The Changing Geopolitics of Climate Change

By Charlotte Streck

Over the last three decades, climate change has graduated from an environmental concern to a matter of geopolitics in the twenty-first century. The political and socio-economic environment in which international climate negotiations take place has seen remarkable changes. The problem of climate change has become more urgent and its effects more visible. It has also become clear that addressing climate change will require a massive socio-economic transformation based on a collaborative effort supported by a broad social and economic compact Similarly, it has become (even more) obvious that the solution to the problem needs to be global. Finally, there is an increasing recognition that the climate regime has to be based on a flexible set of rules to reflect the conditions of a constantly-changingpolitical environment.

The world has also seen a profound change in the powers and influences that shape national and international policymaking. India, China and Brazil have risen as new powers and have gained political, economic, and financial influence and confidence vis-à-vis the old powers of Europe, Russia and the US. These new powers are fast-developing economies and while they have begun to decouple economic development from carbon emissions, their emissions continue to increase rapidly. The relative share of the emissions of the developing world is continuously increasing, and their absolute emissions will soon overtake those of the developed world. Consequently, even if all of developed countries, including the United States, were to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030, it would be physically impossible for the world to achieve the frequently-discussed climate target of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at or below 450 ppm unless there are also significant reductions by China and India.

This increased relevance of developing country economies as global polluters goes hand in hand with a shift in the global balance of power – economic, military and political – away from the West towards the emerging economies of the developing world. Over the last ten years, China and India have become the world’s second and third largest economies, Brazil has risen to seventh, Mexico to tenth place (World Bank 2013). The increase in economic sway has been accompanied by growing political assertiveness. India and China have discarded the low profile that they kept in international climate negotiations in the 1990s and are now willing to actively defend their interests, make their voice heard and veto decisions that fall outside of their national interests. The emerging powers have started to coordinate some of their negotiation positions in the context of the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries, while a number of other new negotiation groups bundle the voices of particular developing countries or interests.

At the same time, climate change has increased the vulnerability of countries and threatens to seriously affect their development perspectives. A changing climate imperils food, water, and energy security. It will affect human health, trade flows, and political stability (cf Sentence and Betts, 2012). The former U.K. Secretary for Energy, Chris Huhne, has warned that the resulting pressures may check development, undo progress, and strain international relations (Huhne 2011). Climate change allocates its risks and effects in a fundamentally inequitable manner (Ashton & Burke 2004). This asymmetry will create different challenges for different countries, whereby those that suffer most are unlikely to be those that are imposing the problem.

The increasing political relevance of climate change has repositionedthe topic higheron the agenda of international politics and led to more nuanced positions within international climate negotiations. It is harder for the G-77 and China to find common ground and the previous barriers separating the interests of the North and the South is becoming increasingly more porous. For example, the collective position of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) group, which is comprised of 44 of the world’s small island states, has often more in common with that of the collective position of the European Union’s (EU) 27 member countries than it does with the collective position of the 11 members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Similarly, within the North there are large differences between the EU and the USA.

In the emerging new world of climate politics, coalitions among countries often bring together developing and developed countries in the pursuit of particular negotiation positions or issues. Among the many formal negotiation groups, for present purposes it will suffice to point to the ‘Environmental Integrity Group’, which since 2000 has represented the views of Switzerland, South Korea, and Mexico in the UNFCCC. Examples of informal groups that operate outside the Convention umbrella but have strong links to the negotiation process include the ‘Cartagena Group,’ an informal alliance of 27 developed and developing countries, and the REDD+ Partnership, which seeks to scale up finance and actions for initiatives that reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Another, related, question is whether regulating the conduct of states will be sufficient to achieve the desired outcome for the global environment. Globalization, transboundary movements of people and businesses, global cooperation and international trade have created powerful private networks responsible for significant parts of pollution. The traditional system of international law that relies on party states to transfer international obligations into domestic law is increasingly overwhelmed in regulating international business. Services and trade easily transcend borders, and production sites are relocated (cfDroege, 2011 and the Climate Policy special issue entitled ‘Consuming and producing carbon: what is the role for border measures’ http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tcpo20/11/5 ). Concerns about economic displacement and competitiveness therefore add justification for governments to seek remedies associated with global as well as national pollution.

What does all this mean for a long-term climate regime?

