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A Review of the Effectiveness of Developing Country Participation in the Climate Change Convention Negotiations

Working papers

There is an enormous range of views and interests among developing countries, from the small and vulnerable countries in the AOSIS group, large emitting countries like China and India, to the OPEC group which opposes climate change abatement based on fossil fuel reduction, just as there are major differences between developed country blocks. At the risk of generalising, developing countries, tend to adopt a reactive and defensive negotiating strategy in the UN Framework for Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) negotiations. While this is to some extent forced on them by the nature of the negotiation process and their limited financial resources, it may not be in their best interests.

Much of the negotiation takes place in small working groups working simultaneously on a range of issues, in the corridors, over lunch, etc. To some extent this is power politics, but the complex issues of climate change also make it difficult to negotiate in large formal meetings. Other specific constraints to effective developing country participation include the small size and limited range of skills on national delegations (as opposed to the large and multiple-skilled delegations of most developing countries); lack of negotiating experience, knowledge and skills; lack of information and coordination, partly due to the lack of inter-sessional meetings and national or regional research support; low domestic political priorities; language problems; poor office facilities at the Conferences of the Parties (COP); and, due to many of the above factors, fatigue at the COPs. Regional groupings are on the whole weak; this is partly since climate change interests are not naturally aligned along regional lines.

It is difficult, when national delegations are so small, for small countries to pursue their national interests except to the extent that those interests coincide with a coalition position – most obviously the Group 77 and China position (G-77). G-77 has adopted an equity position along traditional north-south lines in which climate change is seen as another aspect of the world economic order requiring ‘redistributive justice’. Apart from insisting that developed countries take the initial actions to reduce their emission levels, G-77 defends the right of its members to emit to develop (or to survive as some express it), and has therefore strongly resisted any emission commitments.

Analysis of the outcomes of the UNFCCC indicates that developing countries have generally been losers, and see themselves as being cheated. A classic example was the way the Brazilian ‘Clean Development Fund’, introduced as a polluter-pays tax on non-compliance, was turned around at the end of the negotiation process at Kyoto into the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ (CDM) – a mechanism through which developed countries could gain carbon credits for carbon offset activities. This and other outcomes illustrate how developed countries armed with superior negotiating power and information are able to convert their interpretations of the UNFCCC into outcomes, often through forced or ‘non-decisions’ (from the developing country perspective). The outcomes of the UNFCCC have often been fudged so that they are politically acceptable in developed countries. These factors make developing countries suspicious and defensive to developed country initiatives.

There is also the underlying problem that developed and developing countries interpret the principles and responsibilities enshrined in the UNFCCC in very different ways. One fundamental difference is that the powerful ‘Umbrella Group’ of industrialised countries sees cost-effectiveness as the main criterion when pursuing climate change abatement, while for developing countries the main concerns are equity, the costs of climate change adaptation and technology transfer. Such diverging interpretations and interests make cooperation difficult, although the EU group focus on environmental integrity has more in common with the equity stance of G-77.

The negotiating position of developing countries is therefore generally reactive, defensive and negative, for example to the ‘flexible mechanisms’ of the Kyoto Protocol. This leads to what Gupta (1997) has described as a ‘hollow negotiating mandate’ involving uncertain policies and ambivalent attitudes (e.g., unclear of what their national negotiating priorities really are, susceptible to financial inducements to participate, etc.), and a limited capacity to form coalitions capable of constructive negotiating. More pressure could have been placed on industrialised countries to cut emissions with a more constructive and aggressive negotiating strategy.

Michael Richards