As we approach the grim milestone CO2 concentration of 400 ppm in the atmosphere, pushing even farther away from the quasi-utopian mark of 350 ppm which would guarantee a safer living environment for humankind on this planet, global environmental politics, especially the part regarding greenhouse gases, needs to be seriously re-evaluated. Is the regime built around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) facilitating cooperation and producing sound results? If not, how can the international society achieve these goals and what are the obstacles to it?
The UNFCCC was born on the context of the end of the Cold War, in the frenzy of the Boutros-Boutros Ghali agenda of great conferences and in the apex of the world’s environmental goodwill, the UNCED Rio-92. It went effective in 1994 and in 1997 the regime around the Convention produced its most relevant document: the Kyoto Protocol (KP), establishing mandatory emissions reductions goals to developed countries. KP’s objectives, unambitious from their very inception, were not, in many cases, a real constraint to action, and the Doha extension of the Protocol for a second term on the same principles was met with relative discredit.
Other results of the regime, such as the Copenhagen Accords and the Cancún Agreements, are also deemed largely insufficient, and expectative around the Conference of the Parties (COPs) diminishes every year, leading to skepticism about the regime’s real capacity of actually achieving “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, as laid out in the article second of the Convention. The regime is mostly on a stalemate, and agreements are many times reached at the eleventh hour, ending up without adequate form and content: the controversial conclusion of the COP-15 in Copenhagen is still today resented by some negotiators, which criticize the way in which the conference’s chair and some closer countries pushed through an agreement outside the proper framework.
This happens mainly because of two issues: the first one is the lack of a formal voting procedure at COP plenaries – the Rules of Procedure drafted back in 1996 were never adopted – which means that every binding decision must be voted by consensus. While this is an important asset for smaller countries such as Tuvalu, whose will and voice cannot be ignored, this means also, effectively, that the lower common ground will be the norm. Any ambitious streaks are played down by the consensus rule.
The second issue is more important because it lies at the center of the regime, and it regards a fundamental dispute over what countries will pay the burden for, among other things, greenhouse gas mitigation. Article 3 of the Convention brings forth the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities, and this is the reason why countries like China and India were not included in the list of binding objectives of the KP. Nevertheless, the absence of such countries is a deal-breaker for many, such as the United States of America, which famously refused to sign the Protocol.
If the regime centered on the Convention is not progressing at the necessary pace to stop the world from bulldozing over important planetary boundaries, the world needs to find an adequate negotiating framework to deal with these issues. A “Climate G15”, involving the world’s 15 largest GHG emitters, would possibly be an adequate locus for these discussions. Firstly, this group comprises almost 85% of the world’s emissions, which means that an ambitious decision would most likely have an effective impact. Secondly, the group’s looser framework would enable high-level discussions and decisions without the hassle of consensus-making. Thirdly, the composition of the group, comprising developed as well as emerging countries – but no least-developed countries, which would have difficulties in committing to climate objectives – would enable a cross-talk which is fundamental to ensure climate safety in the planet.
This idea is not, in itself, a novelty. Mancur Olson, in his 1965 book The Logic of Collective Action, had already stated that “the larger the group, the farther it will fall short of providing an optimal amount of a collective good”. The UNFCCC itself works through the coordination of smaller groups within the regime, such as the G77 or the “Umbrella Group”. These groups are very important but, as they are confined to the logic of the regime, they share its shortcomings.
This existence of the “Climate G15” wouldn’t necessarily mean that the UNFCCC process would be over, because there are many important issues which need a larger, more democratic participation, such as adaptation to climate change and technology transfer. The better understanding among the world’s largest emitters could even be a boost to the regime, because the fundamental disagreements lying at the center of the great stalemate would be dealt with more effectively at the G15.
Nevertheless, the setting up of such a group, if it were to be effective, would need great amounts of political will, especially from emergent countries, which would move from a mostly voluntary commitment situation to a binding mechanism negotiated between a few parties, and a direct agreement on cost-sharing which would probably be different, and costlier, from what is on the negotiation tables today for both developed and developing countries. This is a difficult solution and any steps in this direction would have to be finely negotiated, but a strong, committed agreement between the fundamental actors may be just what the world needs for a decisive step towards tackling catastrophic climate change.
Henrique Fialho Barbosa is graduated in International Relations by the University of Brasília (firstname.lastname@example.org).