The Politics of Climate Change: Can a Deal be Done?


The Paris climate conference in December 2015 has been heralded as a crucial opportunity for achieving global agreement on climate change. Paul Tobin analyses the structure of these negotiations and identifies the key barriers to striking a deal on climate change.

My first ever demonstration was in London, in the run-up to the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen. Placards soared and songs were sung as thousands marched calling for a legally-binding agreement on tackling climate change. Like many others, I anticipated that Copenhagen would be a showcase for international diplomacy, but it was an overwhelming disappointment. Subsequent international conferences have struggled to fulfil their promise. The thorny issue of how to pay for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has hindered attempts to reach a comprehensive deal on tackling climate change. With all eyes on the next conference in Paris in December, what barriers stand in the way to success?

The stakes certainly could not be much higher. In 2010, James Lovelock, the chemist who theorised the Gaia Hypothesis – the idea that the earth is a complex and self-regulating system – suggested that humans may simply be too short-termist (or too stupid) to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Lovelock argued that being unable to think in the long-term, humans might need to put democracy on hold in order to implement radical climate policy solutions. This sounds drastic but if international conferences continue to be unsuccessful, draconian policy solutions could garner increasing support.

At the crux of the politics of climate change remains the problem of equity, and the desire of states to pursue their perceived self-interest. Although China is now the biggest greenhouse gas producer in the world, its citizens emit far fewer emissions per capita than those of developed states. Historically, the United Kingdom has produced the largest quantity of emissions per person, having been the first state to undergo the industrial revolution. Why should developing countries not act likewise, and exploit their natural resources to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty? This question goes to the heart of international climate conferences. But is a coalition for climate change action growing? And what would it take to create an effective international agreement?

Climate change science

The basic theory behind anthropogenic climate change is simple. A variety of ‘greenhouse gases’ – many a by-product of industrial activity – increase the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere, raising the global temperature and leading to severe environmental changes. (See figure 1.)

Figure 1

For those who do not acknowledge the existence of anthropogenic climate change, a common rationale is ‘uncertainty’ amongst scientists. Yet, it is a long time since the greenhouse effect was first theorised by Joseph Fourier in 1824, or since the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, in 1896, calculated that humans could change the climate. Since then, the body of evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change has grown and grown, with scant evidence to suggest that humanity does not play a significant role in causing the phenomenon.

However, as a result of decades of funding from the multi-billion dollar fossil fuel industry, highly influential climate sceptic lobbying groups have flourished, particularly in fossil fuel-exporting states such as the United States of America, Canada and Australia. For many climate sceptics there is no threshold of scientific evidence that could be reached which would persuade them. If the wealth of evidence that already exists is insufficient, one more model will hardly be convincing. As such, the biggest barrier to mitigating climate change now is not scepticism over the science, but the intractability of international negotiations.

State groupings

With 193 signatory states to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is a multitude of negotiating positions on every aspect of international climate discussions. The states, however, often fall into neat camps. Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) often play down the effects of climate change due to their dependence on oil exports. Small island states that stand to be flooded are apocalyptic on the issue.

The biggest group at climate conferences is the G77 of developing states, which actually comprises 133 nations. Depending on the issue at hand, the G77 can break down further into the African Group (AGN), oil-exporters (OPEC), small island states (AOSIS), Latin American countries (ALBA), several other smaller groups, and most importantly, the group of large and rapidly-growing states known as BASIC, comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China.

Developed states also divide into smaller groups. The European Union (EU) enjoyed an agenda-setting role prior to 2009, but with the rise of BASIC and Obama's election as a more climate-friendly US President, European states have been increasingly squeezed out of discussions. The loosely-defined ‘Umbrella Group’ of non-EU, developed states, including Australia, Canada, Norway, Russia and the USA, are often willing to take a back seat during negotiations. Finally, the imaginatively-named Environmental Integrity Group – Mexico, South Korea, Switzerland, and more recently Liechtenstein and Monaco – comprises states that do not fit into any other category. The difficulty in reaching a consensus between these various groupings explains the challenges faced during the negotiations for a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol. (See figure 2.)

Figure 2
image developed from Carbon Brief, 2014 

The origins of international climate politics

In 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations created the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention agreed that the states of the world shared a ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) to address climate change. In other words, we're all in it together, but the states that benefited the most already from producing greenhouse gases need to reduce their emissions the most. At the time, few imagined the relentless growth during the 1990s and 2000s of developing nations such as China, India and Brazil. Few foresaw China overtaking the USA as the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter in 2007.

The political ramifications of CBDR have ensured that those opposed to acting on reducing greenhouse gas emissions can point to rapidly-growing countries and ask why these states can continue to pollute, while those in the West cannot. The negotiations in Paris this December will seek to find a consensus on how developing states can begin to reduce their emissions as well.

The Rio conference introduced another longstanding commitment. From 1995 onwards, the international community would meet once a year to address climate change, at a Conference of the Parties (COP). The 1997 COP, held in Kyoto, Japan, resulted in the ground-breaking Kyoto Protocol, which required its signatories to reduce varying percentages of greenhouse gas emissions based on 1990 levels. This would result in an overall reduction of 5.2 per cent by 2008–2012. Despite having persuaded other states to weaken the Protocol to meet its demands, the USA was unable to ratify the treaty, with the Senate voting 95-0 against the agreement. As such, it was not until Russia and Canada ratified the Protocol in 2002 that the Protocol was brought into effect. Negotiations for a more ambitious successor to the Kyoto agreement are currently in progress.

