01 December, 2011

Why there can be a deadlock when there is a balanced and fair solution on the table?

Sergio Abranches, from Durban

A question people frequently ask me is why even when it looks as all countries negotiating a global climate regime say they want a good solution at a COP (Convention of the Parties), and they seem to make quite similar proposals, the talks end in a logjam?

This question has more than a single answer. The most common is that although negotiators are saying they want a good result, they are not totally sincere. In fact they are unable to support a good agreement, from the standpoint of climate science, because it would harm domestically dominant economic and political interests. It is a plausible explanation, and it is probably at least partially true.

A second answer would say that although negotiators are apparently saying they want the same or a very similar result, in fact what they really want is different, and contradicts what others really want. When, as an example, they say they want “the full operationalization of the Cancun Agreement” they do not mean the same thing. Each has a different interpretation of how this operationalization should be accomplished. In real life, many parties have actually said in Durban, at COP17, that they want the “full operationalization of the Cancun agreements. But they disagree on practically almost all the proposed ways to operationalize the agreement. There is disagreement on how to operationalize the Green Climate Fund or the Technology Center and Network, or the Transparency Regime (MRV). In real life, instead of consensus on the “full operationalization  of the Cancun Agreement”, there is dissensus. This is also a plausible explanation for the deadlock, and it is probably at least partially true as well.

A third answer would be that even though all parties want the same objective result, and their interpretation of the outcome is very similar, there is a problem of trust among them that makes them perceive each other’s point of view as very different from their own. This third explanation is also plausible and it is probably at least partially true as well.

From a purely analytical standpoint, the most interesting and intriguing hypothesis is the one that supposes that all negotiators sincerely want more or less the same objective result, and nevertheless the negotiations stop in a dead end. Let us suppose further that there is at least one solution that is balanced and fair, regarding the parties common but differentiated obligations and historical responsibilities ( i.e. their past and present greenhouse gas emissions), as well as their level of social and economic development. And that solution meets the minimum scientific requirements to cope with the threat of climate change. Fair and balanced mean that all parties would have to make a similar and proportional effort to meet their targets, and their gains would be commensurate to their respective efforts.

Even in this situation, if negotiators perceive the playing field differently from what it objectively is, and see their counterparts’ targets as lighter or less costly than theirs,  they would rather veto the solution, than have it approved. Remember that the unanimity clause turns all players into equally powerful veto players. The talks would again end in a deadlock.

Observing the climate change negotiations one can clearly see that there is a problem of reciprocal evaluation and perception, apart from imbalances in what parties are proposing. This lack of trust appears in typical attitudes like “you first”, or “I’ll do if you do”. Negotiators frame similar goals differently from each other. Like  in the example of the demand for making the Cancun Agreement “fully operational”. All use the same language meaning different things. Most of the negotiation effort aims at arriving at a common framing for each item, a tiresome and time-consuming task.

At present, negotiators are far from reaching a point they all are at a relatively balanced position vis à vis each other in terms of obligations and commitments. The United States’s emission reduction pledges, for instance, fall short of the other developed parties’. The degree of commitment the US is willing to make to enter into a legally binding accord is also smaller than other developed parties’. China, Brazil, and India, large present and future carbon emitters refuse to accept binding obligations.

But let us suppose they all arrive at an objectively balanced position, and still they aren’t able to close a deal. How to explain this frustrating outcome?

All start from relatively comparable starting bids. Their respective bids can be objectively seen as balanced considering their level of social and economic development, and historic responsibilities. Every party sincerely wishes to reach point “X”, that represent a balanced and fair deal. All would have to make a comparable effort to reach “X”.   On the figure below the arrows point to “X”, indicating that it is everyone’s target point. The arrows are also the same size, indicating a comparable “price” to pay for “X”.

The letter indicate some major players: “E”, for Europe; “U”, for USA; “J” for Japan; “B”, for BASIC; “A”, for African Union, “O”, for AOSIS; “C”, for Canada; Au, for “Australia” (list not supposed to be exhaustive, an illustration only):


The problem is that each negotiator doesn’t view the table of negotiations as in the first figure. They see it as in the figure below:


The figure uses the BASIC group of countries as an example (could be any other party, for that matter). The perception of this negotiator is that the others are asking him to do more than they are willing to do. In other words they feel like the developed countries are trying to shift the burden to curb emissions to the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and are evading their responsibility, when they should be leading the effort to reduce GHG emissions. In the hypothetical scenario this perception would be objectively wrong, but it is subjectively what the group believes is happening, and they’d veto “X” although “X” is a fair, balanced, and effective solution for a global climate change regime.

The next figure illustrates another similar situation:


The US is now the negotiator, and perceives the situation as one in which the BASIC is being asked far less than what has been asked from the US. In spite of the fact that the US and China have been emitting a similar absolute volume of carbon, China and the BASIC refuse to accept binding emissions targets, but demand that the US enters into a binding agreement. There will never be a situation in the foreseeable future in which the US and China would be asked to commit to the same absolute amount of emissions reductions, because of the principle of historic responsibilities and common but differentiated obligations. The BASIC will eventually accept binding targets in the future, but never equal absolute volumes of emissions cuts. This principle is the ground rule for decision-making under the Climate Convention, so it has to be observed to reach an acceptable solution. It is likely that even if the situation is one in which what is asked from the US is objectively comparable to what is asked from China, Brazil and India, under the aforementioned Convention clauses, the US would veto “X”.

These scenarios illustrate how difficult it is to reach a fair, balanced, and effective solution to a climate change deal under the Climate Convention. It is particularly difficult when a policy of maximum efficiency to cope with climate change does not have the support of a domestic political majority. Domestic support to climate change policies is key for a party to change the framing of the negotiation at the Climate Convention. Countries with a strong political majority in favor of such a policy are more likely to yield, and to have a less distorted perception of the other’s standing

Both in the US and Brazil the polls are showing that a majority of the public at large supports an ambitious climate change policy. But public opinion has not been translated into an active political majority. Opinion alone doesn’t move governments. It can inspire electoral campaign promises, but not generate enough pressure for elected leaders to convert promises into policies.

Tags: , , ,