Policy Experts Say the UN Climate Talks Need Reform, but Change Would be Difficult in the Current Political Landscape

As COP28 negotiations in Dubai last December stalled over language describing the phaseout of fossil fuels for the summit’s final agreement, several American climate activists and scientists tried to revive a long-simmering call to adopt voting rules at the climate talks, where diplomats currently reach decisions by consensus. 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has never adopted voting rules for the annual talks, and the default to consensus-based outcomes has often enabled small groups, or even individual nations, to block agreements, including those that spell out the need to stop burning fossil fuels. 

Voting rules are needed to reduce the influence of petrostates over the outcomes of the negotiations, Al Gore said in a Dec. 5 interview with Bloomberg, explaining that proponents of a voting proposal would try to rally support in time to focus on it at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s mid-year meeting, scheduled for June 3-13 in Bonn, Germany. Expert observers of the talks say there is an agenda item on COP rules each year, but that there haven’t been any serious efforts in recent years to adopt changes.

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Gore, the former U.S. vice president, has been speaking on climate with an increasingly forceful cranky-uncle tone. At the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos, he angrily warned that global warming from greenhouse gas pollution is “boiling the oceans, creating these atmospheric rivers and the rain bombs … and causing these waves of climate refugees predicted to reach 1 billion in this century.”

During COP28, Gore told Bloomberg that, under the current rules, the world community has “to beg for permission from the petrostates,” to “protect the future of humanity,” and that the answer from those states continues to be, “no, sorry.”

A few days later, climate scientist and activist Michael Mann, director of the Center for Science, Sustainability & the Media at the University of Pennsylvania, and Susan Hassol, director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit climate science and outreach organization, co-wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times that reinforced Gore’s push for UNFCCC reform and called out Saudi Arabia, Russia and China for opposing a fossil fuel phaseout.

Al Gore, former U.S. vice president, speaks during day four of COP28 on Dec. 3, 2023 in Dubai. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Al Gore, former U.S. vice president, speaks during day four of COP28 on Dec. 3, 2023 in Dubai. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Mann and Hassol wrote that countries with economies heavily dependent on extracting and exporting fossil fuels shouldn’t be allowed to host the talks, and that fossil fuel industry executives with an “enormous conflict of interest” should not be allowed to preside over the talks. 

They also suggested countries that don’t live up to the promises they make at conferences should face economic penalties. The UNFCCC name and shame model is failing to hold countries accountable because “the bad actors appear to have no shame,” they wrote, adding that “COP rules should be changed to allow for a supermajority of, say, 75% of nations to approve a decision.”

The op-ed appeared during a critical phase just before the end of COP28. At the urging of Saudi Arabia and OPEC, the conference president, Sultan El Jaber, who is also head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, removed a phrase calling for a fossil fuel phaseout from the draft text of the COP documents, defying more than 100 countries that wanted to see some version of the language in the COP28 outcome. 

Are Sanctions for ‘Bad Faith’ Actors Needed?

The final version instead called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems” this decade. The timing of the change, and the way it was made and adopted, left negotiators from many developing countries, especially from small island states, feeling dismayed, betrayed and left out of the much-vaunted COP consensus.

In a statement on Dec. 13, the last day of COP28, the Alliance of Small Island States wrote that the outcome was not enough to safeguard their territories from rising seas. Missing from the document is a commitment from developed countries to peak emissions in 2025, they wrote, which would exacerbate the threat of sea level rise to their homes. “We are a little confused about what just happened,” the alliance wrote of the final agreement’s approval. “It seems that you gavelled the decisions, and the small island developing states were not in the room.”

Other COP presidencies have overridden or ignored objections to adopt decisions. In 2010 in Cancun, COP16 president Patricia Espinosa signaled that a single country can’t block consensus and approved final documents over objections by Bolivia. At COP18 in Doha, Qatar in 2012, a Russian delegate threatened legal consequences after complaining that a decision was adopted over his objections.

Cumulatively, such instances in which a lack of full consensus and the absence of voting have left a muddied picture, may erode the credibility of the UNFCCC consensus-based approach, some climate policy analysts said.

The COP28 ending represented “a breakdown of the process on multiple levels,” said Jennifer Allan, a senior lecturer on global environmental politics at Cardiff University who has tracked and analyzed the UNFCCC climate talks for many years.

“It was really a shame,” she said. “In my view, at the end of the day, the small island states were essentially abandoned by the EU, the U.S. and other developed countries once they got what they wanted out of the talks.”

Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster, Minister for Natural Resources and Environment of Samoa, speaks on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States on day nine of COP28. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster, Minister for Natural Resources and Environment of Samoa, speaks on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States on day nine of COP28. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The sour ending, she said, along with the persistent controversies about holding climate talks in petrostates, may have reinvigorated discussions about the structure and format of the UNFCCC climate talks, including the size of the conference.

“There is certainly some civil society chatter about it,” she said. “Academically, it’s an open conversation. And I think there is interest in the (UNFCCC) Secretariat as well, in terms of thinking, particularly, about the size of them, and how to make them fit for purpose.” In 2022, UNFCCC executive secretary Simon Stiell told civil society campaigners that COP reform is on the secretariat’s work program, she added.

