Great Powers and International Environmental Cooperation: Leading the Charge?

By Inger Weibust

The announcement that, as a result of bilateral talks, China and the United States have agreed to cap greenhouse gas emissions is the most consequential development in international environmental cooperation since the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997. The agreement is significant in its own right as well as representing the best hope for restarting the stalled official multilateral process. The agreement also serves as a test for the role of great powers in international cooperation. Without active US and Chinese participation, almost nothing has been accomplished in international cooperation on climate change. What can be accomplished with it?

Why is the agreement so significant? The US and China are #1 and 2 emitters of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), respectively. Together, they account for 40% of emissions. For the first time, China, the world’s single largest emitter of GHGs has committed to eventually capping those emissions. When the Kyoto Protocol was signed, China (and also India) was in the developing countries’ group, exempt from binding targets. Only Western countries and those in the former East bloc were required commit to binding targets for emissions.

The blank cheque to developing countries was justified by the historical legacy of the developed world’s GHG emissions, which persist in the atmosphere many decades later. India has been the leading voice insisting on no emissions limits for developing countries, in the name of historical equity and a sovereign right to economic development. Whatever the philosophical merits of this position, the practical implications of the developing country exemption became more serious once China overtook the US as the world’s single largest emitter in 2005. Although this development was expected, few anticipated that this change would occur less than 10 years after the signing of Kyoto.

The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiated in Rio launched the official international process on climate change. It follows the typical pattern of international conventions: broad participation by most of the world’s countries and unanimous decision making. The UNFCC originally had 154 signatories. Since 1995, they have met annually at the Convention of the Parties (COP). In response to criticisms of the standard state-to-state process of diplomacy and international negotiation, there has been very broad attendance by NGOs (including business groups) at these meetings. Almost 1,600 NGOs have official observer status, as well as about 100 international organizations. The UNFCCC is a model of very broad, inclusive, transparent global governance. While this may represent an advance in global democracy and recognition of civil society, it has not delivered results. Sadly, with the exception of the COP that created the Kyoto protocol, the COPs have not resulted in binding commitments to reduce emissions. While the European Union has rather heroically decided on its own to limit emissions, the EU’s leadership has resulted in almost no followers, particularly with Australia’s reversal on climate change policy. Does it matter if the process for international negotiations is inclusive, transparent and fair if that process has not delivered results for the problem at hand?

The US signed Kyoto but never ratified the treaty. While many international treaties face a very rough ride in the United States Senate (whose approval is required for ratification), the prospects for an international climate change treaty have not been helped by the exemption of major emitters from the developing world. Given that the impact of US emissions cuts could be negated if GHG emitting industries relocate to the developing world, US emissions cuts have been a hard sell so long as the emissions of a major economic competitor, China, have gone unregulated. Although India is the third largest single emitter, its per capita emissions are about a 1/10 of US levels and it is not perceived to be in head-to-head competition with the US for industrial activity and investment the way that China is.

Climate change is a global problem, to which everyone on earth contributes to and will be impacted by, although neither contribution nor consequences are equally distributed across individuals. The official UN process has assumed that a global problem requiring a global solution necessitates a negotiating process that now includes 196 countries in addition to all those NGOs and anybody who can afford airfare to wherever the COP is being held this year. However, 70% of carbon dioxide emissions are accounted for by just 7 countries plus the European Union. (Finally a case where Canada really does punch above its weight: we account for 1.9% of global carbon dioxide emissions.) Slowing climate change requires agreement by a critical mass of those emitting countries. The assent of the remaining 100 -125 countries would be nice but it is not essential.

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