  • Addressing climate change is a common responsibility of all states, calling for ‘their participation in an effective and appropriate international response’ (UNFCCC, 1992: Preamble), arguably under a common legal framework.
  • States’ responsibilities must be differentiated.
  • Capacity differentials matter, so that developed or developing country status will continue to be relevant but will neither be the only ground for differentiation nor insulate states against responsibility to act.
  • The objective of the UNFCCC, which is to avert dangerous human interference with the climate system (UNFCCC, 1992: Article 2), frames all states’ collective responsibility under the treaty and is part of the context of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), such that current emissions and projected emissions trends are relevant to each state’s responsibilities (Brunné and Streck, 2013).

The discussions on climate finance, the establishment of the Green Climate Fund and the extension of the Kyoto Protocol reflect the continued commitment to consider differences between developed and developing countries. Provided that itlives up to its ambition, the Fund holds the promise of channeling significant financial resources into adaptation and the low-emission development of developing countries and of catalyzing ‘climate finance, both public and private, and at the international and national levels’ (UNFCCC 2011). Similarly, the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol expresses the willingness ofdeveloped countries (even if there are only a few) to assume leadership in climate change mitigation. It also ensures that, in the short-term at least, the differentiation between countries with targets and those without will continue to exist.

A key challenge for the climate negotiations remains the question of how the mitigation burden will be translated into a new climate regime.  State parties, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations have proposed a wide variety of approaches to future differentiation and burden sharing.  However, considering the wide array of national circumstances, defining mitigation obligations along particular, pre-defined groups of countries is becoming increasingly difficult and hence is unlikely. At theDurban climate change conference, countries expressed a spectrum of views on what could constitute valid ‘national circumstances’ and justify differentiation. The proposals range from the structure of an economy, including the degree and nature of any specialization, trade structures, the status of development and need for sustainable development and, still, historic responsibility, over per capita emissions, population and energy mix, to geography, environment and natural resources. Considering this range of categories and factors, it seems almost impossible to define an international burden-sharing process along the lines of defined groups of countries.

A range of different legal approaches would be compatible with these interlocking demands. While a legally binding regime of negotiated commitments may well be preferable for a range of reasons, neither the objective nor any other provision of the UNFCCC demand a legally binding outcome. Similarly, althougha ‘top-down’ regime of negotiated commitments may seem better suited in principle to ensuring collective ‘ambition’, a ‘bottom-up’ regime which allows parties to self-select their commitments may well be the most practical approach at this juncture. One can also envisage combinations of these approaches. For example, parties could maketheir self-selected pledges binding by opting into a legal regime, or parties could operateunder a binding regime while their individual pledges remain non-legally binding. An element of self-selected differentiation, through individual states’ pledges, couldbe the most likely way to arrive at a truly global commitments regime. The only constraint that the objective framework imposes is that all parties make commitments under the same regime and that parties’ individual commitments, while self-selected, bemeaningfully directed towards advancing the treaty objective.

Dr Charlotte Streck, Berlin, 17 August 2013

Ashton, John, Tom Burke 2004, The Geopolitics of Climate Change, Article 13, The responsible business expert, Briefing Paper, April 2004.http://www.article13.com/A13_ContentList.asp?strAction=GetPublication&PNID=942

Brunné, J. and Streck, C. (2013), The UNFCCC as a negotiation forum: towards common but more differentiated responsibilities. Climate Policy, 13(5).

Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14693062.2013.822661

Droege, S. (2011), Do border measures have a role in climate policy? Climate Policy, 11(5), 1185-1190. Retrieved from:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14693062.2011.600844

Huhne, Chris (2011), The Geopolitics of Climate Change, UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, 7 July 2011, accessible: http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/news/chsp_geopol/chsp_geopol.aspx

Sentence, Andrew and Betts, Richard (2012), International Dimensions of Climate Change, Climate Policy, 12 (S1), S1-S5. Retrieved from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14693062.2012.735804

UNFCCC. (2011b). Report of the Conference of the Parties on its seventeenth session, held in Durban from 28 November to 11 December 2012 – Decision 3/CP.17: Launching the Green Climate Fund (FCCC/CP/2011/9/Add.1).

World Bank, GDP 2012: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/GDP_PPP.pdf


[1]This blog draws on JuttaBrunné&Charlotte Streck, The UNFCCC as a Negotiation Forum: Towards Common but More Differentiated Responsibilities, in: “The Changing Geopolitics of Climate Change” Special Issue edited by Charlotte Streck and Maximilian Terhalle, forthcoming in September 2013.

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