Tag Archives: UNFCCC

Fairness in the Eyes of Parties to the Paris Agreement. What Explains Divergences?

By Håkon Sælen (CICERO) and Vegard Tørstad (EUI, Florence) 

The question of how to differentiate efforts fairly has always been central and controversial in UN climate negotiations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement include different formulations and compromises relating to the distribution of efforts between parties.

In a new study published in Climate Policy, we show how disagreement over fairness principles prevailed in the discussions leading up to the Paris Agreement, and suggest an explanation for why the parties have been unable to reach consensus on the question of fairness.

Broadly, three different understandings of how mitigation burdens should be distributed fairly have been frequently invoked in debates in the climate negotiations:

  1. The principle of Responsibility demands that climate change should be solved by those who have caused it. In other words: the polluters must pay.
  2. The Capability principle emphasises that all those who have the capacity to mitigate climate change have an imperative to do so.
  3. The Rights (needs) principle suggests that an actor is either entitled by right to emit a given amount of greenhouse gases, or that it needs to be exempted from undertaking provisions.

There has been considerable disagreement among parties in the negotiations on how to interpret and weight these principles in discussions of burden sharing. In our research, we were interested in two questions:

  1. Which parties support each of the three fairness principles?
  2. What explains variation in fairness conceptions across countries?

To answer the first question, we used content analysis to count the frequency with which the principles appear in parties’ negotiation documents over a three-year period in the negotiations leading up to Paris. We found that fairness conceptions among key actors in the negotiations are polarised. On one extreme of the fairness spectrum are Australia, Canada, the United States, and Russia, who all refer to Capability in more than 75% of their fairness references. On the other are Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and certain Latin American countries, who devote the majority of their references to Responsibility.

This polarization of fairness conceptions is bad news for the climate negotiations, because agreements that are based on a common notion of fairness are largely thought to be more effective and durable than those that are not. It is analytically interesting, therefore, to understand what explains these large differences in parties’ fairness conceptions.

The literature often suggests that fairness conceptions in negotiations are determined by parties’ self-interest. However, our regression analysis of more than 160 parties in the climate negotiations showed that several factors often regarded as important to parties’ interests – such as historical emissions and capacity to pay – are not the primary determinants of fairness conceptions in these negotiations. Instead, whether a country is listed in ‘Annex I’ of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change–—that is, whether it is classified as a ‘developed’ country—is the single strongest predictor.

While the dominance of this variable may seem somewhat surprising, it is nevertheless compatible with an interest-based perspective. The binary Annex-division between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries was the basis for differentiating obligations under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. Only ‘developed’ were assigned individual obligations to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Therefore, countries classified as ‘developing’–—such as China and India–—benefit from the Annex scheme’s continuation, while ‘developed’ countries–—such as Australia, Russia and the United States–—from its removal.

In this light, it is notable that the Paris Agreement omits any reference to Annex I of the UNFCCC, using instead less clearly defined terms such as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ or ‘other’ countries. The lack of strict differentiation in the Paris Agreement suggests, firstly, that the Agreement is more favourable than previous agreements towards ‘developed’ countries, such as the United States, and less so towards rising economies such as China and India, which were previously classified as ‘developing’. It is therefore paradoxical that the United States is the only country that has decided to pull out, citing the unfairness of the Agreement as a reason.

Secondly, the lack of reference to the Annex is significant because it affects the fundamental tension over effort-sharing in the negotiations. By removing the Annexes, the dominant variable in explaining past divergences in fairness conceptions has been rendered less relevant. This development may improve parties’ chances for reaching compromise and agreement. However, ongoing negotiations on implementation of the Agreement have already encountered ‘roadblocks’ that partially derive from how the Agreement resolved the issue of differentiation between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. It therefore appears that negotiators will have to continue to deal with this issue, even though it may take on a new dynamic now that the Annex I division has less force. In doing so, our paper suggests that looking for pragmatic solutions tailored to each substantive agenda point will be more fruitful than discussions at the level of fairness principles aiming for one overarching solution.

