Political realities provide a challenging context for climate change negotiations, including fundamental North-South differences on financial transfers and on legally binding targets. Funding is not forthcoming — the Green Climate Fund, to be disbursed to developing countries to undertake their climate actions, has yet to receive any funds. Developed countries refuse to consider making legally binding commitments to restrict emissions unless China, India and Brazil all make similar commitments. Domestic energy policy changes in the United States and the United Kingdom reveal that they are not serious about reducing emissions.

The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders[1] defines “denial” as an unconscious defence mechanism characterized by a refusal to acknowledge painful realities The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations process persists in ignoring political realities. This commentary reviews the gridlock in climate change negotiations, acknowledges the dead ends and suggests some modest initiatives that could move the process in the right direction and build confidence.  

The 2009 UNFCCC conference was deadlocked, although organizers tried to put a good face on a moribund process with the vague Copenhagen Accord, calling on all countries to reduce emissions and invest in green technology and in adaptation. Hillary Clinton raised spirits in Copenhagen, by apparently committing to provide US$100 billion in transfers a year by 2020.[2] The subsequent UNFCCC process — averting collapse in Cancun, Durban, Doha and Warsaw — has been characterized as a “fizzle” (Parson 2013). Denial of reality continues meeting after meeting.

In negotiations, developing countries demand that developed countries make legally binding commitments to reduce CO2 emissions and also insist they be provided with US$100 billion a year of new, additional and predictable finance, as committed” in Copenhagen. Developing countries refuse to consider legally binding agreements, asserting that they did not cause the problem and are entitled to fossil fuel-based development.  

While the European Union is a strong proponent of the UNFCCC process and continues to ask for emission reductions, major countries continue to torpedo progress on reducing emissions, avoiding meaningful action on carbon taxes or cap and trade systems. Optimists point to the recent US announcement of regulations to cut 2005 levels of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030. But critics characterize this as an empty promise, stating that the United States is already a third of the way toward meeting the 30 percent target. Some US states already meet the standard. Despite the modesty of the US goal, there is considerable opposition: “If these rules are allowed to go into effect, the administration for all intents and purposes is creating America’s next energy crisis….These guidelines represent a complete disregard for our country’s most vital fuel sources, like American coal, which provides nearly 40 percent of America’s power, reliably and affordably” (Duncan quoted in American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity [ACCCE] 2014).

US greenhouse gas emissions are not going to decrease in the near future. While the shift to shale is in fact better for the climate than burning coal, the US emphasis is not on replacing coal with renewables. Take, for example, President Obama’s statement:

Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some” (Obama 2012).

There is a lack of US domestic support for action at the UNFCCC. The Pew Research Center reports that the American public routinely ranks dealing with global warming low on the list of priorities for the president and Congress. This year, it ranked second to last among 20 issues tested (Pew Research Center 2014).

In the United Kingdom, the policy is “going all out for shale” (Cameron quoted in Watt 2014). Environmental quality and climate change are dominated by priority objectives of reversing the dependency on imported fuels, creating jobs and capping energy price increases. Australia has repealed its carbon tax. Overwhelming opposition has delayed the inclusion of aviation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme to 2020, at the earliest.[3]

It was agreed at the Durban UNFCCC to negotiate a new treaty in Paris in 2015, to be in force by 2020. The draft treaty text will be ready for the Conference of the Parties in December 2014 in Peru, for which the UNFCCC Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is responsible.

On July 7, 2014, the ADP issued a report that notes “a substantial amount of work remains ahead of us in order to arrive, within more or less the next nine months, at a draft legal text of the proposed agreement” (ADP 2014). The co-chairs, Trinidad and Tobago and the European Union, also posted a “non-paper” collating the parties’ views and proposals on the elements of a draft negotiating text. The “non-paper reflects many important substantive challenges that we need to overcome” (ADP 2014). These documents reflect the fact that there has been no progress in five years of talks. The non-paper is a classic collection of diplomatic euphemisms — read it and weep. The Working Group resumes meeting in October and it will be no surprise when national interests preclude progress.

An outside-the-box approach is needed to divert attention from the demands for financial transfers or the insistence on reciprocity in legally binding commitments. Three ingredients are required to help resolve the current impasses — a relatively small negotiating group, a goal of a series of small increments and a sympathetic audience. For the UNFCCC, these ingredients translate into a smaller negotiating group to finesse the need for unanimous consent, a lower bar that aims for modest progress in small steps and the establishment of influential constituencies to support those first small steps.

