Climate Negotiations – Unpacking the Issues

The climate problematic has its roots in collective international concerns regarding the human environment and the need to integrate environment concerns into development thought and theories and eventual policy and practice. The issues have been framed on the international institutional platform, seeking collective action—in terms of international engagement through conferencing, consultation, agreeing to a plan of action, on the resources for implementation, establishing who is liable for action and resources as well as to what degree, and effecting it through adoption in domestic policy and implementation. This process, as we see, has been held up in various stages.

Negotiating Issues

The most striking feature of last publicly available version of the negotiating text for the upcoming Paris COP in December 2015 is the predominance of ‘square brackets’ and multiplicity of options which would be brought to the table.[1] From the actual goal—of limiting temperature rise to below 2°C or 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels— the negotiating country positions are widely divergent across the issues. With the objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations and promoting ecosystem adaptation, food security, sustainable economic development, negotiating countries would require to find common ground on:

  • the issue of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR): whether these should be evolving, the question of equity and respective capabilities
  • emission pathways and cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, fixing of historical responsibility with developed countries, obligations of developing countries
  • positions on the inclusion of carbon pricing, reference to land use, parity of adaptation and mitigation mechanisms, and also reference to loss and damage as linked with adaptation
  • emphasis on ‘additional’ and adequate financing and fixing the responsibility to provide financing (with the developed world), as well as regarding transfer of technology and capacity building for mitigation and adaptation needs
  • building a role for the private sector in climate financing
  • recognizing the special impact on Small Island Developing Countries (SIDs) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs)
  • reference to linkages with the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, good governance, mutual reinforcement of health and climate policies, gender responsiveness and human rights
  • recognition of priority needs of developing countries (especially emerging economies) in terms of higher energy consumption
  • the inclusion of references to action and cooperation by and among sub-national actors
  • the nature and form of financial mechanisms to support climate action

Negotiating Groups

Positions on the above issues will eventually determine the coverage, breadth and depth of the Paris agreement. While Parties are organized into regional groups (African, Asian, East European, Latin American and Caribbean, and Western European and Other States),it is the range of coalitions based on substantive interests driving the climate negotiations.

Developing countries have established common negotiating positions through the Group of 77 (G77) and China, though due to differing interests on climate change within the grouping, individual countries as well as the groups within the G77 as the African States, SIDs and LDCs also intervene in the debates. The SIDs is a coalition of low-lying islands, which are especially vulnerable to the rise in sea levels. The LDCs have increasingly started working together on issues pertaining to their vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. There is also enhanced focus on treating emerging economies like India and China as distinct from the overall developing country groupings.

The European Union (EU) members agree on common negotiating positions and there is an Umbrella Group which is a loose coalition (without a formal list) of non EU developed countries, generally including the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, the Russia Federation, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. In addition, there is an Environmental Integrity Group (EIG) comprising countries as Mexico, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Republic of Korea and Switzerland as well as other groups (OPEC, Cartagena Dialogue, alliances of Central Asian countries, alliances of Latin American and Caribbean countries, etc.).

The Fault Lines

In broad terms, progress towards a viable, comprehensive and binding agreement on climate change is held up on the developed-developing country fault line. The present roadblocks may be described as the lack of agreement on the scientific basis of climate change to adequately inform financial mechanisms and to come to an agreement on differentiated responsibilities, in terms of the emission cut commitments; there are the additional issues of who will finance forays into research and development of sustainable technologies, and the domestic concerns of different groups of countries.

As we look deeper into mitigation issues, the international community are still struggling to establish and secure a consensus towards the science of climate change, identifying the exact causal chain and development, polarities in positions on emission budgets. This, compounded by the dearth of adequately evolved alternatives to the present development path and absence of viable solutions, does not bode well for the development of a long-term climate agreement.

It is difficult to make headway on adaptation issues at the policy level due to definitional difficulties, to disaggregate anthropogenic climate change impact from long-cycle climate trends, distinguish in programmatic terms from (substantially overlapping) disaster resilience initiatives and bring into developmental design and implementation frameworks. This is further reflected in policy and financial terms at various levels. A critical gap that is emerging in debates on adaptation is the appropriate ‘implementation agency’ – not only in terms of implementation but also for bringing together the knowledge and learning for shaping adaptation policy and programmes; while there is greater activity of non-state actors including international institutions and agencies in research and pilot interventions, the evidence and demonstration effect has yet to aggregate adequately for normative and policy influence towards action.

Loss and damage concerns, which are of enormous consequences for groups as SIDs, may well be kept outside because it would open a can of worms in legalistic terms and in terms of financial consequences, with the understanding that the burden would be on the actor with the capacity to pay.

Even as we look to the outcomes of the negotiations for wide-ranging commitments and action, it is important to realize that the process is taken forward by the states. The domestic responsibility of each of the negotiating units (that continue to circumscribe limits to national climate emission commitments) is to balance its resources and the development needs of the present population, economic production, consumption and trade patterns along with the extent to which the vested interests influence the domestic political economy. In this context, while international norms have become increasingly people-centric and there are mechanisms to engage with non-government actors, the extent to which such actors find voice or representation in national decision-making processes is varied across countries – and may thus find limited inclusion despite ground momentum for climate action.The very topic of sub-national activities and collaborations is a point of difference in the present stage.

 Realigning Expectations?

The fear is that Paris is likely to give shape to a lowest common denominator agreement leaning towards voluntarism, which may not be effective enough to limit temperature rise in a time-bound matter. The lessons from trade negotiations lend certain credence to this pessimism. A cautious best is an international enabling framework that will continue to support debate, research, collaborations and programmes and pathways to limit greenhouse gas emissions as well as build climate resilience for all populations.

Yet the timing of the conference – in a year where the international community seeks to arrive at decisions about disaster risk reduction, development financing and a post-2015 sustainable development agenda – may also be a cause for optimism for the mainstreaming of the climate agenda. Climate goals have been brought into the ambit of the international normative and institutional debates on sustainable development, and we await the next round of decision on development denominators and definitions to be agreed upon by countries in September as the SDGs. The official speak is “tackling climate change and fostering sustainable development agendas are mutually reinforcing sides of the same coin.”

This may well present an opportunity for reframing the issues and broadening the participant base of decision-making process, not least encompassing the development practice networks and epistemic communities for coherent and effective action.


[1] Based on the advance unedited text dated 12 February 2015. It is clearly stated that the “negotiating text reflects work in progress, and is without prejudice to whether the outcome will be a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force, as well as to the legal nature of any particular provision.”