Debating perspectives and priorities in climate negotiations

24 January 2014

After 19 years of international climate talks, is it time for a fresh look at how these vital negotiations are carried out?

In a panel debate organised by the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations, two climate negotiations experts gave insights into how the process currently works, their views on whether a new treaty could be reached in Paris in 2015, and what the alternative processes might be.

Andrew Light, Senior Adviser to the Special Envoy on Climate Change in the US Department of State and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University, explained that agreements were always hampered by the fact that no voting system had ever been established for Conference of Parties (COP) negotiations, necessitating a ‘consensus’ process where a treaty must be acceptable to all parties.

Looking back at how successful, or unsuccessful, meetings in Kyoto, Copenhagen and Durban had been, he said finalising a new treaty in Paris in 2015 was “not a foregone conclusion at all”. But he said that although recent Warsaw negotiations were a reminder of just how difficult the process could be, positive steps had been taken there towards a Paris agreement.

Processes outside a COP-agreed framework could also assist in cutting emissions, he said, citing the Montreal Protocol on hydrofluorocarbons, and this year’s UN Climate Summit, which is aimed at catalyzing action by governments, business, finance, industry and civil society. Key to success at Paris, he added, would be the “homework” carried out by nations beforehand to come up with targets to be assessed prior to the meeting.

Jake Werksman, Principal Advisor in DG Climate Action at the European Commission, said climate treaties needed to be "ambitious, comprehensive, transparent, inclusive, fair, urgent and binding". There were divides to be bridged, he said, between the expectations of US and Europe, and between developed countries and economies in transition. “Developed countries want to follow the Kyoto protocol and for a target to remain voluntary in nature,” he said. “There’s still a significant expectation gap to close.”

He said the homework process allowed monitoring of countries’ intentions but that this was more difficult in some cases than in others. “I think we are seeing more and more mixed signals. Everyone can see what’s going on in Brussels; in the US I fee it’s a little less transparent, a bit more difficult to follow. But in Beijing, New Delhi, Brazilia and South Africa it’s very difficult to see what’s going on.

“The upside is that for the first time major economies are taking this very seriously, realising they are going to have to come back with answers soon if they want an agreement in Paris.”