Climate Governance, Reform or Perish—The Future of the UNFCCC

A man stands inside a room at the venue of the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Negotiators from almost 200 nations were making a fresh push to reach agreements on a series of key issues that would allow them to call the talks a success. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

In an eight-month span which included this November’s UN Conference of the Parties climate negotiations in Glasgow, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released three reports analyzing the science, impacts, and mitigation of climate change. These reports— published in August 2021, February 2022, and April 2022—make up the IPCC’s sixth assessment; its predecessor, the fifth, was published eight years ago. Taken as a whole, the problem facing us becomes ominously detailed, and it doesn’t take long to sense the chasm between the current deadly trajectory of the impacts of climate change and the watered-down commitments the highest-emitting countries made in Glasgow to reduce emissions.

The third IPCC report, released Monday, notes that, “The interaction between power, politics, and economy is central in explaining why broad commitments do not always translate to urgent action.” Indeed, like many COPs before it, Glasgow’s COP26 drew plenty of criticism for moving too slowly to forestall impending climate disasters. In February, after the second IPCC report was released, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres called the document “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

As the second IPCC report highlights, climate impacts are not felt equally around the world. While around 3.3 to 3.6 billion people are recognized as living in highly climate-vulnerable contexts, that vulnerability “differs substantially among and within regions,” with West-, Central- and East Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, Small Island Developing States, and the Arctic being particularly at risk.

Increased vulnerability is also associated with poverty, poor governance, limited access to basic services and resources, violent conflict, and high levels of climate-sensitive livelihoods. These can be further exacerbated by inequity and marginalization based on gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, as well as by unsustainable development and other patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for Indigenous people and local communities.

The Paris Agreement—adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2015—established three key pillars of climate action–mitigation, adaptation, and financing. A fourth, loss and damage, was included in the COP26 agreement in 2021. Each will need to be scaled up to address the rapidly increasing and differentiated impacts of climate change.

Yet, as the need for stronger commitments toward the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees grows, the voices and interests of the most vulnerable people and countries are not being given precedence in global climate talks. A climate justice approach to future agreements requires protecting the rights of the most vulnerable and sharing the burdens and impacts of climate change equitably and fairly.

Barriers to Climate Action at the UNFCCC

The UNFCCC is the only universal forum that negotiates on climate. It unites all 197 countries–big and small–and each has a voice. However, none has a formal vote, and all decisions are taken by consensus. Contrary to the rules of procedure of the UN General Assembly, the COP rule regarding voting has never been adopted. This gives countries an effective veto and limits debate to the lowest-common-denominator levels of ambition for the sake of consensus. As conveyed by a former high-level official at the UN, “the UNFCCC has been weakened by not being allowed to use one of its most important tools, the one-to-one vote, to adopt more progressive outcomes.” While consensus should be the aim and voting used only as a last resort, the fact that there is no means of circumventing a de-facto veto remains one of the biggest shortcomings of the UNFCCC.

Putting an end to coal is an example of a feasible measure that would substantially diminish the climate emergency. During the final hours of the COP26 negotiations, the presidency, led by the United Kingdom’s Alok Sharma, had introduced language in the decision text calling on the parties “to accelerate the phasing out of coal and all fossil fuels and subsidies that enable them.” This was an ambitious goal that could have helped stop new investments in coal. Yet, due to the pressure of a handful of countries (less than five), the text was amended to call instead for the parties to “accelerate the deployment of […] technologies […] including accelerating efforts to phase down unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuels subsidies.” If voting had been a tool available to the presidency, this paragraph could have been adopted by the world’s majority, sending a much stronger signal to countries, investors, and civil society that the UNFCCC is serious about stopping climate change. However, many diplomats believe that adopting a voting system at UNFCCC is “impossible” and attempts in the past to advance this have not worked.

Another ailment of the UNFCCC is its restrictive design which separates diplomats from civil society. Speaking anonymously, a high-level official said, “almost no party participates in the dialogues available between parties and civil society, and the division between the green and blue zone is appalling.” The divide between civil society and diplomats has increased over the years. Before Paris, when COP climate talks were a much smaller event, there were opportunities for more informal interactions between the parties and key civil society representatives.

Youth, in particular, have become a key constituency that has been able to mobilize greater ambition at the national level. Yet, at COP26, the youth inside the blue zone had little capacity to influence the negotiation process. Angry signs in the streets of Glasgow reading, for example, “climate bleeders and climate criminals” point to the anger, frustration, and exclusion being felt.

While many young people called for climate justice, the negotiations on loss and damage lagged behind what might have been expected and the outcome did not reflect the acute sense of loss that young generations feel for what is soon to be irreparable damage done to the planet, with catastrophic effects to be felt within their lifetimes, such as the potential collapse of an entire biome, the coral reefs.

The current UNFCCC is also suffering from a leadership deficit, in which heads of state, heads of the international financial institutions, and other world leaders in business are not ready to fully commit to urgently needed solutions. From the United States to India, accelerating progress requires bolder commitments and more genuine signs of support for developing countries, especially around adaptation and loss and damage.

Strengthening the UNFCCC as a Prerequisite

The UNFCCC is the only space for climate negotiations where every country has a voice, and this needs to be protected and strengthened. In order to safeguard its relevance and increase its effectiveness, the following recommendations should be taken into account.

A process to strengthen the UNFCCC is needed, including a review of its methods of work. This will require the leadership and political will of high-level leaders. Two people are well-positioned to do this: The UN Secretary-General and the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC. The UN Secretary-General has already become more outspoken on climate; at his 2021 climate summit, countries reversing their policies on climate were not invited. The election of a bold new Executive Secretary—a position currently held by Patricia Espinosa, who is nearing the end of her second 3-year term—could also help to push the needle in transforming the UNFCCC into a platform that is more action-oriented and focused on collectively addressing the climate emergency.

Finally, civil society must be much more involved in every aspect of the UNFCCC’s work, including being able to contribute substantive inputs into the COP negotiation process. The upcoming COP presidencies, Egypt (COP27) and UAE (COP28), could set new precedents on how to engage with civil society leaders, particularly youth.

The IPCC reports were not without hope. The latest one noted that, “attention to and support for climate policies and low carbon societal transition has generally increased, as the impacts have become more salient.” We just need to go together, and go faster.

This piece is based on an input paper for an expert roundtable on “Governance Innovations to Protect Our Planet,” held by the UN University Centre for Policy Research (UNU-CPR).

Jimena Leiva Roesch is Director of Global Initiatives and Head of Peace, Climate, and Sustainable Development at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Eimer Curtin is Assistant Editor (consultant), the Global Observatory, IPI.