The question of fairness in effort-sharing will continue to be relevant also in the future cycle established by the agreement. Parties are obliged to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years and are requested to justify their own contribution as ‘fair and ambitious’ – a process sometimes termed ‘self-differentiation’. What is more, a ‘global stocktake’ will assess collective progress every five years, ‘in light of equity’, and shall inform future NDCs. To achieve meaningful self-differentiation, the stocktake (as well as informal assessments by civil society) might be linked to parties’ own fairness conceptions as presented in their negotiation documents, such as NDCs and submissions. For this purpose, stakeholders may find overviews of fairness conceptions – like presented in our new paper – of use.

About the Authors


Håkon Sælen is a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO).



Vegard Tørstad is a PhD Researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute (EUI)


Non-State Actors are Here to Stay, but Delivery Mechanisms Need Improvement

By Fatemeh Bakhtiari

The surge in transnational governance schemes led by non-state actors can be traced back to the incipient globalisation that followed the liberalisation of trade markets in the mid-1970s. These schemes provide public goods, thus complementing – and sometimes replacing – traditional, state actor-led governance schemes. A diverse set of reasons move non-state actors to engage in these schemes: philanthropy, influence policy, avoid regulation, first-mover benefits, and public relations are among the main such reasons. The Climate Alliance, a coalition of sub-national governments founded in 1990, is possibly the doyen of non-state actor-led transnational governance schemes focused on climate change.

The UNFCCC, the main state actor-led governance scheme in the area of climate change, recognises the potential role that non-state actors may play with regard to achieving the goals of the Convention. Most recently, it does so through the Paris Agreement, which “resolves to strengthen” the existing technical examination process on mitigation, including by improving access to, and participation in, this process by developing country non-Party experts (paragraph 110), and “welcomes the efforts of non-Party stakeholders to scale up their climate actions” (paragraph 118). For all practical purposes, today non-sate actor actions are seen as a valid, and indeed much needed, addition to state actor-led climate change mitigation efforts. Put bluntly, non-state actor actions have risen sharply in the political agenda partly because state actor-led action falls seriously below the levels that would be required to achieve the goals of the Convention.

Yet, as argued in a new paper published in Climate Policy, little is known about the efficiency and effectiveness of non-state actor action in the area of climate change. Critical questions, for which only partial answers exist at best, include:

  • What level of emission reductions can be attributed to non-state actor actions?
  • To what extent do emission reductions attributed to non-state actor actions overlap with emission reductions attributed to state actor actions?
  • At what cost do non-state actor actions reduce emissions of greenhouse gases?
  • Do non-state actor actions attract more private-sector funds, compared to state actor actions?
  • Do non-state actor actions spur, or stifle, state actor actions?

Against this background, it seems legitimate to question whether the political rationale for promoting non-state actor actions is warranted. Specifically, and in light of the scant objective evidence that is currently available, two issues deserve consideration. Firstly, the appropriateness of institutionalising non-state actor actions, without any associated transparency requirements. Secondly, the opportunity cost associated with public (and private) sector funding of non-state actor actions.

Transparency requirements

Beyond the rhetoric of “strengthening” the technical examination process through non-state actor participation, and “welcoming” increased efforts on the part of non-state actors, the UNFCCC will have to introduce basic accountability requirements on these actors. These requirements are essential, if non-sate actor actions are to be embedded in the international climate change regime in a structured manner, and they are to make a sizeable contribution to it. In practice, this means that basic monitoring and reporting requirements would have to be agreed to, and met. For most non-state actor actions, such requirements would undermine their main raisons d’être – namely the lack of oversight, and the non-committal nature of their objectives. Therefore, from this point of view, increased institutionalisation of non-state actor actions is likely to be challenging.

