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International Cooperation on Climate Change: What Can Other Regimes Teach Us?

Solving climate change is one of humankind’s greatest challenges. Caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels, which currently underpin most of modern society’s energy system, the solutions are economically, politically and socially complex. In addition, the problem’s transnational and transgenerational nature contributes further to the challenge of creating positive coalitions for change and forging agreements among nations to act now for benefits later.

Thus, it is not surprising that the international climate negotiations have moved slowly. Yet, the threat of climate change requires urgent action and creative thinking – in a field where new ideas are often immediately shot down due to one political sensitivity or another.

A Major New Report: Building International Climate Cooperation

In that context, the World Resources Institute is releasing a major new report, Building International Climate Cooperation: Lessons from the weapons and trade regimes for achieving international climate goals, which aims to bring fresh thinking into the international climate space at a time when innovative ideas and new approaches are desperately needed.

While it is clear that negotiations within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have catalyzed greater action than would have happened otherwise, it is also clear that those actions are not enough to close the emissions gap and keep global average temperature increase within safe levels. The pledges of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, and subsequent decisions in Cancun and Durban to embed and monitor those pledges, coupled with the establishment of a new Green Climate Fund, are useful, but so far inadequate.

The Durban Platform, which sets countries on a course to conclude a new climate agreement in 2015, is an important step to address the ever-growing gap between what the science demands and what countries are willing to deliver, but it also offers an opportunity to step back, assess what has worked and what hasn’t, and create a new agreement that drives greater change.

The climate community would be wise to study other regimes that could hold relevant lessons for the climate negotiations, and to seek out new ideas that can be pursued within the UNFCCC, or as complementary action outside the UN process. Representing all nations, including the most vulnerable, it is clear that the UNFCCC is likely the place where a multilateral and binding agreement must be made, but this does not require that everything be done there.

Watch a video Q&A session with Jennifer Morgan and Ruth Greenspan Bell on International Climate Cooperation.

Looking Beyond the Climate Regime to Arms Control and Trade Regimes

In Building International Climate Cooperation, WRI looks outside the climate regime to arms control and trade regimes for inspiration and ideas on how countries can come together to address immense global challenges. To do so, we commissioned papers from top experts who have worked on those regimes – Barry Blechman and Brian Finlay from the Stimson Center and Thomas Cottier from the World Trade Institute– about relevant lessons they found for the climate regime. WRI authors Ruth Greenspan Bell and Micah S. Ziegler then pulled out key findings from both regimes and identified lessons for climate.

For example, in the area of verification there were a number of noteworthy items:

  • Verification procedures can become more stringent over time;
  • Formal complaint procedures and sanctions play an important role in motivating countries to meet commitments;
  • Clear benefits of international cooperation can lead countries to engage with a regime and, in the process, agree to verification procedures or forego some aspects of their sovereignty; and
  • Verification can take the form of unilateral and multilateral processes operating in parallel.

Beyond verification, other important lessons include:

  • Progress can be made even when major players stall or sit on the sidelines;
  • Progress is not solely conditioned by legal form. The study of the weapons and trade regimes suggest it is possible to achieve substantive outcomes and build both mutual trust and increasingly robust verification processes, even before countries reach a formal, ratified agreement;
  • Decoupling issues and outsourcing elements of the regime to specialized bodies can increase progress;
  • Variable geometry (differences in commitment levels resulting from allowing Parties who wish to go further and faster the flexibility to move ahead) can spur a race to the top;
  • Smaller-scale agreements, for example segmenting out parts of larger challenges or working with a smaller number of countries for specific purposes, can be used to pilot forms of agreement and related verification methodologies, and expand on multilateral verification systems; and
  • Setting principles for “graduation” is challenging, but doing so can allow for agreements to evolve and grow as necessary over the long term. Making such arrangements can require regime participants to strike an appropriate balance between equity and environmental integrity in international regimes, taking into account the participants’ differing capabilities, needs, and stages of development.

The climate challenge is too big to fail. Yet, if policymakers do not step up with much bolder and more ambitious commitments soon, it will likely be too late. Hopefully, these new ideas can spur some innovation, creativity and greater will to more effectively address this pressing global threat.

Read WRI’s new paper, Building International Climate Cooperation: Lessons from the weapons and trade regimes for achieving international climate goals, by Ruth Greenspan Bell, Micah S. Ziegler, Barry Blechman, Brian Finlay and Thomas Cottier.

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