Climate Clubs and Climate Negotiations - English

The Fewer, The Better

By Philipp Pattberg25.11.2013Economics, Global Policy, Science

The UN’s all-encompassing climate track yields little. What we need are smaller and more flexible “climate clubs”.


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Ever since the COP 15 in Copenhagen 2009, where negotiations failed to produce a meaningful response to climate change, countries have started to search for alternative solutions beyond the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Referred to as “climate clubs”, the G8, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) are prime examples for complementary initiatives to the UN-based climate negotiations.

If and how climate clubs should have a formal role in the UNFCCC has become a topic of debate during the COP 19 in Warsaw. Discussions are under way in the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), the subsidiary body responsible for hammering out a comprehensive climate deal by 2015. Clearly, climate clubs are likely to play an increasingly important role in the process towards reaching a new global climate deal, as several states are pushing for more flexible approaches compared to the current “target and time-tables” mind-frame. However, we know little about the concrete implications of a club-based approach towards climate change mitigation.

The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must

More reliance on climate clubs to address climate change has both its pros and cons. Proponents argue that climate clubs could foster tailor-made solutions which reflect the great disparities in levels of ambition and capacity among countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Todd Stern, the US’s climate envoy, “recently argued()”: that: “Remember that the point of our efforts – always – must be the results we can produce, consistent with everyone’s circumstances and capabilities.” Political theory also provides arguments for why smaller groups are preferable compared to larger constellations.

In 1969, the social scientist Mancur Olson argued that smaller groups are more effective to reach a solution since larger groups lack social pressure to control group members, among other reasons. The argument is corroborated by the observation that reaching consensus in the UNFCCC, with its near universal membership, has been a tiresome and slow process that fails to produce ambitious results. On the other hand, critics of a flexible approach to global climate governance highlight the risk of “green-washing”, where countries pledge to take action and create new initiatives and partnerships without neither the capacity nor real ambition to lower GHG emissions. Others argue that flexible approaches only serve the powerful status-quo states in their attempt to weaken the multilateral UN-based approach in favor of their narrow interests. In the words of Thucydides, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Despite fervent discussions on the merits of climate clubs, only few robust lessons-learned have been identified so far (With the notable exception of Weischer et al (2012)). In a recent report by Oscar Widerberg and Daniel Engström Stenson, 17 climate clubs were scrutinized against a number of criteria to better understand if they facilitate or conflict with the core goals of the UNFCCC. The authors searched for evidence of conflictive, cooperative or synergistic effects between a sample of clubs and the UNFCCC and found no signs of currently active clubs conflicting with the core values or activities of the UNFCCC. Instead, climate clubs appear to be more or less conducive to the UNFCCC process by facilitating discussions, implementing concrete policies and filling governance gaps. To illustrate: the G20 has taken action on phasing-out fossil fuel subsidies, the REDD+ Partnership is intended to be active only until the UNFCCC agrees on a REDD+ mechanism, and the CCAC addresses black carbon currently unregulated under the UNFCCC. The recent discussions at COP-19 highlight the political demand for an appraisal framework for climate clubs. We propose three general criteria to evaluate the performance of climate clubs:

1. Climate clubs should not conflict with UNFCCC core norms. The UNFCCC remains the only legitimate and comprehensive negotiation forum on climate change. Norms such as the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities are essential to retain the legitimacy of climate governance necessary to reach sustainable and effective solutions;

2. Climate clubs should focus on the major GHG emitters. No climate deal that excludes the major emitters “is worth the paper it is written on” writes Thomas Hale in his book “A Climate Coalition of the Willing”. Without countries such as China, India, the US, and Russia onboard, the reductions of GHG emissions necessary are impossible to reach;

3. Climate clubs should address a governance gap or implement an agreement made in the UNFCCC context. Some issues, such as black carbon, have been overlooked in the official negotiations. Instead of including emergent issues into the UNFCCC in a long and tiresome process, a club can take swift and decisive action among a smaller group of dedicated countries. Similarly, when the UNFCCC is unable to agree on how to operationalize an issue, REDD+ is a case in point, a club can engage in implementation, while negotiations are ongoing within the larger group.

Positive effects of the new obscurity

Any effective and politically feasible future climate agreement will have to include a mix of international hard law and a flexible and adaptive set of loosely coupled climate clubs and other initiatives beyond the UNFCCC. This might create more complexity and organizational uncertainty in global climate change governance; the new obscurity, however, will eventually pave the way for the much-needed global consensus on an equitable and just low-carbon future.

_* This article was co-authored by Oscar Widerberg._



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