Durban COP-17: the end of the global climate regime?

In this article, the author explores the world of climate change diplomacy and the international efforts, or lack thereof, in fighting climate change. 

By Ugo Ribet, 1 Nov, 2011

From the 28 November – 9 December, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be meeting in Durban, South Africa, for the next round of climate change talks and negotiations.

The COP were set up nearly twenty years ago as meetings which would refine, improve and extend climate protection beyond the initial principles established in the UNFCCC in 1992. They form the basis of what is now known as the state led global climate regime: “a system of principles, norms, rules, operating procedures and institutions that authors agree or accept to regulate and coordinate actions” in climate protection[i]. The idea behind the regime is that the atmosphere is a global common and the effects of climate change go beyond state borders, thus requiring collective action. It provides a global solution to a global problem.

Progress was made in the early years, especially at COP-3 where the Kyoto protocol set out emissions targets for developed countries as well as mechanisms and funds to help developing countries to participate. However, since then it has achieved very little. The regime increasingly seems unable limit the global temperature rise under 2ºC (relative to 1980-1999) as the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends to prevent the risks of abrupt or irreversible changes.  Following the disappointments of COP-15 in Copenhagen and COP-16 in Cancun, the Durban meeting is already seen as a ‘last chance’ to take concrete action and support global climate change mitigation. Indeed, very little has been achieved in terms of setting effective binding targets on green house gas emissions (GHG), and more importantly no realistic agreement has been reached for post 2012 when the Kyoto protocol first commitment period runs out.

Thus, it is fair to say COP-17 will either extend or end the current climate change framework. While progress on new institutions should be welcomed, it must be highlighted that only an ambitious global agreement could deliver the deep emissions cuts called for by the scientific community. Anything less will certainly commit the world to dangerous change. Sadly, the second outcome is the most likely given that countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada have already warned they will not be in favor of an extension of the Kyoto protocol. This brings us to wonder what alternatives exist today to mitigate climate change. What happens if Durban ‘fails’?  Is the global regime the only long term solution?

What went wrong since Kyoto?

As mentioned, the global climate regime seems incapable of properly dealing with climate change, and even more so as time advances. What is even more worrying is that while certainty about anthropogenic climate change has increased, chances of reaching an efficient global agreement have fallen. Even though most variables of climate change (atmospheric science, demography, economic growth, technology progress, political context, vulnerability and adaptive capacity) have strong uncertainties attached to them, it is now widely recognized that GHG emissions need to be regulated and cut down globally. The UNFCCC framework has not succeeded in bringing states to agree on effective legally binding targets despite scientific warnings, and as Giddens highlights “just at the time when the world needs more effective governance, international institutions look weaker than they have been for some years”[ii].

The main reason for the failure of the Kyoto protocol is certainly due to a lack of political commitment and enforcement mechanisms. Putting aside the fact that its objectives were not good enough, we can see that even the weak goals were not achieved. As Helm notes:“the trends are in the wrong direction, the timescale is short and a Kyoto style new agreement from 2012 is unlikely to make much difference to the underlying (upward) trend in emissions”[iii].

The reasons states have not met their targets is linked to the main reason the global climate regime is struggling to move forward: the fact that cutting GHG emissions is linked to economic and political interests. Indeed, climate change is produced as an externality of states, corporations and individuals pursuing their economic and political interests (energy production for example). Therefore, tackling climate change requires radical changes and efforts which states are not always willing to make if they consider that the costs are too high compared to the benefits. Adjustment costs are different for each country, those which have economic interests attached to a polluting energy industry like coal will incur more costs and be more reluctant to tackle climate change.

These economic implications of climate change are the main reason for what is known as the ‘North/South divide’. Developing countries claim developed countries should act first as they are historically more responsible for GHG emissions and climate change. Developing countries feel that being imposed climate regulations will slow their development. This is a relatively fair point which was recognized as the ‘common but differentiated responsibility of states’ in the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. However, countries like the US feel this leads to a competitive disadvantage for them with countries like the China, India and Brazil who are major emerging economies and remain free of emission targets. This is why it pulled out of Kyoto.

