Think Again: Climate Treaties

Why the glacial pace of climate diplomacy isn't ruining the planet.

Top image: Illustration by Maayan Pearl; photo by Joel Simon/Getty Images
Top image: Illustration by Maayan Pearl; photo by Joel Simon/Getty Images
Top image: Illustration by Maayan Pearl; photo by Joel Simon/Getty Images

"An Ironclad Treaty Is the Only Way to Save the Planet."


Time is running short for the international community to tackle climate change.

“An Ironclad Treaty Is the Only Way to Save the Planet.”


Time is running short for the international community to tackle climate change.

Pressure to act comes from rising temperatures and sea levels, superstorms, brutal droughts, and diminishing food crops. It also comes from fears that these problems are going to get worse. Modern economies have already boosted the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. If the world stays on its current course, CO2 levels could double by century’s end, potentially raising global temperatures several more degrees. (The last time the planet’s CO2 levels were so high was 15 million years ago, when temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today.)

Another source of pressure, however, is self-imposed. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the next global climate treaty — to be negotiated among some 200 countries, with the central goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions — should be enacted in 2015, to replace the now-outmoded 1997 Kyoto Protocol. (Once passed by state parties, the new treaty would actually go into effect in 2020.)

The race against both nature and the diplomatic clock is stressful. But in the rush to do something, the international community — most notably, and ironically, those individuals and organizations most fervent about combating global warming — is often doing the wrong thing. It has become fixated on the notion of consensus codified in international law.

The U.N. process for climate diplomacy has been in place for more than two decades, punctuated since 1995 by annual meetings at which countries assess global progress in protecting the environment and negotiate treaties and other agreements to keep the ball rolling. Kyoto was finalized at the third such conference. A milestone, it established targets for country-based emissions cuts. Its signal failure, however, was leaving the world’s three largest emitters of greenhouse gases unconstrained, two of them by design. Kyoto gave developing countries, including China and India, a blanket exemption from cutting emissions. Meanwhile, the United States bristled at its obligations — particularly in light of the free pass given to China and India — and refused to ratify the treaty.

Still, Kyoto was lauded by many because it was a legally binding accord, a high bar to clear in international diplomacy. The agreement’s provisions were compulsory for countries that ratified it; violating them would invite a stigma — a reputation for weaseling out of promises deemed essential to saving the planet.

Today, the principle of “if you sign it, you stick to it” continues to guide a lot of conventional thinking about climate diplomacy, particularly among the political left and international NGOs, which have been driving forces of U.N. climate negotiations, and among leaders of developing countries that are not yet major polluters but are profoundly affected by global warming. For instance, in the lead-up to the last annual U.N. climate conference — held in Warsaw, Poland, in November 2013 — Oxfam International’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said the world should not accept a successor agreement to Kyoto that has anything less than the force of international law: “Of course not.… If it’s not legally binding, then what is it?” Ultimately, Byanyima and other civil society leaders walked out of the conference to protest what they viewed as a failure to take steps toward a new, ironclad treaty.

The frustration in Warsaw showed an ongoing failure among many staunch advocates of climate diplomacy to learn the key lesson of Kyoto: Legal force is the wrong litmus test for judging an international framework. Idealized multilateralism has become a trap. It only leads to countries agreeing to the lowest common denominator — or balking altogether.

Evidence shows that a drive for the tightest possible treaty obligations has the perverse effect of provoking resistance. In a seminal 2011 study of climate diplomacy, David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, concluded, “The very attributes that made targets and timetables so attractive to environmentalists — that they set clear, binding goals without much attention to cost — made the Kyoto treaty brittle because countries that discovered they could not honor their commitments had few options but to exit.”

This argument may sound like one made by many political conservatives, who opposed Kyoto and have long been wary of treaties in general. But the point is not that international efforts are useless. It is that global agreements are most useful when they include a healthy measure of realism in the demands that they make of countries. Instead of insisting on a binding agreement, diplomats must identify what governments and other actors, like the private sector, are willing to do to combat global warming and develop mechanisms to choreograph, incentivize, and monitor them as they do it. Otherwise, U.N. talks will remain a dialogue of the deaf, as the Earth keeps cooking.

“The Biggest Problem Is That Leaders Lack the Political Will to Craft a Treaty.”


To explain multilateralism’s recent failures, from the Kyoto Protocol to the Warsaw conference, its most fervent advocates often take aim at the same purported stumbling block: the spinelessness of politicians. Fainthearted presidents and prime ministers shy away from commitments to protect the planet because it is more politically expedient to focus on economic growth, no matter the environmental consequences.

