Madrid Climate Summit Illustrates Problematic Future of Global Climate Talks

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, left, and Carolina Schimidt, Minister of Ambient of Chile, right during the High Level Global Climate Action Event in the COP25 Summit, Madrid, on December 11, 2019. ©Celestino Arce/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Madrid Climate Summit Illustrates Problematic Future of Global Climate Talks

International climate diplomacy is struggling. Moreover, notwithstanding hopes that a new American president could reengage in global climate talks and reenergize stalled processes after the 2020 election, the prospects for ever more ambitious global greenhouse gas emissions reductions agreements are unlikely to improve significantly in the future. Obstacles to this approach are fundamental and not easily overcome; U.S. leadership can be a catalyst for action, but only within limits. To make needed progress in slashing emissions, diplomats everywhere should consider new goals and strategies.

The recent two-week Madrid climate summit, known as COP-25, demonstrated starkly the challenges in advancing a global climate agenda based on periodic agreements calling for steeper and steeper emissions cuts. Officials failed to agree either on new emissions accounting rules—with divisions between major emitters like Brazil, China and India on one side and a coalition including European Union members and small island developing states on the other—or on rules to establish an international market for emissions offsets.

Press reports blame the COP-25’s weak outcomes on the big emitters, on the Trump administration’s withdrawal from international climate diplomacy, and on many governments’ calculations that it may be better to wait for the US 2020 election outcome before making any new commitments. While each of these factors explains a portion of what happened, reality is more complex.

Obstacles to Negotiating Deep Emissions Reductions

One of the biggest problems for global negotiations on emissions reductions—including the voluntary plans at the heart of the Paris Agreement—is that governments have different interests and priorities. For political scientists, climate change is a near-perfect example of the “tragedy of the commons,” a collective action challenge named after the tendency of nineteenth-century English cattle and sheep herders to overuse commonly held lands and thus weaken their herds even though cooperation to limit exploitation of the land would benefit everyone involved. Fixing this is not simply a matter of negotiation; it requires changing human nature or at best prevailing cultures in most of the world. That might be achievable, but it is a generational task. And climate change will not wait.

Another big problem is that governments have different levels of responsibility and capability. The principle of “differentiated responsibility” is a core component of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an amendment to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is indisputable that developed nations have considerably greater responsibility for climate change than developing nations, at least so far, and the developed nations that signed and ratified Kyoto accepted that they should do more to fight climate change than developing nations with less responsibility for the problem.

Even so, arguments over what this means—and particularly how much financial assistance the developed nations should provide to others—could continue indefinitely. The fact that developing nations like China, India, and Brazil are becoming increasingly wealthy and are also large greenhouse gas emitters further complicates this.

A new American president committed to combating climate change is not a magic wand who can wave away these problems and others. We should know this because the United States had such a president for eight years, from January 2009 to January 2017, and he was ultimately unable to secure agreement on deep emissions reductions either domestically or internationally. Moreover, for the first two years of this period, President Barack Obama enjoyed Democratic control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. As much as President Obama and Congressional Democrats cared about climate change, they prioritized other issues domestically, including an economic stimulus package to cope with the 2007–08 financial crisis, healthcare reform, and a failed effort at immigration reform.

One consequence of this, and of Republican opposition to Democratic climate policy proposals, was that the Obama administration could not hope to secure Senate ratification of an international climate treaty and declared the 2015 Paris Agreement to be an executive agreement rather than a treaty. This, in turn, made it much easier for President Donald Trump to announce his intent to withdraw from Paris.

While Congressional Republicans appear increasingly open to compromise on energy and climate policy, they will have considerable influence over any legislation that emerges even with a hypothetical future Democratic president and Democratic control of Congress. If a law emerges from this, it unlikely to win Washington considerable moral force in international negotiations and will constrain US negotiators. On top of this, of course, one should recall that this is the best possible outcome from the perspective of those seeking US leadership in driving global talks toward deeper agreed emissions reductions. President Trump could win reelection and, even if he does not, Republicans could maintain control of the Senate.

Finally, while President Obama deserves credit for contributing importantly to the Paris Agreement, it is important to recall that at the time, climate activists were deeply disappointed in Paris and its voluntary Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to fighting climate change. The Paris Agreement used the NDC mechanism to paper over differences between developed and developing nations and between wealthy developing nations and everyone else; it deferred these problems rather than solving them and, as Madrid’s meeting shows, solving them will be no simple task. What Paris demonstrates is that US leadership can facilitate limited compromise outcomes but did not and cannot force substantial concessions from other nations, most notably China, where greenhouse gas emissions now nearly double America’s.

What to Do?

The obstacles described above will make negotiations to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions extremely difficult, especially considering the pace at which we must slash emissions to avoid the worst climate change impacts. The answer to this is not to give up, however, but to think about new approaches to the problem. Accelerating the development and deployment of low and zero emissions energy technologies is the best available option.

Pursuing international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions is a misdirected effort; far more important to success in eliminating new emissions will be developing cheap energy technologies and deploying them rapidly around the world. Indeed, without these technologies, nations will not be able to implement agreements to cut or stop emissions—inexpensive clean energy technology is the core requirement for a successful effort to protect the global climate, not worldwide emissions deals. Kyoto, Paris, and similar future agreements seek this technology acceleration only indirectly when we need a much more direct plan to intensify national-level research and development, to expand international research collaboration, and to ease cross-border trade and investment in energy technologies, including through harmonized rules and standards in areas like siting, construction or manufacturing, and use.

A technological fix to climate change will not be easy either as the world’s energy systems are vast, costly, and expanding daily. Nevertheless, technology can fight climate change even without diplomacy; diplomacy cannot do the same on its own.

Paul J. Saunders

  • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest

    President, Energy Innovation Reform Project