Thursday, November 26, 2015

Where, when and how do you engage in the climate negotiations?

UNFCCC Secretariat Head Christiana Figueres
As business representative you may have decided to attend the climate convention conference in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. In formal UN-speak it is the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It includes a Meeting of the Parties (MOP) which is the term used to refer to the convening of signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, versus signatory members of the overall umbrella convention. You may be wondering how best you can contribute, why you decided to attend in the first place and what your follow up will be as the new year approaches.

I was involved in the climate negotiations during two years leading up to the Kyoto COP of 1997, the conference that delivered the Kyoto Protocol. As multilateral diplomat at the time, I had the envious task of coordinating our South African delegation. For anybody who  has been involved in the negotiations at some point, it is amusing over the years how common misunderstandings of the process and what to expect continue to come up in the public debate and media commentaries. Looking back at environmental negotiations 20 years ago and my subsequent research in this field, let me give you some tips:

First, if you convinced your chief executive or were convinced by peers that you need to be there to "influence the negotiations", you are probably in for a big disappointment. The core negotiations are conducted behind close doors and only members of official country delegations are allowed to participate and take the floor in these. This means that, as part of a crowd of what now is over 40.000 people attending the event, you may be able to sit in as observer during plenary statements but you will in all likelihood get nowhere near the core negotiations. The closest you may get, if you are a paid lobbyist, is tackling delegation members with arguments in the corridors when they exit the negotiation rooms, at lunchtime side-events or evening cocktails that your business organisation may have sponsored. Delegation members will see you for what you are, possibly considering you as a useful source of expert knowledge or as an irritating lobbyist making predictable statements.  I've seen NGO representatives in plenary walk up to government spokespersons, giving them a piece of paper while encouraging them to make a certain point in response to what was just said. At the later stages in the negotiations, especially late night sessions of the second week, those governmental negotiators may become increasingly agitated by such interferences.

Here is a tip: If you really want to influence the negotiations during such a conference, make sure you become a member of an official governmental delegation. A number of countries include nongovernmental representatives on their delegations, for example an external scientific advisor and a representative from a national business association. Countries that have traditionally included NGOs on their delegations are Denmark, Switzerland and Canada. This allows the NGO representatives to play a hybrid role, compared to different roles such as that of activist, observer, legitimator or monitor. South Africa was one of the few countries to maintain a multistakeholder delegation, including representatives from not only key government departments but also representatives from key industries, the scientific community, environmental NGO and labour unions. Having such openness is good for constructive debate and pooling of national expertise. It can also be nerve-wracking for a delegation coordinator. On more than one occasion I've had to intervene when an opportunistic representative from a polluting industry tried to talk the Minister (head of delegation) into a new position "in the heat of the moment".

Second, if you decided only during the last three months to get involved in the process and/or attend the Paris conference, you may very well have been better off staying at home. Point is that the climate negotiations is an ongoing process of various preparatory sessions held annually in the lead up to the COP in December. In the Kyoto process we had four two-week sessions annually, which meant regular visits to Bonn. If you therefore wish to influence the negotiations, you need to get involved early in the process.

Another tip: The best place to "influence the negotiations" is not Paris or some other city abroad where the next COP is due to be held. Key rather is to influence the negotiations via national processes convened by Government in the country where you are based. In South Africa we created a National Climate Change Committee (NCCC) in the 1990s. Convened by the Environment Ministry, this multistakeholder consultative body included representatives from diverse government departments as well as key stakeholder groups (including industries more obviously impacted). This is where we had heated debates in formulating our national positions, agreed on follow up after convention meetings and decided on national projects with international support. Bottom line is, this is where key positions are shaped, feeding into and responding to outcomes of the international events. So start getting active locally, especially in the country where your business is headquartered.

Third, you have decided to attend Paris and wonder how to make the best of the situation. Irrespective of the negotiations, the event is a fantastic networking opportunity where hundreds of experts in climate science, climate economics, climate finance, climate friendly technology etc meet up annually. There are other international events where similar networking happens, but this one is particularly effective in convening climate networks. It remains the case even if that networking is happening "off site" at external venues where for example special business and research events are held. Compare the Sustainable Innovation Forum and the Caring for Climate Business Forum convened by the UN Global Compact and others in Paris this December, and the Business & Climate Summit held in Paris during May 2015.

Tip: If you are trying to make sense of what is really happening with the negotiations other than what you take from the political gossiping at cocktail events and what you read in the daily Earth Negotiations Bulletin, do consider the following. In the midst of the negotiations, various chairman contact groups and informal negotiation groups are convened. At the same time parallel discussions are held in the main convention bodies, notably the subsidiary body for scientific and technological advice (SBSTA - incl the latest IPCC science and tech solutions) or the subsidiary body for implementation (SBI -  implementing schemes such as emissions trading, verification and financing). All of this means that at any point in time during the circus, no single person knows exactly where things stand and what the final negotiating text will look like. The ones most informed on this are the Ambassador / Minister chairing the overall negotiations, the head of the UNFCCC Secretariat, and the supporting event Bureau with elected governmental representatives. The secretariat has to consider how best to "manage" the process.  For 2015 they and the French hosts have done an impressive job in seeking to have the most difficult issues agreed in advance of the December COP.

