Dr. Kevin Archer is a lecturer in political economy at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and founder of the Institute for Global Education. In this piece, he considers the political environment necessary to produce an influential multilateral agreement on climate change.
Amid much fanfare, world leaders met in Copenhagen almost a year ago to hammer out a multilateral agreement on climate change- one intended to replace the Kyoto Protocols set to expire in 2012. The meeting at Copenhagen appeared to be in trouble almost from the start as preliminary rounds of negotiations produced very little in the way of actionable items. The situation hardly improved once world leaders arrived, with rampant stories of the American president being snubbed by the premier of China, closed door meetings amongst the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries, and other controversies. Add to this the odd visual of a meeting on "global warming" taking place in Copenhagen appears an almost epic failure in terms of a new multilateral agreement addressing the global problem of climate change.
Or was it?
While it is true the twelve day "Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen" didn't produce a new international regime, or even a new agreement worth noting, it is also true that multilateral agreements are rarely created under such conditions. In the last 65 years (the era of multilateral regime building), multilateral agreements are more likely to have been created through successive rounds of negotiations than to have been produced by a single conference. While there are successful examples of "single conference" regimes, these are not transferable models of multilateral regime building as they typically involve either negotiations under duress, or a very clear global problem with a limited range of remedies. Bretton Woods is a good example of negotiation under duress (World War II) and the Montreal Protocol is a good example of a single-issue conference with both a clear problem in the destruction of the ozone layer and a clear solution in the banning of CFCs.
Climate change is an issue both too complex for a Montreal Protocol-like solution and lacking in the urgency (unless you're a polar bear) necessary for the creation of a Bretton Woods- like agreement. Negotiating climate change is thus more likely to take a trajectory similar to other complex long-term issues. By this, I mean that it is more likely that climate issues will be addressed along the lines of how international trade issues were addressed in the post-war period. International trade required successive rounds over numerous decades under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to reach the point where a multilateral regime was possible. Ultimately these GATT rounds led to the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a system of international trade in which average tariffs fell from around 40 percent to around 5 percent among WTO members. With this history as a guide, dealing with climate change multilaterally will likely require some changes to the current negotiation process.
First, the successful negotiation of a multilateral climate regime will require leadership and cooperation by, and between, the United States and China. The U.S. and China account for approximately 42 percent of all climate changing emissions and thus no functional agreement is possible as long as the two largest emitters are unable to come to some kind of bilateral understanding. Once a bilateral understanding between these two powers exists, their combined leadership should be enough to get a serious multilateral climate agreement on the table. Without the combined efforts of the United States and China the creation of such a regime seems highly unlikely.
Second, dealing with climate change will require significant work in addition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including the creation of a separate and ad hoc climate negotiation process. While the U.N. system is quite effective in other multilateral issue areas, climate negotiations exacerbate the U.N. system's weaknesses to the point of failure. Negotiations involving the 192 members states of the U.N. make little sense considering that the top 20 states in terms of emissions produce 80 percent of all climate changing gases. For an effective multilateral agreement to be reached, these 20 states must be given the negotiating space to come to terms with the major issues amongst themselves and then any agreement can be opened up to additional signatories. Absent this, we are likely to have more agreements that come out of the UNFCCC that result in virtually no change to the steady march of climate emissions.
Climate change is a complex issue that will require sustained multilateral negotiations over the medium to long-term. Both the United States and China must play a larger role in support of climate negotiations, and if the current UNFCCC process continues to fail to yield results the process must be modified. The creation of the WTO took 45 years- while we don't have that kind of time to solve the climate question, it's a sobering example of how difficult such regimes are to build.