from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Is It Time to Move Beyond the UN Climate Talks?

December 12, 2011

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It has become a tradition after the annual United Nations climate negotiations for analysts to lament the dysfunctional nature of the process, and to argue that we’d be better off cutting the talks down to the few countries that really matter. After all, the world’s twenty top greenhouse gas emitters account for north of eighty percent of global emissions. Why bother with all the extra complexity entailed in the UN talks?

I’ve been guilty of making the argument myself. In 2008, a task force for which I was staff director argued that if the UN talks couldn’t be made to work, a smaller group would need to take up the task. I made an even more categorical case for a shift away from the UN talks in a Foreign Affairs article the next year, and followed that up, after Copenhagen, with further arguments in the same vein.

Over the past year, though, I’ve become considerably more skeptical of the idea. To understand why, it’s useful to ask why one would expect a smaller group to make progress where the UN talks haven’t. The most popular argument proceeds on simple efficiency grounds: with nearly two hundred countries, energy is sucked away by fundamentally unimportant negotiations, leaving little time to make real progress. As defenders of the UN talks point out, though, the big countries regularly step aside to negotiate final outcomes. There is little to prevent them from negotiating efficiently within the broader UN milieu.

The other case, which gets a lot less attention, focuses on the fact that negotiating in small groups allows parties to more carefully tailor the deals that they make. In a small group, for example, the United States could agree to help facilitate access to nuclear technology for India in exchange for greater cuts in Indian carbon intensity; in the UN talks, such trades can only be accomplished through a messy proliferation of side agreements that are not integral to the ultimate outcomes. This is, in essence, the case that David Victor has made for a small group that would pursue “Climate Accession Deals” akin to the deals that countries make in order to join the WTO.

This is a much more compelling case for the virtues of small group negotiations, but it has a big Achilles heel. Its premise, which is often ignored by its partisans, is that there is a group of enthusiastic nations that are willing to pay – in political favors, access to carbon markets, or cash – for emissions-cutting action by more reluctant powers. The purpose of the intimate negotiations is to arrange those transactions.

But where are the enthusiastic nations? They are few if any today. Most Europeans remain more eager than anyone else, but they are increasingly strained, both economically and politically. They are willing to lecture others, and to act at home, but their ability to help out abroad is more limited. The United States can offer political assistance that might aid with others’ low-carbon development, but neither much money nor access to a robust U.S. carbon market is in the foreseeable offing. Japan, which has stepped up in the past, remains preoccupied with other matters.

All of this suggests that were leaders of, say, the G-20 or the Major Economies Forum to meet and discuss climate, not much different would result. Such a grouping could have other advantages: in particular, it could be used to force leaders to defend progress on past climate commitments, with greater personal embarrassment in the case of failure. Moreover, fundamental changes in the attitudes of several key powers could bring the world to a point where small group negotiations could add serious leverage to the system. For the time being, though, it isn’t the shape of the table that’s the main thing retarding progress.