The build-up to Paris 2015

Climate conferences in recent years have overwhelmingly focused on finding a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol. The 2009 Copenhagen conference was intended to provide a successor to the 1997 agreement. At the Copenhagen COP, the BASIC Group was formed, without the support of which no agreement could meaningfully address climate change. Scrambling to adapt to this new geopolitical context, the Copenhagen treaty was primarily negotiated between the USA and BASIC states before being presented to the other countries. Despite having previously shared similar objectives as the other G77 developing states, rapid economic development ensured that the demands of the BASIC group were distinct from its former allies. Neglected entirely from the negotiations, a group of Latin American states rejected the proposals. As a result, the Copenhagen Accord was merely a non-binding statement of ambition, rather than a proposal with teeth. The conference was a failure, necessitating the continued negotiations for a successor to Kyoto that continue today.

The most recent COP, which took place in Lima, Peru, in December 2014, began brightly. Meeting on the back of a bi-lateral commitment between the USA and China to reduce emissions, the Lima conference was crucial to laying the foundations for the December 2015 negotiations in France. Paris will be the biggest opportunity since Copenhagen to formalise an agreement of real weight and ambition, with legally-binding targets for the coming 10–15 years.

In Lima, the USA, EU and even climate sceptics Australia committed to a climate fund for facilitating mitigation in developing states, but the $10billion (£6.6bn) pledged wasn't close to the $100billion (£66bn) that was once projected. Running over the allotted ten-day period, the Lima conference dragged on until a commitment could be made in which all states – developing and developed countries alike – promised to reduce emissions. A genuine compromise appeared to have been reached, albeit one that was not ambitious enough to keep temperature increases under the two degree centigrade target that has been identified as the threshold for mitigating dangerous climatic change. From here, all eyes are on Paris, and creating an agreement that is both ambitious and includes the world's biggest emitters.

Are bilateral agreements the way forward?

With Lima struggling to make significant gains, perhaps the age of the ‘mega-conference’ will soon be over. In January 2015, the lead climate negotiator of the USA, Todd Stern, suggested that if Paris fails, states would start to withdraw from the UNFCCC process. After all, the landmark agreement between the USA and China in November 2014, demonstrated what bilateral negotiations could achieve. Both states committed to making reductions, with China promising to hit its emissions peak in 2030; a significant commitment given that the Communist regime is dependent on continued economic growth for its survival. After more than 20 years of gridlock at multilateral negotiations, in which almost 200 states have sought to maximise their own interests, behind-the-scenes bilateral deals could be crucial in the coming years.

Mega-conferences will still be important, however. The media and civil society spotlight these events generate places significant pressure on states to be ambitious, while the yearly conferences ensure that there is always a new deadline to aim for. Moreover, as the world becomes increasingly multi-polar, agreements that involve as many actors as possible, will ensure that concerns about free-riding are avoided.

Bilateral negotiations may enable more specific agreements between the most geopolitically significant states, but mega-conferences are likely to play an important role for a long time to come. In order for Paris to be effective, however, a number of next steps must be made.

Building global agreement

Alongside China, the USA will be the most significant actor in Paris. Obama will be replaced as President in January 2017, potentially making the conference one of his final opportunities to make a global impact. Moreover, the USA will be in a much stronger position in Paris than in Copenhagen because of Obama's 2013 Climate Action Plan, which enabled the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases. Other states will only commit to make reductions if they believe American emissions will continue to fall after Obama's term of office. With Republicans in Congress increasingly sceptical about climate change – and reliant on funding from climate sceptic organisations – voters will have to force Congress onside. Easier said than done.

Increased public calls for ambition – both when UN conferences are taking place and when they are not – will be crucial in forcing Congress to view climate change as an electoral issue. Although Copenhagen ended in failure despite widespread public attention, it was this spotlight that made Copenhagen's failings so obvious. As such, public pressure in the build-up to and during the Paris conference will be important. Some of the most effective campaigns demonstrated so far – particularly in the university sector – are the campaigns for divestment from the fossil fuel sector. Last year, Glasgow University earned plaudits for becoming the first academic institution in Europe to divest from fossil fuels, and if more follow, an increasing amount of pressure could be exerted with little cost.

Another useful means of encouraging climate ambition is highlighting the economic benefits of climate mitigation. Germany currently employs 400,000 people in the green technology sector, with solar panels a particular area of expertise. For Sweden, wind turbines lead the way. This argument could be particularly effective in developing states such as China, which are increasingly responsible for manufacturing renewables. While we need to be sure not to mistake profit maximisation for a long-term commitment to climate change mitigation, economic arguments could act as a springboard for early ambition, particularly with regard to the development of new low-carbon technologies that pay dividends in the long-run.

The format of international conferences may also need to be adapted. A recent volume by Stevenson and Dryzek (2014) highlighted the need for a more deliberative international response to climate change. With many states little more than window dressing during conferences, and the attendance of thousands of climate activists who struggle to even speak with negotiators, the current model is in serious need for reform. Taking steps to democratise the current approach is surely more preferable – and almost certainly more effective – than heading down a path of authoritarianism.

There is still much to do before an effective response to climate change can be realised. Much of this work will need to be conducted away from the grand rooms of conference centres. There is reason to believe a coalition can be formed in Paris that avoids the failings of Copenhagen in 2009, but with time running out, states need to avoid the mistakes of recent years and forge an ambitious, binding agreement.