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date: 20 January 2020

Climate Multilateralism

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by 154 nations at the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992 marked the beginning of multilateral climate negotiations. Aiming for the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” the Convention divided parties according to different commitments (developed countries with heavier mitigation and financing responsibilities on one side, and developing nations with fewer commitments on the other) and established the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) principle. In 1997, parties to the Convention adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005; the Protocol set internationally binding emission reduction targets based on a rigid interpretation of the CBDR principle. Different perceptions on a fair distribution of climate change mitigation costs hindered multilateral efforts to tackle the problem; climate change proved a “super wicked” challenge (intricately linked to security, development, trade, water, energy, food, land use, transportation, etc.) and this fact led to a lack of consensus on the distribution of rights and responsibilities among countries. Indeed, since 1992, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased every year, and the Kyoto Protocol did not reverse the trend. In 2009, a new political framework, the Copenhagen Accord, was signed; although parties recognized the need to limit global warming to < 2 °C to prevent dangerous climate change, they did not agree on a clear path toward a legally binding treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, whose first commitment period would end in 2012. A consensus would only be reached in 2015, when a new, legally binding treaty—the Paris Climate Agreement—committing all parties to limit global warming to “well below 2 °C,” was finally signed; it came into force in November 2016. Described in many political, public, and academic contexts as a diplomatic success, the agreement suffers, however, from several limitations to its effectiveness: the voluntary nature of the commitments on curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (the Nationally Determined Contributions [NDC]), the weakness of the system established for monitoring the implementation of NDCs, the absence of established dates by which parties must achieve their GHG emissions peaks, the very small size of the Green Climate Fund to support developing countries in their mitigation and adaptation efforts, and the fact that many developing countries have made their NDCs dependent on international financial and technological support. NDCs presented thus far have a > 50% chance of exceeding 3 °C by 2100, placing the Earth at a potentially catastrophic level of climate change. The recent carbon dioxide emissions trajectory and foreseeable future emissions of major climate powers demonstrate the low level of climate commitment in the international system; forces that resist the profound transformations necessary to stabilize the Earth’s climate dominate climate change governance. Climate multilateralism under the UNFCCC has failed thus far—throughout 25 years of international negotiations, global carbon emissions have increased substantially and at a rapid pace, and climate change has worsened significantly.