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Thirty years of UN climate talks: New challenges for cooperation

Point of View, 23.06.2022 Research Areas

Thirty years after the establishment of the UN climate convention, the current state of affairs in international climate politics brings new challenges, argues Marian Feist.

Intersessional climate negotiations just concluded in Bonn, 30 years after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed. They set the stage for the annual summit, which this year will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November. Talks were conducted against the backdrop of an evolving landscape in international climate politics. As it becomes increasingly clear that the Paris Agreement is not generating enough momentum, there is a renewed drive towards alternative forms of cooperation. Those initiatives, however, cannot simply do away with the politics that fetter global cooperation, but come with their own challenges.

Insufficient action

It is impossible to know where the world would be without 30 years of climate talks. What is clear is that efforts have been insufficient. Global CO2 emissions have risen almost every year since the Industrial Revolution. The past seven years were all among the top seven warmest on record. Sixteen years ago, the Stern Review warned that future costs of inaction on climate change would vastly outweigh the costs of reducing emissions. The main obstacle for acting on this warning has not been a lack of technical solutions or policy designs for their implementation, but the politics surrounding targets, obligations, and means. Now, there has been a shift in political debates from the question of Who pays for climate action? to Who gets to keep their way of life?: The world is already paying the costs of inaction.

Particularly hot and dry summers in 2018 and 2019 as well as the 2021 Ahr Valley floods have made climate change palpable in Germany. Other parts of the world are being hit even harder. Poorer countries, which have historically contributed less to global warming, are disproportionately affected. India has been suffering from severe heatwaves this year, with temperatures exceeding 45°C. At the intersessional climate negotiations in Bonn, financial support for those affected by irreparable loss and damage was a key concern for developing countries.

The politics of climate cooperation

Compensating for the lack of action through alternative forms of cooperation is not a new idea. Notably, after efforts to forge a new global agreement had failed at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, initiatives of smaller scale were, in combination, hoped to take its place. Today, there is a global treaty in place. The Paris Agreement commits all countries to keeping global warming to well below 2°C, ideally below 1.5°C. But it includes no fixed emission reduction obligations, instead leaving it to countries to determine their ambition levels individually. They must regularly report on their progress and ramp up their pledges, lest they be exposed as laggards. But such normative forces have been insufficient to keep efforts on track.

To compensate for this, attention has again shifted towards plurilateral initiatives and bilateral partnerships that are hoped to accelerate implementation. Last year’s climate summit in Glasgow yielded a host of new endeavours, such as the Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa to support the country’s efforts to decarbonise its electricity system. Germany is planning to launch a climate club at the G7 summit, aiming to better coordinate climate policy, disincentivise imports from countries with less-stringent measures, and protect ambitious countries against first-mover disadvantages.

Smaller initiatives seem less tricky than multilateral treaties because there are fewer parties involved. They would make up for what they lack in scale with ambitious targets and stringent policy. Achieving these targets, however, for instance by means of establishing comparable carbon pricing systems, requires a degree of policy coordination and change that is by no means easy to negotiate even in smaller arrangements. And when compromises are made, there is a danger of watering down ambition and stringency, defeating the very purpose of going small in the first place.

Moreover, it is often unclear how new initiatives relate to the established UN process. Particularly when areas such as trade or finance are concerned, caution is required so as not to alienate other countries. As the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism has shown, domestic mitigation efforts raise concerns about adverse knock-on effects abroad. Properly addressing these concerns ex ante is imperative, but it takes up scarce political resources in both domestic and diplomatic arenas. Climate initiatives require prioritisation and commitment; more is not necessarily better. External circumstances often exacerbate the situation. The Copenhagen negotiations, for example, were hampered by the ongoing global financial crisis. Today, in light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, energy security threatens to outrank climate action on the agenda.

Initiatives and partnerships are vital to complement climate cooperation under the Paris Agreement. They can help drive implementation, but they do not transcend broader climate politics. Those who seek to establish new forms of cooperation would be wise to consider not only what they are trying to achieve but also how they can get there. Thoughtful diplomacy is required to make initiatives work in the larger context of international climate politics.