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Negotiation Factor 1: Design of the UNFCCC

In the particular case of the UNFCCC it is obvious that the objective of global participation was achieved as the Convention was adopted at INC by consensus and has been ratified since then by 197 Parties (196 countries and the EU) (UNFCCC 1992b). To what extent the UNFCCC has established an effective climate regime, in terms of reducing or limiting greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, is explored below.

The UNFCCC contains a long-term objective to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (UNFCCC 1992a, p. 9, Art. 2). This objective, however, was not further defined in terms of the concentration of CO2 or greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At best it placed an important question on scientific and political agendas: beyond which atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration levels will “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” take place? The UNFCCC also included a short-term objective for industrialised countries to stabilise their emissions by the year 2000 on 1990 levels. However, the Convention did not establish a link between these two objectives in terms of the extent to which the short-term stabilisation of emissions would contribute to achieving the long-term atmospheric concentration stabilisation. Rather, as explained in Sect. 3.2.2, it could be concluded that the short-term stabilisation objective for industrialised countries was the result of a political process of finding a compromise between the desire of, among others, the AOSIS and the European Community to have binding limitation targets for industrialised countries with clear timetables, and the opposition to such targets from mainly the USA.

The short-term stabilisation objective of the UNFCCC was absolute: it was not related to the economic performance or demographic developments within countries. It was common in the sense that it applied to all developed (Annex I) countries in the same manner, but differentiated in the sense that developing countries were exempted from such an objective. Next to the quantified greenhouse gas stabilisation objective, the UNFCCC included commitments in terms of: facilitating technological and financial transfers from industrialised countries to developing countries, developing national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions by sources (all countries), and promoting scientific, educational, training and public awareness initiatives (all countries).

An important element in the UNFCCC was the inclusion of Joint Implementation (JI) as a market-based instrument, to enable countries to invest in emission reduction projects on the territory of other countries, where such actions are cheaper. As such, the UNFCCC provided ample scope for achieving cost-effectiveness of abatement actions. However, the decision at COP-1 in 1995 to establish a pilot programme for JI, called Activities Implemented Jointly (AIJ), without the possibility of crediting the emission reductions achieved under AIJ against countries’ UNFCCC objectives, made this market-based instrument non-effective for the time being (see Chap. 4).

As a consequence of this political game, the best achievable outcome for the UNFCCC was a non-binding target or objective for the short term (year 2000). Therefore, meeting the UNFCCC objectives was largely based on voluntary actions and, related to that, the economic performance of the countries. For example, for the countries with economies in transition in Central and Eastern Europe, meeting the UNFCCC stabilisation objective for the year 2000 was not expected not to be a big problem as their greenhouse gas emissions were likely to drop due to the disintegration of their centrally planned economies. In many OECD countries, however, greenhouse gas emission levels continued to grow during the 1990s due to their strong economic growth (UNFCCC 2016). This made their efforts to return emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 difficult, especially without an effective use of JI.[1] Should the UNFCCC stabilisation targets have been legally-binding commitments, it would have been rather difficult for most OECD countries to comply with these.

In the design of the UNFCCC it was assured that the treaty would be compatible with other treaties. For example, in its formulation of the stabilisation objective between 1990 and 2000, the UNFCCC text explicitly stated that the stabilisation target does not apply to greenhouse gases already controlled by the Montreal Protocol. Thus, reductions under the Montreal Protocol could not be counted under the UNFCCC. With respect to compatibility of the UNFCCC with domestic policies, countries had a fairly large scope of flexibility in making climate measures compatible with already existing national policies. Finally, the UNFCCC explicitly stated that countries should not use climate change measures as a disguised restriction of international trade (UNFCCC 1992a, pp. 9-10).

The eventual outcome of the INC negotiations on the UNFCCC was strongly based on equity considerations. As explained earlier in this chapter, developing countries successfully pointed at their disadvantageous position in terms of socio-economic welfare and the fact that industrialised countries in the past had released most of the greenhouse gases, caused by human activities, into the atmosphere. Based on their ‘ability to pay’ and ‘larger responsibility’, industrialised countries were expected to take the lead.

In conclusion, the agreement in 1992 on the UNFCCC without specifying legally binding quantitative commitments for countries and without a compliance regime towards the year 2000 had a low effectiveness in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In line with the analysis in Chap. 2, the 1992 climate agreement left considerable scope for ‘free riding’ and it hardly created incentives for countries to carry out additional efforts to bring greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels. The benefits from such efforts (‘share of the surplus’) were mainly goodwill (e.g., progressive action and a green image) and to some extent establishing and/or enhancing cooperation between countries on promoting sustainable development and energy efficiency improvement.[2] However, compliance with the UNFCCC objectives did not guarantee a favourable treatment during future negotiation rounds (e.g., in Kyoto in 1997), nor did over-compliance offer banking opportunities against future commitments.

In this respect, it can be concluded that concerning the design of the UNFCCC (the first factor discussed in Chap. 2), the final outcome of the INC negotiations was quite far away from what would be considered an environmentally effective agreement. Although it showed increasing recognition among Parties that the danger of human-induced climate change is real[3] and that developed countries should take the lead in solving the problem (‘common but differentiated responsibilities’), the absence of binding commitments, clear timetables for further action, and emissions trading made the UNFCCC far from effective during the 1990-2000 decade. The negotiation power of industrialised countries such as the USA versus the group-wise negotiation positions of developing countries and Europe created a situation in which achieving the objective of global participation and cooperation was only feasible if the Convention text itself was watered down to a relatively weak treaty (in terms of Fig. 1.1 in Chap. 1, the distance between A and D was rather large). At the same time, it could be said that thanks to the watered down text, a global coalition was reached and a negotiation structure established which is still in use nowadays, almost twenty five years later. Moreover, just before a prestigious summit as UNCED (held in 1992), countries realised that it was better to have a weak climate treaty than no treaty at all.

  • [1] Of the OECD countries in 1992, only Germany (due to the unification of West and EastGermany), Luxembourg, and the UK (due to the reform of its electricity production in the early1990s, which implied a large-scale conversion from coal-firing to less carbon intensive fuels) metthe UNFCCC stabilisation target in 2000. This conclusion is based on an analysis of NationalCommunications by Annex I Parties to the UNFCCC (2015).
  • [2] For instance, the Netherlands Government gave its bilateral energy cooperation programme withcountries with economies in transition (Programma Samenwerking Oost-Europa, PSO, establishedin the early 1990s) a considerable climate change dimension by underlining the greenhouse gasabatement potential of PSO energy efficiency and conservation projects. Another example can befound in the range of bilateral sustainable development agreements that the Clinton Administrationsigned with the countries in the Central Americas during 1993-1995 as part of the US ClimateAction Plan of 1993.
  • [3] This aspect can be pointed out as a success of the UNFCCC as in the early 1990s a huge amountof scepticism existed on whether human action could really affect the climate. Some scientistsargued that global warming could also be the consequence of natural millennium-type cycles in thechange of the climate (Shah 2012).
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