This is the first in a series of articles by Tom Swann and Luke Kemp looking at the viability of the UNFCCC, potential alternative arenas for agreement and action on climate change, and potential options for reforming the UNFCCC to enable it to achieve its aims. In this piece regular writer Luke looks at the flaws that undermine the UNFCCC’s ability to achieve agreement and action on climate change.     


At least for the foreseeable future the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be the only game in town, but it’s unlikely to succeed without significant change.

Ever since the last major climate summit of Copenhagen in 2009 (perhaps all the way back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) the climate negotiations have been experiencing diminishing returns. The last few conferences have struggled to produce consensus and the vast majority of parties have failed to put forward any worthwhile targets.  Indeed, existing pledges amount to a four degree rise in temperatures.

As we are on track for such dangerous warming, it is natural to question whether we should even persist with the negotiations. Is progress just around the corner or is the entire endeavour doomed to fail?

The conundrum is that the UNFCCC as it stands will not be capable of solving climate change, but it is also likely to be the centre point of international cooperation for the foreseeable future. It needs to be reformed, but first the reason for its failures need to be understood.

Credit: gesi.org
Credit: gesi.org

The UNFCCC was born in 1992 with three fatal flaws: a static annex system, interlinked decision-making and no formal rules of procedure.

A little known but hard to believe fact is that the climate talks have been operating for over 20 years without official rules of procedure. In what could be considered the worst possible start to international negotiations, famed obstructionist Saudi Arabia vetoed the adoption of the rules due to a dispute over the use of voting (a mechanism the talks were originally intended to have).

The Saudis were working off advice given to them by US oil lobbyists.   Their suggestion was simple: if you want to be able to strangle the negotiations you need to keep your veto.  It was unfortunately good advice, as it’s a defect in the procedures that the Saudis have repeatedly made good use of.

Consensus has meant that negotiations have not only been slow and tedious, but have almost always come to lowest-common denominator outcomes.  Recent research suggests that majority voting isn’t just faster, but the threat of a vote also makes consensus building easier as blockers are forced to compromise.

For now the Convention is stuck with the blight of consensus.  Given the diversity of interests and the inability of certain powerful parties to be part of a legally-binding deal (ahem, US) it is a fatal flaw in the deepest sense.

Compounding this has been the practice of interlinked decision-making.  The climate talks are always striving to deliver a ‘global package’ which encompasses everything including financing, mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer etc.   It’s a nice idea in theory as it allows countries to trade off in terms of different issues and interests.

Oleg Shamanov (left) tries to intervene in the approval of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period at the Doha climate talks in 2012 (Source: Flickr/UNFCCC)
Oleg Shamanov (left) tries to intervene in the approval of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period at the Doha climate talks in 2012 (Source: Flickr/UNFCCC via RTCC)

The problem of this “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to” approach is when it is combined with consensus.  A lowest common denominator outcome in one strand of negotiations can easily hold up others.  Instead of allowing for easier issues to progress forward quickly and be adopted independently, they are constantly being threatened and held back as bargaining chips for other issues. Moreover some countries may be able to participate on certain issues but be incapable of engaging in a full agreement.  The United States could show leadership and ratify agreements on technology development or markets, but will not do so for an entire treaty.

The ‘silver-bullet’ approach of trying to cover all issues and all countries is a recipe for failure.

Another error in the design of the negotiations has been the use of a two-tier annex system created back in 1992.  The original idea made little sense with high income and emissions countries such as Saudi Arabia and Singapore being designated as ‘developing countries’.  What made even less sense was the absence of any kind of graduating mechanism for countries to be reclassified.

The binary split from 1992 has been the basis for a recurring divide between developing and developed countries, which has been the bane of negotiations. The animosity between developing and developed countries has been the basis for a hefty amount of emotional baggage which now holds back the negotiations and most attempts at reform.

But perhaps the flaws run deeper into the very basic assumptions of the negotiations.  It is a typical intergovernmental agreement rooted in the Westphalian idea that the world revolves around nation-states. Accordingly, it also only deals with the demand side of fossil fuels.  Perhaps climate change requires a different approach, one that deals with governance beyond states.  One that, as our divestment movement has become dedicated to, targets the supply of fossil fuels and attempts to keep them firmly in the ground by engaging with corporations and not just governments.

Given these flaws it’s little wonder that the negotiations have struggled.

But, there is a reason why the UNFCCC has been so remarkably resilient, why the zombie keeps on edging forward and averting collapse at the last minute.  The international arena does matter.  States care about what others are doing and clearly care about what the public thinks of their attempts at cooperation.  If they didn’t they would have abandoned the entire mess a long time ago. But international cooperation isn’t limited to the UNFCCC.

Credit: rcicd.org
Credit: rcicd.org

Many commentators have begun to call for negotiations to move towards smaller forums such as the G20. The reasoning is that over three quarters of global emissions can be attributed to just 20 countries.  In essence you don’t need agreement (especially a consensual one) between all 195 countries in order to manage climate change.

Many others, including within the youth movement, think that progress lies in grassroot mobilisation: we need to build support back in our own countries before we can expect a global deal.  It’s a logical approach, but it is highly unlikely that we will be capable of simultaneously pushing all of the major emitters into radical new action. A few maybe, but not all of them.  Eventually things will come back to the global stage and the need for an international deal.

In our next article we will cover both the limitations and potential of these alternatives, but for now it is important to note that the UNFCCC is going to stay as the centrepiece of international climate action for the foreseeable future. Countries and civil society alike have sunk far too much time and far too many resources to simply scuttle the institution and move on. Developed countries need it for legitimacy and to assuage public concerns.  Developing countries want to keep any multilateral action under the principles and democratic approach of the Convention.  Furthermore, the 2015 agreement, regardless of how weak it is, will still provide a framework to keep countries engaged.

For better or for worse, when it comes to climate cooperation, countries will be forever magnetically drawn back to the UNFCCC.  So, for now, we will need to persist with it, but with more realistic expectations.  The UNFCCC will only succeed if its fundamental flaws are addressed.  But how can the zombie be cured before it lumbers into the abyss?


This is the first in a series of articles by Tom Swann and Luke Kemp looking at the viability of the UNFCCC, potential alternative arenas for agreement and action on climate change, and potential options for reforming the UNFCCC to enable it to achieve its aims. To read the other articles click here.       


Featured Image Credit: Dunechaser via Compfight cc

Written by Luke Kemp & Tom Swann

Tom Swann is a researcher at the Australia Institute and a student in the Master of Climate Change program. His current climate research focuses on the politics of fossil fuel financing and divestment. He is a lead organiser in the Fossil Free ANU campaign. Luke is a PhD candidate in environmental governance at the Australian National University. He has a particular interest in Intergenerational Equity having worked with both the Major Group of Children and Youth and the youth constituency of the UNFCCC as the coordinator of the Intergenerational Equity Working Group.