Gore has not responded to questions about his plans for reform, so it’s not clear if he has pursued any additional steps, and Hassol said that the op-ed she wrote with Mann was aimed, in part, at pressuring recalcitrant countries during the final days of COP28 to accept some sort of language referring to a fossil fuel phaseout. 

“I am aware that it would be very difficult to change the rules,” Hassol said. “But given what’s at stake, I think an effort is needed.”

Mann said he doesn’t know if anyone else has taken any steps toward COP reform, but he said the first step is “calling out the obvious conflicts of interest and the problems with the process.”

The “name and shame” mechanism envisioned by the UNFCCC has not worked, he said. “I think we have to consider punitive actions against countries, like Saudi Arabia and Russia, that are clearly acting in bad faith.”

Smaller Climate Talks Might be Speedier

Even if Gore doesn’t actively pursue his plan to rally support for a voting proposal, the UNFCCC has the opportunity to reconsider its procedures without any outside urging during its annual June meetings, said Seb Duyck, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law.

Every “intersessional” includes a negotiation item called “arrangements for intergovernmental meetings,” and now that nearly all the details of the Paris Agreement have been finalized since it was adopted in 2015, negotiators could use that session to focus on how to improve implementations, and how to make the annual meeting more productive, he said.

“We’re entering a new stage where we could think about what this process means now that the rules are established,” he said. “I think this is an opportunity, when the stakes are a bit lower, to have a conversation on that.”

One idea that was floated in recent years by the U.S. and some other developed countries is to hold a full COP only every second year, said Allan, with the meetings continuing annually focusing solely on implementing the Paris Agreement. 

Other suggestions have included reducing the number of participants and side events, so that a wider range of countries could host the conference, because the current “bigger is better” configuration limits the choice of venue to places with vast conference facilities. 

The location of the next two COPs, in Baku, Azerbaijan in November and Belem, Brazil in November 2025, may lead to some downscaling because neither seems likely to be able to host a conference the size of COP28, which brought 85,000 participants to Dubai. 

A good starting point for COP reform discussions is to recognize that COP has ballooned to a large size very organically, she said. There were 3,500 people at COP3, in Japan, where participants made the first significant agreement under the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol.

“Since then, we’ve seen a hundredfold increase in the number of side events,” she said. “We’ve seen this whole global climate action space develop, which was an attempt I think, to create mood music for Paris. The goal there was to get a groundswell of action to almost coerce countries into agreeing in Paris.”

Recently, the COPs have also swelled with social movements, she added.

“It’s not just about environmental NGOs, and hasn’t been for a good 15 years,” she said. “The analogy I use for COPs is, they’ve become a coral reef of action, where all sorts of different actors go. But especially lately, they’re all doing their own thing.”

People in the climate action space are not part of the negotiations, and negotiators often don’t have time to engage with civil society, she said. 

“Some negotiators … I was chatting with said they have no idea where the side events even are happening,” Allan said. “They don’t have time to walk that far. So some of the links between negotiations and side events are breaking down with the increasing size of COPs.”

UNFCCC experts, she said, are aware that they need to grapple with the consequences of the huge growth of the COP meetings in recent years. One starting point would be to recognize that, since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, not every COP is a big deal. 

Does Every COP matter?

“We’re getting caught up in the idea that every COP matters, that the world leaders need to be there every time,” Allan said. “The world leaders are doing nothing most of the time. Let’s only get them in when they can actually provide some leadership.”

She said the UNFCCC could also help manage the trend in the expectations of COP presidencies to want to host the “biggest and best COP ever,” she said. “Maybe we put some of the ones that don’t matter as much in Bonn,” which is the permanent home of the UNFCCC administration and can host the conferences with presidencies from other countries, as in 2017, when Bonn hosted COP23 under a Fiji presidency, with about 22,000 participants.

One of the benefits of shaking things up is to send a signal that “we’re not negotiating anymore,” Allan said, adding that the focus mainly needs to be on implementation of all the agreements made at the 28 COPs that have already been held. 

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“These countries and individuals have been negotiating for years and years,” she said. “And what they know how to do is negotiate new stuff. Switching the mode of work, changing size, changing scale, changing the purpose, would send a real message that we’re actually not renegotiating things here.”

Allan and other climate policy researchers don’t think a voting rule change has much of a chance of going through any time soon, especially since global warming also seems to be degrading the world’s geopolitical climate. 

Such a fundamental change would require a sustained political push by key countries, said Antto Vihma, a climate policy researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 

“Voting is in theory possible and there are lots of examples of voting in the UN,” he said. But the fact that the UNFCCC could not agree on a voting system in the beginning shows that it’s not an easy thing to achieve. Holding a vote would require countries to cede some of their authority to the international decision making process, which the current global political situation makes unlikely, he added.

In fact, the rise of more populist, nationalist and authoritarian forms of governments are moving international negotiations in the opposite direction, he said. 

“The kinds of tensions that we have now can escalate a lot more,” he said. “If Iran doubles down in the Middle East, if Russia goes on full attack in Ukraine … there’s lots of geopolitics going on. And I’m pretty sure that is a challenge for multilateralism as a whole and the climate talks.”

But the big players could make a big difference.

If diplomacy between the U.S. and China—the world’s biggest carbon dioxide polluters—were to bring them onto the same climate policy wavelength, it “sets lines” for the rest of the world, he said.

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