Thanks to this conventional wisdom, “political will” has become a loaded term. If a leader doesn’t sign on to a tough, legally binding treaty, he or she must be morally bankrupt. Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland who now runs a foundation dedicated to climate change issues, has called the “legal character” of climate agreements “an expression of or an extension of political will.” Meanwhile, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, has written that he hopes governments will “find the political will to act beyond short-sighted electoral cycles and the corrupting influence of some business elites.”

The fallacy of the political will argument, however, is that it assumes everyone already agrees on the steps necessary to address climate change and that the only remaining task is follow-through. It is true that the weight of scientific evidence tells us humanity can only spew so many more gigatons of CO2 into the air before subjecting the planet and its inhabitants to dire consequences. But the only guidance this gives policymakers is that they must transition to low-carbon economies, stat. It does not tell them how they should do this or how they can do it most efficiently, with the least cost incurred. As a result, advocates of strict climate treaties hammer home the imperative for environmental action without providing for discussion about how countries can actually transform their economies in practice.

Consider environmental author and activist Bill McKibben’s comments in early 2013 praising Germany for using more renewable energy: “There were days last summer when Germany generated more than half the power it used from solar panels within its borders. What does that tell you about the relative role of technological prowess and political will in solving this?”

Unfortunately, it tells us very little. It doesn’t tell us what it would take to stretch the reliance on solar energy beyond some sunny German days or the subsidy levels required to make solar power a more widely used energy source. It also tells us nothing about how we could translate Germany’s accomplishments to countries with very different political and economic circumstances. And it doesn’t explain what would induce those diverse countries to accept a multilateral arrangement boosting the global use of renewable energy. All McKibben’s factoid tells us is that the myth of political will is quite powerful.

Certainly, economic imperatives should not override environmental ones. Yet the standard for climate diplomacy should not be broad appeals for boldness that ask policymakers to deny trade-offs rather than wrestle with them — particularly in the countries that the world needs most in the fight against global warming.

“China and India Are Ruining Our Chances to Avert Global Catastrophe.”


Last fall, after the Warsaw meeting, many experts and pundits were quick to place blame for the gathering’s tumult. “The India Problem: Why is it thwarting every international climate agreement?” a headline on Slate demanded. Other observers scorned India and China for saying they would not make “commitments” to greenhouse gas cuts in the 2015 climate agreement. (The meeting’s attendees ultimately settled on the word “contributions.”)

These complaints, however, are increasingly out of date.

It’s true that, throughout most of the 2000s, China and India clung to the exemption that the Kyoto Protocol had granted them, arguing that the industrialized world had caused global warming and that developing countries shouldn’t be deprived of their own chance to prosper. This has induced great anxiety because, since 2005, China’s annual share of CO2 emissions has grown from around 16 percent to more than 25 percent, while India has emerged as the world’s third-largest carbon emitter. In short, without China and India, progress on climate change will be virtually impossible.

By 2010, however, Beijing and New Delhi had begun to change their stance. A desire to save face diplomatically, combined with increasing pollution at home and domestic need for energy efficiency, have made China and India more willing to cut emissions than ever before.

Chinese leaders in particular are eager to recast their country as an environmental paragon, rather than a pariah. Some analysts attribute this shift to China’s aspirations to global prominence. Playing off the popular idea of the “Chinese century,” Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, has said, “If it’s your century, you don’t obstruct — you lead.” Recently, China has taken significant steps forward with green energy, mimicking many of the regulations and mandates that have helped the United States achieve environmental progress. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric power now provide one-quarter of China’s electricity-generating capacity. More energy is being added to China’s grid each year from clean sources than from fossil fuels. And in a show of its willingness to step up to the diplomatic plate, China signed an accord with the United States in 2013 that scales down emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, which are so-called super-greenhouse gases.

Yet these changes have not substantially bent the curve of China’s total emissions. According to Chris Nielsen and Mun Ho of Harvard University’s China Project, this is largely because the country’s rapid economic growth makes the tools that have slowed emissions in other economies less effective in China: “[T]he unprecedented pace of China’s economic transformation makes improving China’s air quality a moving target.” Ultimately, Nielsen and Ho argue, the only way for China to rein in emissions will be to attach a price to carbon, through either a tax or a cap-and-trade system. As if on cue, China is now setting up municipal and provincial markets in which polluters can trade emissions credits, with the goal of creating a national market by 2016.

The point here is that the leaders of countries with rapidly developing economies cannot predict environmental payoffs with any real confidence. Tools that work well for others may not for them. That’s why China and India are hesitant to sign legally binding treaties, which would put them on the hook to hit targets that could prove much harder to reach than anticipated. They don’t want to undertake costly reforms that might not have the predicted benefits, and they do not want to risk the hefty criticism that failure to abide by a treaty would surely bring.

Chinese and Indian leaders realize they’ll be judged by their contributions to a cleaner environment, and they embrace the challenge. (Recently in India, more than 20 major industry players launched an initiative to cut emissions.) And they are apt to be less guarded on the international stage if a new climate agreement functions as a measuring stick, not a bludgeon — much like the 2009 Copenhagen accord has done.

