FEATURE: Building consensus in the UNFCCC: what can we learn from experience?
Leo Roberts, CDKN Project Manager, reports from an event hosted by the Meridian Institute and CDKN alongside the UNFCCC negotiations in Bonn last week
Reaching global consensus on climate change is far from easy, as shown by the current United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations in Bonn. One of the main negotiating tracks (the Subsidiary Body for Implementation, or SBI, of the Convention) has, frustratingly, collapsed over rules of procedure after an eight-day impasse and will resume later this year.
Such failed attempts to talk about the big issues present a poor face to the outside world. It’s no wonder that, while 97% of scientists agree that climate change is human-induced (as shown in a systematic study of almost 12,000 peer-reviewed journal articles over a decade), far fewer non-scientists agree. So, what will it take to both re-start and accelerate progress in the global climate talks and restore their credibility to the world’s media and society at large?
CDKN has been working with the Meridian Institute to engage with key stakeholders from the UNFCCC process and establish some of the essential conditions for agreement. Together, we have co-hosted a series of dialogue events around consensus-building, to explore whether achieving consensus in the talks is desirable and doable, and how parallel processes outside the UNFCCC could build momentum for ambitious, collective action on climate change (whether they are national legislative processes or climate-related discussions in different global fora). Our side event in Bonn highlighted the experiences of both veteran and relatively new climate negotiators and contributes to a body of evidence around consensus-building that Meridian is compiling, to inform the UNFCCC.
Tony La Viña, a climate negotiator for the Philippines and facilitator for the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) negotiations, has been involved in the UNFCCC process since the very beginning. “You might expect me to be cynical after all these years,” he said – reflecting on many cycles of hope and frustration – “but I am still optimistic.”
Dr La Viña cited several reasons for his faith in the process and his conviction that consensus was possible. (He also noted that ‘consensus’ itself is an ambiguous concept, often understood as the ‘lack of formal objection’). First, he observed that “the most important element for success to be possible is preparation… consensus is not possible when parties do not have the right information”. Preparation can be difficult in some developing countries due to capacity issues, but when their negotiators are supported as much as possible, then better outcomes are likely. Second, he noted the importance of trusting why parties have taken their positions: “take this in good faith; they are taking a position for their own internal reasons and you have to respect that. If you don’t understand you won’t respect. Once you respect you will be more likely to move forward”. He also highlighted the role of good facilitation in negotiations, borne out by his years of experience as a facilitator, in which he has arranged break-out groups and numerous bilateral conversations to keep parties talking to each other. He concluded that “negotiating is a problem solving exercise” in which transparency and a trusted exchange of views will lead to brainstorming and a collective belief in reaching a resolution.
Finally, Dr La Viña suggested that parties would have much to learn from studying the form and direction of negotiations between 2007 (when the Bali Action Plan was signed) and 2012, when the Durban Platform for Action was agreed and taken forward. “We don’t give enough attention to the [UNFCCC] process itself”, he said.
In contrast to Dr La Viña’s many years of experience, Ethiopian negotiator Selam Abebe is a relative newcomer to the process. She has been part of the Ethiopian delegation for three years but feels as though she is just getting started, she said, thanks to the complexity of the negotiations. Like Dr La Viña, Ms Abebe recognised the huge challenges of reaching global consensus on tackling climate change but asserted that consensus was the correct goal – it is important to involve all countries in solving this global problem.
Although a comparative newcomer, many of Ms Abebe’s experiences and recommendations echoed those made by Dr La Viña and the audience, noting that preparation and trust are integral, but also that clear communication of positions is often a solution to deadlock in negotiations. She noted that some negotiators are ‘over diplomatic’ which can make their positions ambiguous (sometimes intentionally): “Sometimes parties state in a very diplomatic way or in a way that is questionable to the other parties…being clear could help a process.”
Overall, the event showed how trust and respect among negotiators requires time, resources and willingness to do research, get information and gain understanding. This includes the need to recognise and respect cultural differences. New negotiators are given little time to learn and need support to gain experience and skills required to achieve consensus. Training and mentoring programmes and a ready access to information would help—and a fundamental belief in the value of the process is key. With this attitude, it seems possible to believe that everyone can get something from the negotiations.
CDKN and Meridian are continuing their work to explore routes to building consensus. We will be hosting more events in the future, as well as producing publicly available papers on our research findings and recommendations.
In addition, you can find out about CDKN’s broader portfolio of work, including the provision of technical and capacity support to negotiators from the least developed and most climate vulnerable countries in the Negotiations Support part of the website. All these projects are focused on helping the leaders and negotiators of these countries to become informed, skilled, active, networked and influential actors in the international climate change talks.
- Background Paper by Tony La Vina – Consensus building in the UNFCCC
- Background Paper by Selam Abebe – Consensus building in the UNFCCC
- Summary of interviews – Examining negotiations and consensus building in the UNFCCC
Photo of Tony La Vina, Dean, Ateneo School of Government, The Philippines courtesy of CGIAR