Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | January 18, 2010

What Role for Multilateral Climate Negotiations?

The failure at Copenhagen is now a month old, and climate change has begun its predictable fade from the media spotlight. So a month removed from signing of the weak Copenhagen Accord, it’s appropriate to ask if the UN negotiation process will ever produce an effective global treaty that is designed to structure the international community’s response to climate change? I’m pessimistic, but still believe that the UN negotiation process has an important role to play.

First on the pessimism side: climate change is an unbelievably complex policy problem and negotiating an effective, legally binding treaty that lays out commitments and mechanisms to be implemented in domestic regulations for solving this problem is tantamount to an impossible task. The traditional (hierarchical) vision of multilateral cooperation–negotiate a binding international treaty to direct the activities of nation-states–may simply not work for this issue area.  The best we may be able to hope for, in terms of a broadly negotiated agreement, is the kind of framework agreement that the international community developed in 1992 and again at Copehagen a month ago.  Negotiating comprehensive, detailed protocols of action, like the the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, may be doomed by the vastly different interests in and perspectives on climate change evident across the international community.

But the bar for success in multilateral negotiations may be set too high and these negotiations have utility even in the absence of a legally binding global treaty.  First, as my colleague Michele Betsill always reminds me when we discuss multilateral negotiations–the annual conferences of the parties are about more than negotiations.  They serve as a focal point for all kinds of actors (NGOs, corporations, students, interested individuals, media), enhancing the spotlight on this key problem and communicating the sense of urgency that surrounds it.

Second, when Michele, Mat Paterson and I were observing side events describing the activities of those involved in developing emissions trading mechanisms, it was clear to us that another role for multilateral treaty-making is on the horizon.  Rather than or in addition to negotiating comprehensive treaties designed to structure the overall global response to climate change, there will be an increasing need for more specific, targeted negotiations to help carbon markets run more smoothly.  As national and even subnational emissions trading systems come on line, a host of international cooperation issues will arise (fungiblity of carbon credits, linking systems, trade measures between those that have emissions caps and those that do not).  These issues are more tangible and circumscribed and may be better suited to multilateral negotiations than the entire problem of climate change.

Multilateral climate negotiations will not and should not be abandoned.  Yet we may need to adjust our thinking on what they can accomplish and the kind of issues they are best suited for addressing.

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