“But Copenhagen Was a Catastrophe.”


In December 2009, the U.N.’s annual climate conference, hosted in Copenhagen, produced an agreement that is still roundly condemned by environmentalists, the leaders of developing countries, and political liberals alike. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement let countries voluntarily set their own targets for emissions cuts over 10 years. “The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight,” the executive director of Greenpeace U.K. declared when the deal was reached. Lumumba Di-Aping, the chief negotiator for a group of developing countries known as the G-77, which had wanted major polluters like the United States to take greater responsibility for global warming, said the agreement had “the lowest level of ambition you can imagine.”

In reality, however, the conference wasn’t a fiasco. It offered the basis for a promising, more flexible regime for climate action that could be a model for the 2015 agreement.

The Copenhagen agreement had a number of advantages. It didn’t have to be ratified by governments, which can delay implementation by years. Moreover, in an important new benchmark for climate negotiations, the agreement set the goal of preventing a global average temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, with all countries’ emission cuts to be gauged against that objective. This provision went to the heart of climate diplomacy’s collective-action problem: Apportioning responsibility for cutting emissions among countries is always tricky, but the 2-degree target creates a shared definition of success.

Most importantly, however, the shift to voluntary pledges showed the first glimmers of lessons learned from the most common mistakes of climate negotiations. In the U.N. process, countries usually operate by consensus: They must all agree on each other’s respective climate goals, a surefire recipe for dysfunction. (In 2010, the chair of annual climate talks refused to let a single delegation — Bolivia — block consensus, which counts as a daring move at U.N. conferences.)

Under Copenhagen, by contrast, countries can pledge to do their share while remaining within their comfort zones as dictated by circumstances back home. For instance, faced with economic imperatives to continue delivering high growth, China and India pledged at Copenhagen to reach targets pegged relative to carbon intensity (emissions per unit of economic output) rather than absolute levels of greenhouse gases. This was as far as they were willing to go — but it was further than they’d ever gone before.

Admittedly, the Copenhagen conference wasn’t perfect. The deal was struck on the conference’s tail end, after U.S. President Barack Obama barged in on a meeting already under way among the leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Many of the other delegates registered outrage that the five leaders had negotiated a deal in private by having the conference merely “take note” of the accord.

But the following year’s U.N. conference fleshed out the Copenhagen framework, and it has since gained enough legitimacy that 114 countries have agreed to the accord and another 27 have expressed their intention to agree. Taken together, this includes the world’s 17 largest emitters, responsible for 80 percent of carbon-based pollution.

The Copenhagen accord will expire as the Kyoto successor agreement takes effect in 2020. But it shouldn’t be viewed as just a stopgap. In giving governments more flexibility, Copenhagen offers the chance to build more confidence — and ambition — where historically there has only been uncertainty and rancor. Any future climate agreement should do the same.

“Countries Will Never Keep Mere Promises to Cut Emissions.”


The most obvious criticism of Copenhagen’s system, of course, is that, while it is nice for countries to set voluntary goals, they will never meet them unless they are legally compelled to do so. That is why, just after the Copenhagen deal was reached, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hastily said, “I know what we really need is a legally binding treaty as quickly as possible.”

To date, there has been progress on meeting targets set under Copenhagen. The United States and the European Union, for instance, are all within reach of meeting their 10-year goals, perhaps even ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, China’s pledge to cut carbon intensity, based on 2005 levels, has become the framework for the country’s new emissions-trading markets.

But the most important reason to have confidence in the Copenhagen deal lies in its provisions for measurement, reporting, and verification. If done right, these so-called MRV mechanisms will alert the world as to how countries are (or are not) reducing greenhouse gases, while also pushing states to keep pace toward pledged cuts.

MRVs rely on peer pressure. Countries report to and monitor one another, tracking and urging progress. This kind of system has already proved effective in a variety of international policy areas. For instance, the Mutual Assessment Process of the G-20 and International Monetary Fund brings together the major economic powers to discuss whether their respective policies are helping to maximize global economic growth or are instead widening imbalances between export- and consumer-based economies. The process is fairly new, but already, it is widely credited with prodding China — long reluctant to discuss these issues in multilateral forums (sound familiar?) — to let its currency appreciate and to make boosting domestic consumption a main plank of its five-year (2011-2015) plan.

MRVs have also proved valuable in narrower climate regimes, such as the European Union’s cap-and-trade mechanism. As a 2012 Environmental Defense Fund report explained, “[B]ecause EU governments based the system’s initial caps and emissions allowance allocation on estimates of regulated entities’ emissions … governments issued too many emissions allowances (‘over-allocation’). Now, however, caps are established on the basis of measured and verified past emissions and best-practices benchmarks, so over-allocation is less of a problem.” In other words, MRVs have helped the European Union tighten market standards, correcting an earlier miscalculation and actually heightening the system’s ambition.