In twenty years of existence the global climate regime has therefore been unable to solve the disagreements between the major economies of the world and create the necessary incentives for an efficient global agreement. The costs and complexity make many countries hesitant to participate. In the meantime, GHG emissions are increasing and the timeframe to solve the problem is reducing. The institutional architecture in place seems rather incapable of affectively addressing climate change. The only ‘success’ of the regime has probably been in raising awareness about climate change. Indeed regular international meetings have served to spread knowledge, interest and concern about the climate change problem.

What alternatives to an international regime?

The increasing certainty and awareness of climate change along with the inability of the regime to find global solutions has led to the development of initiatives outside the regime to try to address the causes and symptoms of climate change. This has created a parallel, more flexible, fragmented and decentralized system which many have seen as an alternative to the international, top-down regime approach.

The first actors of this system are some of the few countries which have decided to act even without a global agreement. The most common example is the regional approach of the EU which is the only actor likely to meet its targets under Kyoto. It even wants to go further than the international agreement, by proposing to cut emissions by more than the protocol requires them to, going from 20% reduction compared to 1990 levels to 30% by 2020 if the conditions are right. It is clearly acting beyond the regime and trying to lead others by example, by showing that projects such as EU-ETS can be effective. Other countries have also decided to act voluntarily, without being bound by any treaty. Brazil for example, which sees itself as a vulnerable territory to climate change due to the Amazon forest, has adopted measures on deforestation and put carbon emissions targets into national law. Even though they know individual action will not solve the problem, these countries have acted voluntarily to encourage and influence others into doing the same thing.

Apart from States acting outside their international obligations, another important phenomenon is due to the increasing importance of non state actors (NSAs) in the global arena. Here I do not mean the increasing role and influence NGOs or MNCs may have on environmental regimes, rather the actions NSAs undertake on their own to reduce CO2 emissions, based and on their own principles, rules, norms and procedures, independently of the performance of the evolving climate regime (not to be confused with mechanisms such as the CDM or JI which involve actions by NSA but were put in place by the regime under Kyoto).

The failure of the international system in finding a realistic solution to regulating GHG emissions has left room for others to act, at many different levels. In the past ten years, many independent voluntary projects have appeared, going from the local to the global level and across the private and public sectors. Bellow the state level, actors such as regions or cities have been putting in place mechanisms to tackle CO2 emissions. In the US for example, despite that the federal government has been reluctant to adopt any emissions binding targets in climate negotiations, various initiatives have appeared at states level. This has led to inter-regional transnational cooperation efforts. The Western Climate Initiative (WCI) for example, which regroups American, Canadian and Mexican states and provinces has set the goal of reducing emissions by 15% below 2005 levels by 2020 and put in place a cap-and-trade program. Cities have also taken initiatives and created partnership networks. Some like the C40 cities encourage GHG emissions reduction through a range of efficiency and clean energy programs as well as information and technology sharing. Public non state actors have started to act at their own level, regardless of the climate regime.

The private sector has also made efforts. The most basic types of initiatives are CO2 reduction programs adopted by individual companies. Today, more that 100 US companies, such as Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, DuPont and Alcoa, have set or already reached voluntary targets. In some cases they have also decided to work with NGO’s or public actors. The most interesting initiative which has appeared outside the regime has been the voluntary carbon offset market, as opposed to the regime’s compliance market. It allows actors (companies, individuals, events) who are not bound by any caps or regulations to voluntarily buy emissions reductions by investing in projects to offset their carbon footprint. It is new and remains small compared to compliance sector but it possesses significant potential for growth. The Chicago Carbon Exchange is an example (CCX) where private members commit to emissions reduction targets. What is interesting is that it is voluntary but legally binding. Those who meet targets can sell their surplus allowance and those who do not can purchase an extra allowance.

Many other programs have arisen in the past years. The progress in governing climate change has resulted not just in the participation of a wide range of actors – from individuals through local communities to transnational organizations – but in the emergence of relatively new governance arrangements at all levels of social organization. Some have even advocated abandoning the climate regime as a solution to climate change, and concentrating on efforts which are working. Pattberg and Stripple highlight that while some nations hope to maintain a universal approach towards climate governance, others seemingly work towards new forms of a more fragmented and flexible order that places emphasis on hybrid and private mitigation policies[iv]. The failure of the current climate regime has led to divergent polities and principles on how the overall architecture of climate governance should be structured.

