Why Global Climate Change Policies Are So Darn Hard to Negotiate

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was negotiated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio in June of that year. Since 1995, the parties to the convention have met annually to assess progress dealing with climate change, and to negotiate treaties and provisions to try and reduce the impact of climate change. One of the outcomes of the UNFCCC, for instance, is the Kyoto Protocol, established in 1997.

Last year, I had the honor of attending the first week of negotiations of the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP18), in Doha, Qatar, as a student delegate with Georgetown University. I was responsible for following negotiations related to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).

The grandiose conference brings together 195 official parties, hundreds of negotiators, research organizations, and environmental NGOs and activists. It is a truly captivating atmosphere. Nevertheless, as I quietly attended open-to-observer meetings, and snuck into some others, I couldn’t help but notice a few deficiencies and obstacles in the UNFCCC process. In the interest of length, I discuss the four I found most glaring in this article. They are: (1) it is very legal; (2) domestic constraints on negotiators; (3) language barriers; (4) it is slow.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the negotiations have a heavy legal facet to them. Countries fight relentlessly over word-choice, to prevent themselves from being trapped in the future. On one instance, negotiators spent almost the entire period allotted to an REDD meeting discussing to use “should” or “shall” in a particular sentence. The sentence read: “[shall/should] take into account the guidance provided by [a guideline established in Bonn]”. Brazil fervently argued that the word should be “should.” Ethiopia agreed. The EU thought “shall” was more appropriate. Uganda proposed deleting “should” and “shall” and changing it to “taking into consideration the guidance.” The parties didn’t like this.

In this way, no decision was made, and a side meeting was arranged to settle the matter in “overtime;” and it was the same in several other meetings I attended. This hurts the process of the COP. The perhaps unavoidable legal debates that ensue in apparently every meeting take away the focus from actual climate change, and reveal the very specific national interests at play. It slows down the entire process, and is a testimony to the difficulties of creating a legal document that is supposedly going to be honored by almost 200 nations.

The second item on my list refers to the domestic constraints that negotiators bring to the table with them. I remember vividly when my accompanying professor told us that if we had to remember that even lead negotiators also had a boss to whom they report back to. As such, they are restricted in the compromises they can make. One of the main defenses delivered by U.S. negotiators and supporters, for example, is that they simply could not sign on to promises to which they knew would not get the support of the U.S. Congress. At the time, engulfed as I was in the entire atmosphere, and infused with Brazilian nationalism, I was appalled by this train of thought. But I must admit there is some merit to this argument, and it can be a very hard constraint to get around.

Third, many negotiators have to deal with language barriers. Most obviously, the official language of negotiations is English, and there are a limited amount of translators to a very limited amount of languages. Many meetings, as was the case with all REDD meetings which I attended, had no translators at all. The result is that many negotiators seriously struggle in doing what they need to do: negotiate. I distinctly remember the difficulty an Indonesian negotiator had in expressing Indonesia’s points; I could barely take down notes since I had a hard time understanding what she was saying.

On another occasion, the Ethiopian negotiator explicitly complained that the text contained “a lot of big words,” and asked for clarification on the phrase “comprehensive and holistic national forest monitoring system” – he had trouble with the word “holistic.” In the end, although this may seem trivial to a fluent English-speaker, the obstacles imposed by language are significant. To negotiate effectively, diplomats need to have a good grasp of the language being used in negotiations. This was not the case in COP18. The results are both an obvious slowdown of the entire process, and an inadvertent bias in favor of those parties that have a better level of English.

The final item on my list is perhaps the most obvious, but it still merits a few words. When you throw 195 parties in a conference center to negotiate climate change, dealing with everyone’s interests is a notoriously lethargic process, especially in light of the previous three factors discussed in this article. There are many coalitions, and there are too many conflicts of interest. It is indicative that, as my experienced accompanying professor pointed out to us, most of the decisions only come about in the very final days, even hours, of the conference. And at the end of the day, negotiators and observers most times leave the conference with a feeling that nothing was accomplished at all.

Ultimately, the entire process is just very slow and deficient relative to the urgency that is climate change. Although I was only there for the first week, it didn’t seem like negotiators were on course to settle on anything major. In fact, it seems like this is case with most COPs.

The solution?

I have no idea. I do, however, remember reading an essay for the Introduction to International Relations course I took during freshmen year that suggested a smaller negotiating platform was needed. The paper, by international relations scholar David Victor, suggested a “k-group,” including the top 10 emitters plus Brazil and Indonesia (two of the top emitters of carbon dioxide from changes in land use). The number 12, he argues, is sufficient to create significant change and to overcome (or at least alleviate) the difficulties of the number-heavy process that is currently underway. It seems like an interesting suggestion, although there are many issues to take into consideration. A “k-group,” for example, would be exclusionary by definition, and would most likely not be welcomed by those nations that are left out of it. In any case, the solution would certainly not create efficiency for environmental diplomacy – it would probably still have many deficiencies.

In the end, the process of climate negotiations is fundamentally troublesome, and this is something to take into consideration as we deliberate possible steps forward for climate change. It looks like environmental diplomats are fated to travel on a very rocky road.

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