SPERI Spotlight on the UN climate summit III

Beyond ‘Deadline Multilateralism’

Matthew PattersonUN climate change negotiations have been temporally structured around a series of crunch moments: Rio, Kyoto, The Hague, Bali, Copenhagen and now Paris.  The lessons of Rio and Kyoto seemed to be that, if you give a clear deadline, you could structure the expectations of negotiators around that deadline and thereby produce a deal.

At Rio it worked; at Kyoto it ‘sort of worked’, but there were so many loose ends, notably with the design of the ‘Kyoto mechanisms’ – especially the Clean Development Mechanism – that it took four years to sort the details.  Then, at The Hague, the deadline failed to work for the first time, and they had to hurriedly fix it over the next 6 months in the deal finally signed in Marrakech in 2001.  The deadline logic started to unravel, even while it had solidified as a practice.

Since then the expectation of a strict deadline has failed to produce the outcome, if outcome is to be understood as a single treaty text (revisions to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or a Protocol to succeed Kyoto) to address all the principal issues in the negotiations in one package deal.  At Bali it succeeded, but only in establishing an agenda for the negotiations.  At Copenhagen it failed totally and negotiations since have been playing catch-up.

This is one sort of context for the Paris negotiations.  Perhaps they will produce a deal, although the current version of the negotiating text gives no real hints as to this.  Certainly, most commentators are more optimistic than they have been at previous meetings, with the combination of Obama’s incentives to produce a positive legacy, the extensive US-Chinese coordination and a range of other developments leaving room for optimism that a deal will struck – although not of course saying anything as to how effective such a deal will be in combating climate change.

But the legacy of the deadline logic makes us pause for thought.  Whether or not a deal is struck, it should make us realise the limits of the UN negotiations themselves.  In particular, it should make us focus more carefully on the relationship between UN-based governance and the wide range of transnational climate change governance that has emerged over the last decade.

While much is known about individual initiatives in this transnational governance and the overall landscape of the initiatives is reasonably well mapped, how effective they are is not yet that well known.  But, arguably, the important and urgent question is one concerning the linkages between initiatives, as well as between those initiatives and UN system.  There is emerging research on this, but much more to be learned.  This is crucial since measuring the effectiveness of these initiatives on their own is notoriously difficult (what is the appropriate baseline measurement for an entire carbon offset certification system?).  Yet it is likely to be in these interactions that transformative shifts in investment in renewables, energy efficiency and so on could be triggered, rather than in any individual initiative on its own.

Largely outside the public eye, the UN negotiations have in fact started to make efforts at making these connections and linkages.  In 2013 and 2014 there was much made of what the FCCC was calling ‘international complementary initiatives’ and there has lately been a flurry of activity focusing on how the FCCC might connect to activity on climate change by cities, institutional investors and other actors.  Take a look at the newsroom part of the UNFCCC website (which is where you now get directed if you aim for their site in general).  Many of the stories they showcase are of action by private sector actors and cities, through themes like ‘Financial Flows’, ‘Green Urban’ and ‘Clean Energy’.  Earlier in 2015, key political actors in the process, like UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and French President François Hollande, emphasised that the Paris deal would have connections to action outside the FCCC as a key part.  However, in the current negotiating text, this has been radically scaled back, stating only that the negotiators ‘welcome’ the activities by cities and others, suggesting that this initiative has been somewhat sidelined.

Nevertheless, given the limits of the deadline focus and the problems of ‘megamultilateralism’, the promise of Paris depends on whether UNFCCC negotiators manage to think creatively in making these connections.  This requires them to think less as global collective sovereigns and more as entrepreneurial facilitators of strategic action aiming to pursue, in myriad ways, a low-carbon global economy.  And for those of us outside the FCCC process, or on its margins, the point is less to worry about whether the Paris deal is an ‘adequate’ one (it won’t be), but to ask what it mobilises and enables in terms of investment, action in cities, new economic opportunities and new possibilities for non-state actors to attempt to mobilise communities in the direction of low-carbon transformations.

Only a FCCC agreement can set a global target and distribute it across countries, but we shouldn’t expect it to be able to do much more than that.  But how the negotiators do the things within their remit will have important effects on, say, triggering investment in urban transit across the world or the shift away from coal in electricity generation.   Moreover, how they connect the formal parts of the deal with their attempts to build links with networks of cities, institutional investors and others, will be a crucial test of whether the UNFCCC is evolving to being the central hub in a global climate governance complex.