Why are international climate talks always so disappointing? At most every climate conference, including this year’s in Glasgow, world leaders talk a big game, but then fail to deliver a final agreement that can actually ward off catastrophic levels of global warming.
Experts say there are several big reasons for that, and some of them are actually built into the negotiation process. Here are three of the biggest problems with climate negotiations and how they might be fixed:
All promises are empty
Leaders at the Glasgow talks made some bold pledges in the meeting’s final agreement, but no one can make them keep those promises. The United Nations has no power to enforce compliance, and there are no penalties for breaking pacts.
Without binding commitments that hold countries to their word, “no country is really confident that other countries are really going to go for it,” said Scott Barrett, an economist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs who studies international agreements’ efficacy. “So the question becomes, Why should I make big commitments if the others aren’t going to be doing much?”
Technically, the 2015 UN Paris Agreement, which set the terms for this year’s climate negotiations, is legally binding. But it only mandates that nations make commitments, not that they follow through on them.
“Whatever is agreed to ... still needs to become law in each country,” said Lisa Schipper, researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, “And until then it remains an empty promise.”
Compounding the problem, the goals of climate talks are collective. That makes sense because the effects of climate change are global, but the structure of the problem has the effect of discouraging any individual actor from taking big steps to solve the problem.
“The incentive is to hold back, because each country represents just a small part of the total progress needed,” Barrett said.
Barrett created a game to illustrate this problem. Players were each allotted a stack of poker chips that represented emissions cuts. The goal of the game was to “avert catastrophe” by collectively contributing enough chips to the pot.
Players of the game tended to make ambitious pledges, but because the chips had value that the players could profit from individually, they were reluctant to follow through. Promises to put chips in the pot held up for short periods, but once a few players failed to contribute as many chips as they promised, others followed suit.
“Everyone loses,” said Barrett.
Barrett presented his findings at the 2015 Paris negotiations. But the results didn’t push leaders to change the rules.
A better model, Barrett said, is the Montreal Protocol, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s most successful environmental agreements. Nations adopted it in 1987 to eliminate a class of refrigerants that was creating holes in the ozone layer. That treaty set limits on the production and consumption of the pollutants. It also prohibited nations that hadn’t signed the agreement from trading refrigerant products with nations that had come on board. As more countries agreed to the treaty, it became harder to market the chemicals.
“It actually became commercially essential for firms to jump on board because they saw the market changing,” said Barrett.
There are no rules
Countries have been writing up UN climate treaties since 1992, yet they’ve never actually finalized rules for how many countries need to agree to something for it to be included in a pact.
“Is it on a majority vote basis? Or a supermajority vote basis? They’ve failed to grapple with that,” Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, said.
The ambiguity has let powerful countries hijack negotiations by refusing to agree to treaty language that doesn’t suit them.
That failure is no accident, says Muffett. Nations whose economies are highly dependent on oil, including Saudi Arabia and members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, have fought attempts to codify rules.
Without any formal mechanisms for voting on decisions, negotiators have been using interim regulations for a stunning 29 years. Under them, everything defaults to consensus rule.
“This need to reach consensus on everything means … every question ultimately ends up being pulled down to the lowest common denominator,” said Muffett.
Muffett, who has been observing UN climate talks since 2000, has seen this play out time and time again. Brazil, whose deforestation rates are among the highest in the world, has blocked provisions to protect trees. The United States and Europe have blocked measures committing rich countries to international finance. And in Glasgow, the United States, China, and India — the world’s three most polluting countries — demanded language calling for a global coal “phase-out” be rewritten to say “phase-down.”
In theory, all nations have this veto power. But it’s mostly powerful nations that can use it. Smaller, poorer countries have formed alliances at climate talks to fight for their common interests. But still, for them, speaking out is politically risky.
“You have to be equipped to withstand whatever diplomatic and political and economic pressure that people on the other side are prepared to bring,” said Muffett.
The fox is in the henhouse
Big oil and other fossil fuel players are a huge presence at climate talks. Organizers in Glasgow this year for the first time refused to extend invitations to energy giants, but that didn’t exactly stop them from coming.
According to a report by advocacy groups including Global Witness and Corporate Accountability, more than 500 lobbyists and executives with ties to oil, gas, and coal companies attended, either as members of trade associations or as part of countries’ official delegations.
Oil, gas, and coal representatives dwarfed many other important contingencies, outnumbering members of any delegation from a single country, as well as the talks’ total number of Indigenous people (who are among those most impacted by climate change globally). They also outstripped the total number of representatives from the eight delegations most affected by the climate crisis in the last two decades: Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, Mozambique, Bahamas, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
Having this many representatives, said Muffett, made it easier for the sector to shape the agreement’s text. Meanwhile, he said, “the smallest, the least-wealthy countries, have delegations that are stretched extraordinarily thin and have to cover multiple issues at once.” It’s no surprise that the outcomes weren’t favorable to them.
If the UN wants better outcomes from climate talks, Muffett said it should kick out the fossil fuel industry. There is precedent for this: the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control barred anyone with ties to the tobacco industry from negotiations.
He also said that the UN should work to support countries most impacted by the climate crisis to have bigger delegations at climate talks. Creating international funds for those nations to send more people to climate talks could help.