No one in favor of mitigating climate change will say these multilevel voluntary initiatives are no good, they are. However, an increasingly fragmented and flexible governance of climate change does present some problems. A decentralized, multi-level governance system cannot be an effective alternative to the global climate regime.

The need for a top-down approach

As explained earlier on, climate change is a global problem. Multilevel, transnational initiatives do have positive impacts, but if they are not acting within a globally set framework they will only have a limited impact. The problem of relying on a decentralized voluntary governance system is the absence of commonly defined objectives. Even though the main goal is to mitigate climate change, because there is a scientifically determined limit to how much CO2 we can emit before we reach an irreversible stage, actions must be coordinated globally to stay within that limit. Moreover, since the time-frame to remain within that limit is relatively short according to IPCC projections, actions must be organized and targets imposed from the global level.

If actions to reduce GHG emissions remain voluntary, some countries, regions, states or companies which have economic interests tied to a polluting energy or industry may simply not act and cancel out efforts made by others. To work, international environmental cooperation must rely on the legitimate coercion over private actors which only states and their organizations can do.  A global climate regime is necessary to prevent a collective action problem. Moreover, without an international regime some states may be willing to free-ride or even take advantage of uneven emissions controls to gain a competitive advantage on others.

Another problem with voluntary multi-level and multi-actor initiatives is that they create a complex web of different regulations and verification standards. Each actor decides on its own rules and ways of controlling and measuring efforts. This can lead to competing or even conflicting definitions or principles. Authors who write about the emergence of transnational governance recognize this problem of coordination and the need for policy coordination vertically, horizontally and across sectors.

These points clearly support the idea of having top-down regulations to coordinate efforts and allow multilevel initiatives to develop within an organized framework. Thus, a state led regime is a necessary condition for long term climate mitigation because only intergovernmental organizations can wield political power and public authority to provide an institutional infrastructure within which private activity and private governance can occur.  Only states have the power and legitimacy to regulate the actions of disparate actors who, in their pursuit of individual gain, might otherwise destroy the common objective.

Through intergovernmental organizations, states have played an important role in forming the climate regime and setting the international agenda. However, as mentioned earlier on, it has not been able to reduce GHG emissions and foster real international cooperation. This does not mean that an international state led approach is not the solution. It simply means the current regime is not the solution. We have also seen that a decentralized, fragmented and flexible system cannot work on its own.

A regime can work; it has in the past for other environmental issues. The most similar one to the climate regime also happens to be the most successful example of international cooperation up to date. The ozone protection regime has managed to deal with ozone depletion and the ozone layer is expected to recover by 2050. It is true that eliminating ozone depleting substances is probably a simpler task than limiting CO2 emissions which are widespread in our societies. However, the Montreal protocol is an example of efficient international cooperation and could inspire a future climate agreement. It did have an effect the Kyoto protocol in terms setting up funding and technology transfer for developing countries as well as the idea of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. Unfortunately, mechanisms such as trade control with non parties, to encourage non parties to get involved or parties to meet their commitments, were not taken on board.

However, the point of this paper is not to discuss the structure of a new regime. What is clear is that the existing state led structure must be changed. The collective gains from cooperation are high but incentives for participation are low. An effective international treaty can change this prisoner’s dilemma by increasing incentives to act, especially for strong polluters. Moreover, it must be clear that international agreements on their own will not solve the problem. Ultimately climate change will require a transition to a low carbon economy; therefore an effective global climate regime will need to encourage initiatives from the global to the local level and mobilize resources and creativity at all levels.

What is missing to the UNFCCC regime?

