2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

The (Welcome) End of Unanimity

by |December 21, 2009

This is the thirty-second of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

The most common reaction to Copenhagen is dismay at the failure to reach binding emission reduction targets. But Copenhagen actually represents a major success.

Why? It signals, finally, the abandonment of an experiment in hyper-multilateralism that never had much chance of success. From the early days of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the dominant view was that any agreement had to be negotiated among all countries and had to assign commitments to all countries. For the Kyoto Protocol, the latter requirement was relaxed to require commitments in an initial phase that applied only to wealthy industrial countries–still a large group.

These assumptions were always dubious. A small group of contrarians recommended moving forward on climate change policy through a sequence of coordinated actions among small groups of countries. They argued that the complexities inherent in how societies would bring about reductions in emissions made it almost impossible to negotiate a global regulatory regime. Although they were in the minority, the experience of the past 20 years suggests that they were right, and the outcome in Copenhagen explicitly acknowledges that. Now, instead of beating our heads against the brick wall of unanimity, we have a more realistic way forward.

In retrospect, what is surprising is how long the mistaken faith in hyper-multilateralism survived. None of the cherished examples of effective multilateralism emerged under such a constraint. The post-World War II trade regime, for example, made progress through unilateral and bilateral tariff-reduction agreements that spread through reciprocity, under the norm of most-favored nation treatment. If postwar tariff reductions had had to be agreed on by every country in the world simultaneously, we would have been in big trouble.

Likewise for everyone’s favorite environmental treaty: the Montreal Protocol, which is aimed at protecting earth’s ozone layer. The framework convention that it operated within was signed by only 20 countries, in 1985; the protocol itself was signed in 1987 by only 25. Both of the postwar trade regime and the Montreal Protocol now have near-universal participation; and the key point is that they didn’t start out that way.

Trade liberalization and ozone-layer protection made progress because governments found effective ways to catalyze processes that amount to “social learning.” Governments, citizen groups, industries and scientific experts embarked on dynamic experiments in problem-solving. Politics was always present, but the overarching architecture channeled the politics into progressive directions.

We can’t tell whether the follow-up to Copenhagen will resemble the way governments liberalized trade or protected the ozone layer. The Copenhagen accord provides few specifics. But it does provide a framework in which motivated actors can charge ahead with experiments that have good chances of success; in which lessons can be learned and shared; and in which regulatory forms can bend to the realities on the ground, rather than remain rigid until they break. Copenhagen is cause for hope.

Political scientist Marc A. Levy is deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network.

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Mike T.Is there hope from Copenhagen? - Climate Matters @ ColumbiaChris VernonBiff Vernon Recent comment authors
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Biff Vernon

Chris Vernon at suggests a solution is for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to form (comprising of the EU, US, Australia, most of the developing world…), for it to construct a legal framework delivering emission cuts of ~20-30% by 2020 and ~50-80% by 2050. These kinds of numbers do seem politically feasible when China and friends are excluded. Part of the coalition’s approach to meeting the targets might be carbon intensity import tariffs, to penalise China’s exports.

Chris Vernon

Quite agree, unanimous agreement sought in Copenhagen was impossible given the ‘rogue states’. I recently wrote about what to do after COP15 and came to the conclusion that a ‘coalition of the willing’ needs to push ahead without the laggards.


[…] benchmark.  As opposed to the  Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord, vague as it may be, recognizes the fundamental differences between developing and developed economies and the challenges that each will face in curbing […]

Mike T.

I find it funny how anybody with an opinion that is different than that of the U.S. is automaticaly labeled as a ‘rougue state’. I just hope we can get a binding accord before it is too late.