Climate change talks should focus on ‘building blocks’ of policy instead of international treaty

Posted on 30 Sep 2010 in

International talks on climate change should focus on putting together the “building blocks” of global policy instead of drawing up a comprehensive new treaty, according to new research published today (30 September 2010) in the journal Global Policy.

A paper by Robert Falkner, Hannes Stephan and John Vogler of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment calls for agreements between countries on key aspects of climate change policy, such as deforestation, adaptation and technology transfer, without a comprehensive, universal and legally-binding treaty.

The paper is being published ahead of discussions between Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to be held in Tianjin, China, between 4 and 9 October. It is the last scheduled round of talks before the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico, between 29 November and 10 December.

The researchers argue that the international effort to negotiate a comprehensive, universal and legally binding treaty on climate change “has been producing diminishing returns for some time” and that an alternative approach is needed “which develops different elements of climate governance in an incremental fashion and embeds them in an international political framework”.

The researchers indicate that this approach is “already emergent in international politics”. They state: “The goal of a full treaty has been abandoned for the next climate conference in Mexico, which is instead aiming at a number of partial agreements (on finance, forestry, technology transfer, adaptation) under the UNFCCC umbrella. For this to produce results, a more strategic approach is needed to ensure that – over time – such partial elements add up to an ambitious and internationally coordinated climate policy, which does not drive down the level of aspiration and commitment.”

The researchers point out that the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 “laid bare the deep fissures in climate politics that make a global deal ever less likely”. It points out: “The Parties to the UN Framework Convention engaged in tough bargaining over nearly every aspect of the proposed rules for mitigating climate change. Rather than promote a global solution in the interest of climate protection, the major powers focused narrowly on securing their own national interest and avoiding costly commitments to emission reductions or long-term funding for adaptation.”

The researchers note that some commentators have advocated a bottom-up approach of self-standing, decentralised initiatives: “Rather than forcing economic change towards a low-carbon future through top-down regulation, they seek to induce such change through promoting energy efficiency, introducing alternative energy sources and inducing technological breakthroughs throughout the economy.”

However, the researchers conclude that “preventing a collapse into a decentralised, purely bottom-up approach is of crucial importance”, because “by abandoning all efforts to create an international climate regime, the bottom-up approach removes a major stimulus for developing more ambitious domestic policies, thus solidifying the lowest common denominator”. In contrast, a “building blocks approach would recognise that domestic policies need to be embedded in a broader international effort, within the UNFCCC or through an affiliated negotiating process”.

The researchers acknowledge that “the building blocks approach can only be a second best strategy” and state: “Whether it will produce the desired results depends on the creation of an international political framework, built around the UNFCCC, which ensures that partial agreements and regime elements are connected and add up to a larger climate governance architecture”.

Notes for Editors

  1. The Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy was established in 2008 to advance public and private action on climate change through rigorous, innovative research. The Centre is hosted jointly by the University of Leeds and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and Munich Re.
  2. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.