about the sincerity of one’s actions and intentions – the hope being, of course, that this making this trade-off will help all to realise mutual benefits (respectively, more robust global climate action and a world less at risk of nuclear war).

But it is that phrase above, confidence-building measures, that may also help make sense of this area of progress in the climate negotiations. MRV processes are not in themselves going to do much to address climate change if the overall commitments are weak, and much of COP19’s conclusions were indeed weak. But without such MRV processes, countries are going to be much less willing to act jointly – and this applies as much to the MRV of ‘actions’ as it does to the MRV of ‘support’ (the triumvirate of finance, technology transfer and capacity building) to implement emission-reducing activities. Investing time and energy in designing and reviewing the MRV system is a key purpose of a genuinely ‘multilateral’ system, so that everyone can be sure about the rules that others are playing by. As confidence grows that others are indeed playing by the rules they signed up to, then both commitments and their verification can be deepened.

(For an excellent discussion of this deepening process has worked in arms control negotiations, and lessons for the climate process, see this 2012 World Resources Institute report).

Certainly, important gaps remain to be filled in the reporting framework for future climate action, and the COP19 MRV provisions are far from the whole picture. But my point here has been, amid the general pessimism at 2013’s climate change progress (Christiana Figueres excepted), to suggest reason for a little bit of cheer from the Warsaw conference. How to count carbon and measure actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are never going to be the headline outcomes from the international effort to address climate change. But like the parallel talks on nuclear non-proliferation, the details of MRV processes, and their role in edging parties in a stepwise fashion towards mutual ‘trust’ and confidence in each other, are essential to the prospect of any longer-term action.

(A final footnote: in the period between Warsaw/Geneva and writing this post, a new WTO agreement was concluded in Bali, a conclusion to the Doha Round launched back in 2001 and repeatedly stuttered in the ensuing decade. For some time now, the sluggishness of the UNFCCC process has been compared to this ‘dead’ WTO one. Without delving into any of its substance here, though, may there be other lessons for multilateral cooperation?)

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