A constructive way forward is to form a small group of “friends of the UNFCCC chair” that can devise some incremental initiatives that are pragmatically formulated so there will be politically powerful, supportive constituencies. The first step should thus be to approach the Americans and Chinese to set up such a group. Forget the World Trade Organization mantra that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Instead, promote a novel initiative — an energy research collaborative with patent-free results, with funding spent at research institutions inside the donor country. Identifying domestic beneficiaries of the expenditures will provide the requisite sympathetic audience, making it easier to arrange funding. Then, get the United States and China to agree that all the funding for the research and development (R&D) collaborative would count as “new and additional” climate finance. Ultimately, products from the research collaborative would also be given tariff-free treatment. With American and Chinese buy-in, the full G20 and then all the UNFCCC parties would likely accept the idea.

The idea that funding for the patent-free R&D collaborative would count as “new and additional” climate finance could actually work. It would save face and make a positive contribution. Each country increases its investment in energy R&D in its own research organizations, with the proviso that the research findings would be available royalty and licence free. The key argument for implementing this idea is that developing countries will benefit from the increased expenditures with free access to the research findings on new energy products and processes. This would also please civil society stakeholders.[4]

Further initiatives will be needed — the sooner the better. However, programs that are too hastily implemented are doomed to fail. It is important to choose the right initiative and the right time. Policy makers should avoid expending effort in promoting investments with obvious positive rates of return; countries will figure it out themselves. Governments should avoid micromanaging by trying to orchestrate targeted sectoral measures or considering specific details of infrastructure programs.

The ingredients for follow-up initiatives are the same — a smaller group (realpolitik suggests including the United States and China), a goal of a series of small incremental initiatives, and care to identify and mobilize influential constituencies. In an ideal world, governments would choose to phase in a modest price on economy-wide emissions; they would have to label the initiative as an atmospheric user fee, a licence fee, a pollution levy or penalty, as the “carbon tax” is politically suicidal. Any charge imposed should start at an imperceptibly low level, and slowly increase over time. The key to political acceptability would be a carefully calibrated plan on how the proceeds of the fee would be used. Recycling the revenues back to firms based on their realized emission reductions could create domestic constituencies and neutralize opposition.

The global economy depends on fossil fuels and weaning off of them will be exceedingly complex. Developing countries’ policy imperatives require exponential growth of fossil fuel emissions and there are few incentives to change. To make matters worse, the degree of uncertainty of the impacts of emissions is very high and the sense of urgency very low. The only realistic prospect appears to be muddling through for several more years before an overwhelming consensus is reached. Given the different interpretations of commitments for climate finance, transfers of US$100 billion a year appear to be a fantasy. The UNFCCC should stop having the same conversation year after year.[5]

A possible way forward is if a small group of influential “friends of the chair” devise some incremental initiatives attractive to politically powerful, supportive constituencies, without prejudice to UNFCCC efforts. The idea of a global energy R&D collaborative, with free intellectual property and money spent domestically is one example. Perhaps China’s future G20 presidency could adopt the idea.

Works Cited

ACCCE. 2014. “ACCCE on Initial Review of 111(d): EPA Carbon Emissions Rule Misses the Mark. June 2. http://americaspower.org/accce-initial-review-111d-epa-carbon-emissions-rule-misses-mark.

ADP. 2014. “Reflections on Progress Made at the Fifth Part of the Second Session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.” July 7.

IACO. 2013. “Dramatic MBM Agreement and Solid Global Plan Endorsements Help Deliver Landmark ICAO 38th Assembly.”  October 4. www.icao.int/Newsroom/Pages/mbm-agreement-solid-global-plan-endoresements.aspx.

Obama, Barack, 2012. "Remarks by the President on American-made Energy," Cushing Oklahoma, March 22. www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/22/remarks-president-american-made-energy.

Parson, Edward A. 2013. “International Control of Climate Change: Current Barriers and New Approaches.” http://www.byteboss.com/view.aspx?id=1798804&name=2013-11-11_-_parson_presentation

Pew Research Center. 2014. “Climate Change: Key Data Points from Pew Research.” January 27. www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/climate-change-key-data-points-from-pew-research/.

Rimmer, Matthew. 2012. “. The Doha Deadlock: Intellectual Property and Climate Change.” December.  The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/the-doha-deadlock-intellectual-property-and-climate change-11244.   

UNFCCC Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform For Enhanced Action,

“ADP.2014.6.NonPaper” http://unfccc.int/documentation/documents/advanced_search/items/6911.php?priref=600008013#beg%3E

Watt, Nicholas. 2014. “Fracking in the UK: ‘We’re Going All Out for Shale,’ Admits Cameron.” The Guardian, January 13. www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/13/shale-gas-fracking-cameron-all-out.


[1] For full definition, see the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders at www.minddisorders.com/Del-Fi/Denial.html.

[3] The International Civil Aviation Organization’s states “agreed to report back in 2016 with a proposal for a global MBM scheme capable of being implemented by 2020” (ICAO 2013).

[4] For example, the Climate Action Network promoted the idea of a Doha Declaration on Intellectual Property and Climate Change to facilitate the uptake of technologies (Rimmer 2012).

[5] It brings to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Programs that are too hastily implemented are doomed to fail.