I am spending this month as a visiting scholar at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA). At FIIA, I am working with Antto Vihma on domestic politics and climate negotiations. In this post, I’m going to comment on a recent policy brief that Antto wrote with Harro van Asselt on “Great expectations: Understanding why the UN climate talks seem to fail“.
In the brief, Antto and Harro argue that the United Nations (UN) negotiations are in a vicious cycle. Before the talks, supporters of the system create expectations by arguing that a meaningful deal on emissions reductions is within reach. At the talks, these expectations are frustrated because there is little interest in emissions reductions among most major powers (USA, China, India, and so on), among other things. This results in disappointment, and pessimism prevails until the cycle begins anew.
This diagnosis seems warranted to me. It is curious to expect major breakthroughs after two decades of slow progress, but the pattern seems to be repeated every time. I suspect that much of this is caused by European domestic politics. Leaders in countries such as Germany, where the public is worried about climate change and environmental interests have access to policymakers, simply cannot go to the negotiations waving the white flag. For Republicans in the United States and most politicians in India and China, this is a golden opportunity to play their own domestic political games by firmly rejecting European demands. And so negotiations fail, time and again.
Antto and Harro argue that more could be achieved without the inflated expectations. I agree, as the multilateral negotiations could be useful for coordination, institutional development, and addressing relatively uncontroversial issues that promise large benefits. Alas, this is not possible as long as negotiators are paranoid about the possibility that they set a precedent for binding commitments on emissions reductions and other controversial topics.
What is missing from the analysis is the recognition that the inflated expectations continue to haunt the negotiations as long as somebody creates such expectations beforehand. On this, I have a proposal that some may find radical. Non-governmental organizations, the European Commission, and other concerned parties should boldly declare that they no longer expect a binding global treaty anytime soon. They should explicitly promise not to engage in acrimonious debates about binding commitments, and instead focus all their energies on addressing issues that could see genuine cooperation, such as cooperation on renewable energy technology and developing innovative policies to replace costly fossil fuel subsidies (you may disagree on the political feasibility of these; I find both promising).
Sadly, I doubt this proposal will be seriously considered. The inflated expectations are politically convenient for many groups, especially in Europe.