The Copenhagen agreement enhanced the utility of global, climate-related MRVs by requiring greater transparency from developing countries. Under Kyoto, these countries were only required to provide a summary of their emissions for two years: a choice of either 1990 or 1994, and 2000. Copenhagen, by contrast, committed developing countries to report on their emissions biennially — the first reports are due in December — narrowing the gap with the requirement for annual reports that Kyoto imposed on developed countries.

Copenhagen’s MRVs are not yet as strong as they could be. For instance, they should require annual reports from all countries, no matter their stages of development. These reports should also include a breakdown of information according to economic subsectors and different greenhouse gases, along with supporting details about data-collection methods. In addition, the process of reviewing reports needs to be fleshed out, taking cues from other strong MRVs that already exist, and wealthier countries should help underwrite the cost to developing countries of preparing comprehensive reports.

The good news is that, given the ongoing nature of U.N. climate diplomacy, it’s still possible to strengthen Copenhagen’s MRVs. Important new principles and guidelines for peer review have been established in negotiations since 2009, and those involved in climate diplomacy should now buckle down to finish the job. Robust MRVs would guarantee that the world makes the most of the next few years and draws on that experience to chart a new phase of climate action anchored in a 2015 agreement.

“Forget Treaties. Solutions Will Come From the Bottom Up.”


Some critics of the U.N. process, hailing from conservative political ranks, the private sector, and other areas, have lost all patience and think that a top-down process, particularly one negotiated in an international forum, is the wrong way to go. They point out that, while national leaders negotiated the Copenhagen deal, actual progress toward its goals is being cobbled together by actors at lower levels — in cities, states, markets, and industries. They are choosing which energy will generate electricity, honing farming practices, improving industrial efficiency, and the like.

Indeed, some policymakers and climate analysts point to the influence of local authorities as a game-changer for climate action. After all, Chinese cities and provinces have begun building emissions-trading markets, and California has passed a law establishing one of the most robust such markets in the world. Meanwhile, leaders of the world’s megacities have banded together to cut emissions in what’s known as the C40 group, established in 2005. As C40 chair and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes has put it, “C40’s networks and efforts on measurement and reporting are accelerating city-led action at a transformative scale around the world.”

Given this sort of local progress, it is certainly worth asking whether diplomats and national policymakers should just get out of the way. Maybe a thoroughly bottom-up approach would be better for the planet than an international climate regime, no matter how flexible. David Hodgkinson, a law professor and executive director of the nonprofit EcoCarbon, which focuses on market solutions for reducing emissions, has argued that such an approach has “more substance” and “probably holds out more hope than a top-down UN deal.”

Ultimately, however, this view is misguided. There is no substitute for high-level diplomacy in getting everyone to do their utmost and in keeping track of their efforts. In particular, as Copenhagen reminded the world, the value of the agenda setting, peer pressure, and leverage unique to international diplomacy shouldn’t be overlooked. Moreover, we’ve seen in other policy spheres how the international community can first establish fundamental principles, which then sharpen over time with the aid of global coordinating bodies and more localized initiatives. For instance, the nonbinding 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights established a framework for a host of subsequent international treaties, U.N. agencies, regional charters and courts, national policies, and, more recently, corporate responsibility efforts.

Practically speaking, it would also be shortsighted to rely on an assortment of subnational actors to tackle a global problem like climate change. Determining how the work of these actors intersects, what it adds up to, and who monitors that sum are critical matters best managed from the top-down. As the goal of preventing a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius reminds us, it is the aggregate of countries’ reduced emissions that will be the ultimate test of success.

Even so, the status quo of climate talks, focused on badgering countries to join another legally binding treaty, represents diplomatic overreach. This hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t in the future. The international community should give up the quest to sign a legally binding treaty in 2015. Stop fretting about political will and acknowledge the various pressures different countries face. Focus on fully implementing Copenhagen’s pledge-and-review system and use that as a model for the successor to Kyoto. Then, allow that new pact to be what steers action and innovation.

Interest in this approach is slowly mounting, including in the U.S. government. Todd Stern, the State Department’s special envoy for climate change, said in a 2013 speech, “An agreement that is animated by the progressive development of norms and expectations rather than by the hard edge of law, compliance, and penalty has a much better chance of working.” Still, there’s a long way to go before the all-or-nothing attitude that has dominated climate diplomacy for so long disappears for good.

In the meantime, the environmental clock keeps ticking.

David Shorr has been analyzing multilateral affairs for over 25 years. He has worked with a range of international organizations and participates in Think20, a global meeting of leading think-tank representatives.

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