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Yesterday night, the representatives of 196 nations reached what The Guardian called “the world’s greatest diplomatic success” at the 21st UN climate conference, COP21, in Paris. After the dramatic failure of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 to reach an agreement for committing the nations of the world to cut carbon emissions, Paris was hailed as the “our best chance to safe the planet“.

I observed the intense build-up towards the Paris COP with much apprehension because, based on a historical analysis of the COPs leading up to the Copenhagen event, my coauthors and I detected the staging of a COP as a “high-stakes” event as potentially problematic for reaching a successful outcome. In our paper, we argued that in the light of extremely high fragmentation in the field developing prior to Copenhagen, the staging of COP15 as a high-stakes event backfired, exacerbating feelings of distrust and unbridgeable disagreement among the negotiating parties. We identified agenda-setting, the possibilities for informal interaction and negotiation leadership as crucial factors influencing the success of negotiations. We also argued that an intense and frustrating pre-COP meeting cycle could decrease the negotiators’ motivation.

The Paris COP allows us now to reflect on our argument and “test” whether our findings can be used to explain its outcome. Somewhat in contrast to our argument, COP21 was also preceded by intense years of negotiations, often on a daily basis. Yet, while the negotiations prior to Copenhagen revolved around the highly contested technical details of the Kyoto Protocol’s policy instruments, they were marked by diplomatic achievements such as the climate accord struck between the USA and China prior to Paris.

In line with our findings, the way the Paris COP was “enacted”, particularly by the negotiation leaders, was a key to its success. For instance, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his colleague Laurence Tubiana – maybe paradoxically – formally installed informal meetings to enable consensus-building in small groups and prevent fragmentation. When the deal threatened to fail, the French negotiation leaders formed working groups and asked dissenting parties to chair these groups, thus forcing them into a proactive leadership role. Additionally, the staging of COP21 decidedly differed from previous COPs: usually the heads of states come in at the end of the negotiations, but were asked to open the meeting in Paris, thus setting a clear mandate for their negotiators to reach a consensus.

Following David Victor, we questioned in our paper whether the UNFCCC’s principles of inclusiveness and consensus can be upheld or are in the way of a climate deal. In the light of clever negotiation leadership and intense preceding diplomatic efforts outlined above, COP21 has shown that the inclusion of small countries can actually be an important force for change and ambition, as the UNFCCC has envisioned. Indeed, it was the small island states and least developed countries that formed a “high ambition coalition” leading to a 1.5-degree temperature target in the new agreement, which is more ambitious than the previous 2 degree target, but necessary to ensure the survival of countries in low-lying coastal areas.

At least for a short moment, today I feel hopeful for the world my daughters will live in in the future thanks to “the miracle of Paris”. Of course, it remains to be seen what the ratification process will look like in the next year – the history of the Kyoto Protocol tells us that what is hailed as a miracle today may eventually turn out to be a devil in disguise in the future.

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
August 2019
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