A Better Solution to Make Climate Negotiations Work
As 2020 begins, climate scientists and activists are referring to the 2010s as a “lost decade” in combating climate change. If governments and activists don’t change their approach to climate diplomacy, the next decade is at risk too. To make progress, we must do better—and remember what diplomacy is all about.
Everyone agrees that December’s 25th UN Conference of the Parties in Madrid was a failure, but few seem to understand why it failed or what the potential path to success might be.
The popular narrative is that the leadership vacuum created by the Trump administration coupled with obstructionism by major emitters (Australia, Brazil, China, and India) discouraged other countries from action. There is some truth to that, but this framing ignores the history of negotiations and misreads the Paris Agreement’s meaning and value. This confusion fuels well-intentioned but misdirected efforts to reach unattainable goals.
Publicly shaming America and other nations is counterproductive; instead, more effort should be made to accelerate voluntary international cooperation. This was the animating spirit of the Paris Accord and, indeed, the entire post-Kyoto Protocol history of climate diplomacy.
International agreements are the concrete manifestation of a perceived alignment of interests. They are always driven by, and rest upon, self-perceived national interests. Even legally-binding treaties cannot force states to behave in ways contrary to their national interests. This is why nations are allowed to withdraw from agreements like Paris.
Climate advocates argue that the logic of national interests should not apply to climate agreements because all governments have a shared interest in combating climate change, but this is naïve. While governments have shared interests in many things like promoting global prosperity or preventing terrorism, differing national interests drive solutions based on tensions among competing goals like economic growth and emissions reductions.
Perceived fairness can also prevent actionable agreements. No government wants to pay more or get less than its peers and doing so generally requires political support. Wealthy developed nations are responsible for most present-day greenhouse gases, while developing giants such as China and India are likely to create most future emissions. All might agree that there should be “justice” in the allocation of climate policy costs—but each government sees justice differently.
Disagreements like this undermined the Kyoto Protocol (the Senate approved, 95-0, a resolution opposing any climate treaty that let China and India off the hook)—and it was America’s rejection of Kyoto that put the world on the path to Paris, an agreement grounded in a more realistic approach to climate diplomacy.
The Paris Agreement circumvented these “national interest” obstacles by abandoning efforts to negotiate “justice” in favor of a simple agreement that each nation make voluntary commitments based on what its domestic politics supported. Thus, developing nations shared the burden, in some fashion, a key requirement of domestic politics in many developed nations.
Rather than relying on shaming nations into actions contrary to their interests, as Kyoto tried to, Paris provided a platform for pragmatic, voluntary action. The Paris Agreement became a symbol of shared commitment and measuring progress rather than instrument to force specific emissions reductions.
Unresolved arguments at COP-25 over emissions accounting rules illustrate show negotiators have forgotten the logic of Paris. Since Paris achieved consensus by allowing each nation to determine its own emissions targets, tighter emissions accounting rules cannot ensure deeper emissions reductions—instead, they simply lead to less ambitious targets.
Notwithstanding climate change consequences, few governments have decided they can accept substantial economic and social costs to eliminate domestic emissions. All practical evidence suggests that this won’t change. So how can we move forward constructively?
Where moralistic criticism has failed, a renewed focus on shared self-interest in practical cooperation might succeed. We can work to reduce tensions between reducing emissions and other national priorities, especially economic growth, by fostering greater global collaboration in the advancement of low-cost zero-emission energy.
Whether nations meet targets of any climate agreement depends primarily on their ability to deploy technologies that satisfy their energy needs while avoiding greenhouse gas emissions. Nations that are able to do so will meet their targets; those that can’t will not. International agreements can increase the reputational cost of failure—but likely not enough to overcome more fundamental concerns.
The opportunity for action, therefore, lies in cooperative efforts to reduce the friction in global systems for energy technology research and development, trade, and investment. This means taking steps to accelerate low and zero emissions energy research, including intensifying international research collaboration and protecting intellectual property rights, facilitating investment, expanding trade and harmonizing standards that speed up construction of new energy projects.
Making low and zero emissions energy cheaper and more easily available will do far more to prevent further climate change than unresolvable disputes over which governments are and are not doing their fair share.
Paul J. Saunders is President of Energy Innovation Reform Project, a non-partisan non-profit organization working on energy and climate issues. He was a State Department Senior Advisor during the George W. Bush Administration.