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The Climate Stalemate

Multilateral negotiations on climate change have failed. Is it time to call for an end to the charade?

By: /
11 July, 2012
By: Matthew Hoffmann
Associate professor of international relations at the University of Toronto

The hits just keep on coming. The international community followed a disappointing round of climate negotiations in December 2011 with a roundly criticized sustainable-development summit just last month. As North America suffers through a withering summer that comes on the heels of a historically warm winter, both of which may be harbingers of climate change to come, many are rightly frustrated with the lack of movement on an international response to climate change.

The stalemate that has plagued the international negotiations shows no signs of abating, and, in some ways, the negotiations seem to have become an end in themselves rather than a means to achieve progress on sustainability and climate change. The “success,” such as it was, at Durban in 2011 on climate change was that the process did not break down and that the international community agreed to negotiate a new agreement within three years, to come into force in 2020. This agreement to continue negotiating is at odds with the warnings from some climate scientists telling us that we need emissions to peak and begin declining within this decade if we are to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.


The temptation is to call for an end to the charade. The climate negotiations have seemingly produced very little. Even the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the signal achievement of the multilateral process, has had a muted impact given that the U.S. withdrew in 2001, China and India never had emissions-reductions commitments in the protocol, and some countries did little to achieve their commitments.

Canada’s actions in the multilateral negotiations are one example that shows why the process could be considered inauthentic. Canada distinguished itself at the 2011 climate-change meetings by telegraphing its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol during the negotiations and following up on this non-commitment pledge immediately after the conference. Unfortunately, Canada’s repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol was not only unsurprising, it was also not much of a change in Canadian climate policy. At the federal level, Canada has done very little to achieve its binding commitment (to achieve emissions levels six per cent below those of 1990) since it was originally made in 1997. Across Liberal and Conservative governments, the binding emissions reductions that Canada agreed to were never seriously pursued, and today Canadian emissions stand around 30 per cent above the level that the country committed to achieving. At least withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol was honest, since no federal government has actually attempted to pursue the target in a serious way.

Fortunately, in the face of multilateral deadlock, a different kind of response has emerged. Global networks of cities like the C40 group and ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection program – both of which had headquarters in Toronto, with David Miller heading up C40 during his time as mayor – are working to alter municipal economies, transportation systems, and energy use. Corporations, environmental NGOs, and governments are forming alliances like The Climate Group, the Connected Urban Development Program, and Climate Wise to devise ways to deliver climate-friendly technology and move towards a low-carbon economy. States, provinces, environmental organizations, and corporations are developing carbon markets in the global North and South that promise low-cost means of reducing emissions. Three Canadian provinces (Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia) are poised to join California in what is potentially one of the most ambitious of these programs in North America – the Western Climate Initiative. These kinds of innovations, or climate-governance experiments, are reshaping how individuals, communities, cities, provinces, corporations, and nations respond to climate change.

Experiments like these have flourished in the last 10 years as the multilateral process has appeared to degenerate into negotiating for negotiating’s sake – where success is measured by maintaining the process rather than achieving tangible results. They are a source of hope that the world can respond effectively to the climate crisis because they have the potential to engage a wide range of people, organizations, and aspects of the climate problem.

Yet, the existence and energy of climate-governance experiments should not lead us to succumb to the temptation to dismiss the multilateral process altogether. Annual multilateral gatherings are forums that draw far more than country officials. Many of the post Rio+20 analyses noted how the real action was in the side events outside the main negotiating halls, where a host of diverse actors and organizations exchanged information and expertise, made deals, and worked to move a sustainability agenda forward even while the negotiations stalled. The annual meetings provide a focal point for such gatherings.

Furthermore, while experiments provide momentum, they are currently working at too small of a scale to provide an effective solution to climate change on their own. It is important that the process of multilateral negotiations, however substantively frustrating at the moment, is maintained so there is infrastructure available if climate-governance experiments are able to create the conditions that break the political stalemate. Experiments devised by cities, NGOs, corporations, and others provide the impetus for action on a larger scale. By building technological know-how and political capacity for action on climate change, climate-governance experiments can both create the public desire to act more forcefully and provide the tools necessary to accomplish more. They have the potential to build the kind of economic and political coalitions that could move us past the deadlock that has hampered progress for so long.

Rather than abandoning the multilateral process, we need to rethink the role of the negotiations – not to create the global response to climate change, but to scale up, co-ordinate, and further actions that are developing outside the multilateral process. Honest, authentic climate policy, especially for those, like Canada, that reject the Kyoto Protocol as unrealistic but maintain that they are in favour of responding to climate change, would recognize these other roles for multilateral fora, and would work to enhance the diverse experimental activities already underway in multiple jurisdictions.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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