The climate negotiations process: getting nowhere?

Dr Annalisa Savaresi

Dr Annalisa Savaresi

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been ratified by virtually all states in the world. The Convention acknowledges that the adverse effects of global climate change are a common concern of humankind, and undertakes to achieve ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.’

Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. Therefore, the Convention does not set out to halt climate change altogether, but to contain its impact and allow human and natural systems to adapt to its effects. Over twenty years after its adoption, however, the UNFCCC has achieved little in the way of concrete results. Greenhouse gas emissions are higher than ever and parties are far from being on a path to reaching the objective of the Convention. So what went wrong?

The main instrument adopted to achieve the objective of the UNFCCC, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, has been riddled with controversy. With the Protocol, a relatively small group of developed countries undertook binding emission reduction targets that were to be reviewed over time. After the elapse of the first commitment period in 2012, however, it has proven impossible to negotiate new targets for some important players, such as Japan, New Zealand and the Russian Federation, whereas others, like Canada and the US, are not parties to the Protocol. This situation has left the European Union and a few other developed countries, like Australia, Norway and Switzerland, in the uncomfortable position of being the sole parties with emission reduction targets under the climate regime. Emission reductions in these countries alone, however, are greatly inadequate to achieve the objective of the Convention. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has on several occasions clarified that to achieve such an objective, both developed and developing countries need to reduce their emissions.

With political will behind the Kyoto Protocol faltering, and in the hope to bring the US and Canada back to the negotiation table, UNFCCC parties have embarked upon the difficult process of negotiating a new climate agreement. This process has suffered numerous set-backs, most notably, at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, where it almost collapsed. Negotiations continue to this day and are expected to conclude in Paris in 2015. The road to Paris is nevertheless laden with obstacles and limited progress has so far been made towards the elaboration of a text for the new agreement. With yet another disappointing inter-sessional meeting just concluded in Bonn, it seems timely to reflect on how climate negotiations could be made more effective.

Some authors have come up with suggestions. In a 2011 paper, Bodansky suggests that some aspects of the climate change issue, such emissions in the transport sector, be addressed in other international fora, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The advantage of relying upon these fora lies in that they already count the states that most matter in these sectors amongst their members, and also have specialist expertise enabling to address technical questions in a more efficient and expeditious way than the UNFCCC. Isolating certain sources of emissions and delegating the adoption of internationally coordinated measures to specialist international fora therefore definitely sounds like a promising approach. So far, however, experiments with this strategy have delivered mixed results. While the IMO has already adopted standards on energy efficiency of international shipping, the ICAO is struggling to develop a global market-based mechanism to addressing international aviation emissions. Thus reaching agreement in these specialist fora is not necessarily easier than under the UNFCCC. Much anticipation presently surrounds the consideration of proposals to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (which are major of greenhouse gases) under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Another approach to increase efficiency in international climate governance is proposed by Vihma and Kulovesi, who suggest to improving the UNFCCC process with procedural reforms. Procedural wrangling has characterized the history of the UNFCCC and even blocked meetings of the Convention’s bodies. One matter that has attracted much attention is that of majority voting. Presently decision-making under the climate regime is carried out on the basis of consensus, as no agreement could be reached on the adoption of rules on voting. While UNFCCC parties have shown little political appetite for addressing the matter of voting, the UNFCCC Secretariat has recently been asked to prepare a paper evaluating options on the frequency and organization of sessions. This largely technical debate on how frequently the Convention’s bodies meet and where may have some important implications for how its parties will work in future.

Finally, coalitions of willing state and non-state actors are increasingly establishing transnational initiatives, bypassing the stalemate affecting international climate negotiations with bottom-up climate governance endeavours. In this vein, the recent UN Climate Summit saw the launch of a flurry of bottom-up initiatives, including:

Thus, while climate negotiations continue at a glacial pace, other international fora and coalition of willing state and non-state actors show some timid signs of progress. The underlying question, however, is whether these alternatives are capable of delivering adequate action to tackle the climate problem.

Background reading:

Vihma, A. and K. Kulovesi. Strengthening global climate change negotiations: improving the efficiency of the UNFCCC process (2012), available at:

Bodansky, D. Multilateral climate efforts beyond the UNFCCC (2011) available at:

Bodansky, D. and Rajamani, L. Evolution and governance architecture of the climate regime (2012) available at:

The Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, Institutions for International Climate Governance (2010) available at:

The Economist, Climate change: theatre of the absurd (2012)

GRIST, Is there any hope for international climate talks? (2014)

New York Times, Climate realities (2014)

Dr Annalisa Savaresi specialises in European, international and comparative environmental law. Her research interests include climate change, forestry, environmental liability and the relationship between human rights and the environment. She is member of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law and writer for the Earth Negotiation Bulletin, published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Since 2013, she has been Research Fellow to the BENELEX project, responsible for legal research in the areas of climate change and forest biodiversity.

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