Opportunity costs

While it is clear that public funds contribute to financing non-state actor actions, the overall amounts of public funds invested, and the share that these amounts represent, vis-à-vis the total ‘budget’ of non-state actor actions, are not known. In the likely event that these public sector funds are not additional – in the sense that they ‘displace’ funding that would have otherwise been invested in other, related activities – it is legitimate to question whether these public funds are better used through non-state actor actions, as opposed to state actor actions. The question is not whether public funds should be directed to non-state actor actions, but rather how efficient and effective non-state actor actions are, compared to ‘equivalent’ state actor-led actions. The relevance of this question increases with both the political and (public sector) budgetary stakes associated with the institutionalisation of non-state actor actions.


Fatemeh Bakhtiari is a researcher at the UNEP DTU Partnership, Department of Management Engineering, Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Was Blocking SBI in Bonn Justified?

By Anna Korppoo

I was asked after Bonn whether Russia, Ukraine and Belarus blocking SBI seemed justified. Blocking SBI (or any other negotiation stream) is of course a radical undertaking as it wastes the scarce negotiation time the UN process has per year. However, this time the action of these three countries, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, cannot be labeled as a simple protest only, as they are raising an important substantive point.

Adding an agenda item on procedural and legal issues related to decision-making gained importance in the eyes of these countries in Doha in December, when the amendment to the rules of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was adopted against their agreement. This further stretched the vague concept of consensus decision-making. Even though consensus does not require unanimity amongst all countries, this time the view of a group of countries was ignored on a legally binding substance matter that applied to the protesting countries (redefinition of their commitments for the second commitment period). Even though they can decide not to ratify the second commitment period, they still felt strongly that this was unprecedented.

So perhaps we should rather be asking whether the request of these countries to add an agenda item (or originally sub-item 17a, which had been recorded in the agenda as a separate item 19) to ensure that the matter is discussed, was unreasonable. And why it raised opposition amongst others, as the concern on the vagueness of the procedural rules is sympathized by many other parties – although all this sympathy may not always be spelled out in the negotiation room.

It could be argued that an additional agenda item could cause at least two kinds of procedural trouble in the future. First, also other countries could start suggesting agenda items, which would slow down the process, and make it difficult to judge which item could be legitimate to add, and which one not. Second, and maybe more important, is the difficulty of the task such an agenda item would establish. The consensus rule is not easy to define further due to its nature. The adoption of the Rules of Procedure for the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC have so far failed, and thus, COPs have been run on draft Rules of Procedure for almost two decades. This means that for instance voting rules do not exist, and thus, ‘consensus’ is used in decision-making. As a result, the agenda item could possibly delay the negotiation process. The counter-argument of these three countries is that it would be problematic to negotiate a new agreement without clarity about the procedural rules. Further, some more political opposition to a new agenda item came from countries which have unsuccessfully suggested agenda items in the past (most importantly: India on intellectual property rights).

The compromise suggested by the Chair would not have ensured that the issue raised had got sufficient attention in the future, as its aim was not to record the item in the actual agenda, but in other documents. Such recording could have easily been sidelined by parties willing to do so. Thus it is understandable that these compromises were turned down.

Finally, all this takes place in a setting which has got used to thinking that these countries do not take climate protection very seriously. Their domestic measures are vague, and their pledges for the Kyoto second commitment period were unrealistically loose, allowing them more or less unlimited headroom for emission growth. Russia has withdrawn from the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in terms of legally binding commitments. Also, especially Russia has demonstrated its ability and willingness to block the process in the past in order to gain political or economic benefits, and even though the substance matter is this time legitimate, it must be difficult for other parties to overcome this past, and see the protest as a separate event. Also the way the debate has evolved due to Russia’s rhetoric has perhaps strengthened this impression, and wider political motivations behind the argument from this camp certainly come to mind.

For more on Russia’s participation in the climate negotiations, see Anna’s article on Doha in Climate Policy. (vol.13, no.3).