The main missing ingredient is political will.  Climate change is produced as an externality of states, corporations and individuals pursuing their interests, therefore the struggle to cut down GHG emissions is linked to their economic and political interests. The interests of the hydrocarbon industry are at stake for example. Because this industry is large and powerful, it also has strong influences over politics (energy and job provider). Because it is a powerful lobby, policy and regulation has not facilitated the transition into the new system as much as it could have. It is up to governments to commit to the low carbon economy. Giddens points out that subsidies for fossil fuels have been estimated at $20-30 billion in OECD countries[v]. Unless this money is directly turned towards CO2 reductions and the transition into the green economy, the problems will remain. If scientists are right about the urgency of the problem, and if politicians believe them as they say they do, why has little been done to stop it? If policymakers where committed to prevent this disaster they would act like it.

I will conclude from the discussion above that the prospect of mitigating climate change seems weak. As we have seen, the current regime has been hitting a wall and unable to provide the necessary direction towards a positive outcome. The current regime has increased awareness on climate change, and by its failures left space for actors from outside the regime to take initiatives. This has created a multi-actor, multi-level system of climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. It was seen that these initiatives are encouraging and will be critical for the future, but that they cannot be a solution on their own. Climate change mitigation consists in meeting strict goals in a short time-frame, thus requiring organized collective efforts. Only a top-down, state led process can provide this on a global scale.

Due to a lack of political will and commitment to limiting GHG emissions and global warming, this top-down process has not sufficiently developed. The only hope for tackling climate change lies in a change in political commitment, policy and behavior. In Durban, the (unlikely) commitment to tackling the problem can be assessed by looking at three topics:

  • Agreement of developed countries on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol


  • Progress on a broader, comprehensive agreement which includes all major emitters


  • Progress in putting in place new institutions such as the Green Climate Fund and technical mechanisms


Without a renewed commitment to the UNFCCC regime in Durban, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns, the world is on a path for a rise in global temperature of up to 6C, with catastrophic consequences for our climate.

[i] [i] Downie, D. (2011) ‘Global Environmental Policy: Governance through Regimes’ in Axelrod, R., VanDeever, S. and Downie, D. (Eds),  The Global Environment: Institutions, Law and Policy, 3rd Ed, Washington: CQ Press, p. 70.

[ii] Giddens, A. (2009), The Politics of Climate Change, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 207.

[iii] Helm, D. (2009) ‘Climate-change Policy: Why has so Little been Achieved?’ in Helm, D. and Hepburn, C. (Eds) The Economics and Politics of Climate Change, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.34.

[iv] Pattberg, P. and Stripple J. (2008) ‘Beyond the public and private divide:remapping transnational climate governance in the 21st century’, International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 8(4), p.368.

[v]  Giddens (2009), p. 140.


One thought on “Durban COP-17: the end of the global climate regime?

  1. Gore Effect’ hits Climate Meet: Global temperature entering free fall!

    Last week a ‘freak’ snowstorm in NE of the US and dumped an all time record of 2 feet of snow. Termed a ‘freak’’ since snow is extremely rare during October in this region. At least 11 people were reported killed and the storm knocked out power to about 3 million homes and businesses across the US North-East. States of emergency were declared in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and parts of New York

    But amidst the feelings of despondency of watching a disaster of this scale, we sceptics could not help screwing up a wicked smile on a related news item of how snow disrupted’s Climate Meet. This incident is one of the innumerable examples of what it is now popularly called the ‘Gore Effect’. So what’s that you may ask? It is often defined as ‘Happens when global warming-related event or appearance by Gore is marked by exceedingly cold weather’.

    During the 2009 Copenhagen Climate meet, world leaders who flew into Copenhagen to discuss a solution to global warming were greeted by freezing weather as a blizzard dumped 10 centimetres (4 inches) of snow on the Danish capital overnight. Denmark has a maritime climate and milder winters than its Scandinavian neighbours. It hasn’t had a white Christmas for 14 years, under the DMI’s definition, and only had seven last century. The enduring image was that of President Obama scampering past a horde of reporters giving the only explanation that he had a plane to catch and fast if had to beat the massive snow storm hitting the East Coast. When he landed at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland it was in the midst of a storm that dumped two feet snow. When he reached home, he told reporters cheekily that he knows now why the White House was so named. Washington DC was buried in record snow!

    Read more:

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