In the aftermath of the failed Copenhagen COP of 2009, research by IR specialists Gunnar Sjostedt and others have highlighted stumbling blocks to overcome. These are structure-related ones (external context and internal factors such as the structure of the conference and its negotiating bodies), issue-related stumbling blocks (consider the transboundary nature of the problem, exceptional uncertainty, extreme values at stake, extreme complexity, immeasurability and horizontal linkages with other issues such as trade), actor-related stumbling blocks (such as the need to win over brakemen, negotiating capacity and leadership problems) and process-related stumbling blocks (including tactical facilitation and the behaviour of individuals who have been involved in the process for many years).

Fourth, do not be misled by superficial arguments commonly repeated in the public discussions and daily media reports. These are statements such as "developing countries will not commit before developed countries show commitment, and vice versa" or "governments cannot agree because they and their lobbyists do not understand climate science or the urgency of the situation". In many multilateral environmental agreements of the last 30 years the assumption has been that developed countries take the lead in addressing industrial pollution issues (ones they have been most responsible for causing), and that developing countries are given a grace period of often 10 years before they take on similar commitments.

In the climate case, it was therefore always known that it is only a matter of time before developing countries (Non-Annex I Parties to the UNFCCC) will need to take on binding GHG reduction commitments. The fact that they have not taken on these in the 1990s is no excuse for developed countries not to speed up implementation of their own commitments.  Also, it must be added, developing countries are late in taking on their binding targets under the climate regime - way back the expectation was ten years after Kyoto i.e. 2007. So it is high time for both sides to take on new binding commitments and not play the game of chicken, even though the binding status of the expected Paris agreement (for example a new protocol under the umbrella convention) is still uncertain. The new Paris agreement will also require further fine tuning. It took a decade for the Kyoto agreement to get to implementation stage.

My final tip: The fact that major governments involved cannot agree is not because their representatives are ignorant and don't get climate science. Even if all understood it and the urgency of the matter, this is no guarantee of an easy global agreement. Back in Kyoto 1997 most of us knew that what was agreed was not enough. The agreement to introduce a market mechanism (emissions trading and joint implementation) at international level was historical, but the GHG reduction targets were more political than science-based and simply not ambitious enough. What will come out of Paris will not be enough as well. Scientific research suggests we are heading for 3 degrees Celsius change - failing to stay below the 2 degrees Celsius temperature change above pre-industrial levels. Paris will produce a long list of individual, voluntary country pledges (plans) that from an implementation point of view makes for a shaky start.

Why this failure to come up with timely, effective and sufficiently ambitious agreements at global level? It is the problem of collective action. Even if you know what would have been the better option, you take a suboptimal decision since you fear that your peers or competitors will not take the optimal decision. It is the equivalent of a Prisoner's Dilemma, where the logical (rational) decision for each side is to defect and end up with a second best, suboptimal outcome. It is maybe not the worst outcome, but it is second best. And with so many players involved, despite the learning opportunities of game repetition,  it is simply too tempting to be overcome with a certain fear. It is the fear that if you did what is really required, you may be left out in the cold since others do not do the same as well. The UNFCCC secretariat may be trying its best to have players focus on the bigger picture (sense of being in the same boat). Yet the pressure of global economic and trade competition results in a play of almost 200 countries unable to get themselves collectively to accomplish the scale of transformative action required.

Difficult questions for the UN at COP15 in Copenhagen
One can think of alternative forms of global problem solving that may produce more optimal results. For example organising two separate conferences, one focused on mitigation and one on adaptation. Involving in each only the key players implied in both cases may result in more focused discussions and agreement. Also, consider that it is really a small group of countries and industries that are most responsible for GHG emissions. You may find that ten countries and ten industries produce the greater part of global emissions. If a mitigation negotiation were to involve only the leaders of these main countries' governments and largest companies of the most implied industries, plus additional representatives from internationally recognised science & technology bodies and international NGOs, such a smaller, multistakeholder group of key players could be tasked to negotiate a solution. Subsequently their agreement could be presented for approval to the rest of the world. My guess is that the smaller group of key players would come up with a much more accurate agreement, one that few would be able to argue against convincingly.

This approach requires going beyond conventional International Relations as maintained by UN institutions and International Law as defined by Delft's Hugo de Groot. It requires a willingness to experiment with global governance that is multistakeholder, engaging only the big players most implied in a problem, and taking on an agenda that is functionally needs-driven and timely. It is the type of approach that organisations such as the World Economic Forum may experiment with. It does not imply a global elitism and dominance by big business. It simply recognises the need, at a certain (e.g. global) level of governance, to engage those players most implied in a problem and its solving. It is the very contrast of endless plenaries with long, repetitive statements by smaller players simply intent on slowing the process as much as they can - something of which I have seen far too much by the likes of OPEC member states.


  1. Great structured point, I know some company strategists and CSR departments that should take a look!

  2. Related to the above, earlier (2015) attempt by international business coalition "We Mean Business" (including companies and leading international business initiatives e.g. WBCSD, CDP, UNGC) to influence negotiations by making key recommendations with proposed options for negotiating text wording etc. See


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