Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Bonn, Germany, May 14-25 and negotiated reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases along three separate tracks. First, the Kyoto Protocol: Delegates to the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa in late 2011 agreed to extend the Protocol, which was otherwise set to effectively expire at the end of 2012. However, the length of the extension and other key details must be resolved by COP-18 in Doha, Qatar in December 2012.

Second, an agreement negotiated at COP-15 and -16 in Copenhagen and Cancun, which runs through 2020, also needs to be elaborated by the end of this year. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that requires quantified emissions reductions—but only of industrialized countries—the Copenhagen/Cancun arrangement invites voluntary commitments from industrialized and developing countries, though of different types for each group. Approximately 48 developing countries (including China, the world’s largest emitter) have committed to a wide range of actions leading to emissions reduction, along with approximately 16 industrialized parties (including the United States, now the second-largest emitter) that have submitted commitments to quantified emissions-reduction targets (with the European Union’s submission counted as one).

Finally, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, a decision of COP-17, mandates a new international agreement that would, for the first time, include all UNFCCC parties under the same legal arrangement. This new arrangement must be designed and approved by the parties by late 2015, would take effect in 2020, and has generated its own negotiating track (that got off to a slow start in Bonn).

The complexity of the international negotiations in the UNFCCC arises, in part, from the extreme complexity of the problem. Greenhouse-gas emissions are primarily the result of patterns of energy and land use that are deeply embedded in the broader economy and society of nations and the world. The complexity of the international negotiations also reflects the institutional constraints of the UNFCCC. (See also here, here, and here). Third, climate change is a global commons problem and therefore requires international cooperation—difficult under the best of circumstances.

International cooperation is hard largely because fundamental economic and political interests of major-emitting countries often militate against it. All national governments, regardless of political system, have a strong interest in sustaining economic growth, in large part to maintain growth in employment and thereby help maintain political stability. Economic growth creates more carbon emissions, and public policies that reduce or constrain the growth of emissions will slow economic growth. Most economists who have studied the issue conclude that increasing the ambition of mitigation policies gradually, thereby not requiring premature retirement of large capital assets—e.g., power plants—and in a cost-effective manner—that is, with market-based approaches—will result in costs to the economy that are manageable. These conclusions, however, do not necessarily allay the concerns of leaders faced with high or rising unemployment. (The global-commons nature of climate change suggests that even with a fully employed economy, a government would be resistant to take on serious costs in the absence of international cooperation—at least among major emitters— because the benefits to the country in that case would always be much less than the costs.)

The UNFCCC climate negotiations, to which there are 195 parties, may be reduced, for some purposes, to negotiations between China and the United States, which together accounted for 42% of global emissions in 2008. (See Figures 1 and 2.) China’s large population and, perhaps more important, substantial internal migration from rural to urban areas, accentuate Chinese leaders’ interest in growth and employment. The United States, while not facing the same pressures, has had relatively high unemployment since the financial crisis.



The primary reason that the U.S. Senate gave, in the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in July 1997, for rejecting in advance any Kyoto-like treaty, was that it “…would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States”. Strongly implied was that this harm would result, in large part, from China and other developing-country parties to the UNFCCC having no mitigation commitments, while industrialized countries did, thus differentially imposing costs on the latter group’s economies. Since that time, competition between China and the United States has only intensified, despite a deep economic symbiosis involving trade and debt. (This includes competition for oil supply; China’s rapidly growing demand for oil is a major reason for U.S. gasoline prices being significantly higher than they otherwise would.) Most U.S. leaders see China’s economic and military ascension as a challenge to the United States’ own place in the world.

Some leaders and some portions of the public in China and the United States also understand that it is in their countries’ interests to prevent the Earth’s surface from getting too hot—and avoiding the attendant costs (which, by the way, are much harder to estimate than the costs of mitigating emissions). However, in larger-emitting countries, climate change and climate-change policy are not going to compete well with fundamental economic and security interests for leaders’ attention and support. Both China and the United States are actually doing a good deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but their national governments will not make legally-binding commitments to do so before their national (and co-dependent) economies—as well as bilateral trust—improve markedly.

So where does this leave the complex UNFCCC negotiation, with all its moving parts? The UNFCCC is learning, over time, to deal with differences in national interests as they pertain to climate change. Ms. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, and President (roughly equivalent to “Chair”) of COP-17, noted in a May 17, 2012 letter to the UNFCCC’s parties and leadership that the three components of the mitigation talks are “part of a delicate package” negotiated in Durban, by which she refers to a balancing act among the goals and ambitions of the EU, the smaller developing countries, the United States, and China in Durban. (See especially page 2, par. 3 of the letter.) That the UNFCCC is capable of such a delicate balance does offer some solace. But the UNFCCC cannot make the United States, China or any other major-emitting country do something that they perceive not to be compatible with their interests. (The EU is somewhat different, but that’s a topic for another post.)

The Kyoto Protocol, uniquely among international climate agreements, caps and reduces emissions in a legally-binding manner. But in clumsily realizing a core principle of the UNFCCC (the treaty, not the organization)—that industrialized and developing countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which was motivated in part by the widely differing cumulative historical emissions of these two groups (see Figure 3)—it lost the United States. The Copenhagen Accord (with the Cancun Agreements) allows for nuanced differentiation, but neither inspires or requires the ambition necessary to do what climate scientists apparently believe is wise.


There is indeed a window of opportunity opened by the Durban Platform to somehow meld ambition and realism. But to take advantage of this opportunity, parties should tailor the new agreement such that it accommodates, rather than attempts to confront, the national economic and security interests of the major-emitting countries. For example, the new agreement should take the long view, ramping-up emissions reduction gradually, thus reducing capital-turnover costs and providing time for technological innovation induced by explicit or implied carbon prices to reduce costs of abatement. It might consider sympathetically the relationships among trade, energy supply, and national security and how these might constrain parties’ ability to comply. It might allow for “dynamic accession,” whereby major-emitting parties sign on to the new agreement in steps, providing time for domestic learning about how to reduce costs of abatement, building trust between and among competitive nation-states, and allowing countries time to identify secure energy supplies. The parties will decide on the architecture and details of a post-Durban agreement, and there are promising options for both, but to succeed in alleviating this formidable problem, the agreement must “capture the interest” of the major emitters—in more ways than one.

Image Credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock