Lecture notes: Michael Zammit Cutajar on 20 years of climate talks

On Thursday 9 February 2012 the former head of the UNFCCC Michael Zammit Cutajar delivered a talk entitled “20 years of talking: What have the global climate negotiations achieved?”

The talk was an opportunity to reflect on some of the key milestones over the past two decades, and chart a path forward for future negotiations.

Mr Zammit Cuatajar has generously sent his lecture notes so that students, academics and other interested parties who were not at the talk can gain a clearer picture of his views on the process.

You can also view selected clips of his lecture on our online TV channel, Climate Change TV.

Michael Zammit-Cutajar – Mitigation deal only need 10 countries from Responding to Climate Change on Vimeo.

Michael Zammit Cutajar – Notes for lecture 9 February 2012 –co-hosted by Responding to Climate Change (RTCC – Ed King) and Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR – Will Straw) at IPPR, London.

-Personal reflections on difficulties, stumbling blocks in CC negotiations – deriving some pointers for post-Durban phase. (NB. I was not at Durban.)

A. Rise in awareness (public, political, corporate)

-CC relative newcomer on international agenda <25 yrs since 1988; cf. trade, maritime law

    • 1988: IPCC, UNGA


-But it has climbed quickly up political ladder:

  • From discussion among meteorological and environmental experts, with low political clout, to stuff of political summitry.
  • Has added dimension to:
    1. Economic strategy, national & corporate;
    2. Security planning (water/food supply, energy security, population displacement due weather disasters, sea-level rise).
    • Realization that CC is out of G.8 reach hastened shift of geo-political conversation to G.20.
    • NB Stimuli from London: PM Thatcher – soundly advised by Sir John Houghton, PM Blair; BP/ CEO John Browne, Royal Dutch Shell/ CEO Mark Moody Stuart (cf. US majors); Nick Stern.


-Main impetus to rise in awareness: IPCC

    • Findings on human contribution to CC and on CC impacts increasingly confident, while remaining prudent;
    • IPCC in public eye, open to attack; has made mistakes, learned hard way that it needs to improve process, transparency;
    • But – overall – widely accepted as offering best available scientific foundation for political judgement.
    • Testimonial from homeland of “climate skepticism”: US President George W. Bush, launching MEF, 2007, referring to climate science: “Our understanding has come a long way”.


B. Difficulties in process (science, economics, politics, institutions)

  • With this scientific backing, negotiations started well: IPCC 1 1990 underpinned negotiation of Convention (1991-92, 15 months); IPCC 2 platform for Berlin Mandate and Kyoto Protocol negotiations (1995-97, 30 months). But KP was never sent to US Senate and US withdrawal from KP 2001 marked start of uphill struggle ever since, in search of a comprehensive, fair and ambitious international agreement. What have been the stumbling blocks along the way?

(Inherent fundamentals)

 1. Science does not fix the goal posts

  • Important to recognize what IPCC does not do. It does not make political judgements or recommendations for action.

Michael Zammit Cutajar on the science and politics of the international negotaitions from Responding to Climate Change on Vimeo.

    • Most important, it does not define what is “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” – prevention of which is Convention objective – Art.2).
    • IPCC presents scenarios of GHG emissions, concentrations, resulting warming and its effects. But the choice between aiming at 2°C or 1.5°C as a warming limit is political, not scientific, as is the question which country or group should do what by when to achieve that aim.
    • So CC “danger” is in the eye of the beholder and national assessments of vulnerability vary according to coping capacity, geography and valuation of the future. No common motivation to act. Or – common but differentiated motivation!
    • Given differing risk assessments, I find it difficult to discern quid pro quo in CC negotiation, unlike e.g. trade concessions or disarmament offers. Disconnect between demand (vulnerability) and supply (capability) results in there being no inherent tendency to convergence.


2. Economics favour a defensive game.

  • Stern’s headline message that prevention (action) is cheaper than cure (inaction) applies globally and is based on a long-term view that puts a value on the interests of future generations. Negotiators – like their political masters – tend to look more at national up-front costs, at burdens of change and direct threats to competitiveness rather than at opportunities of investment in efficiency and innovation or at collateral benefits (e.g. health). More so when economies are troubled.
  • Defensive dynamic further compounded by interests – and sometimes tactics – of countries that produce/export fossil fuels.

(Geo-political fundamentals)

 3. USA: constitutional aversion to tying hands in treaties

  • Senate oversees Executive, in way that reflects its composition/interests e.g. on CC, 570K citizens sitting on Wyoming coal reserves have same representation as 37M potentially-green Californians.
  • More recently, Senate influenced by rise to prominence of anti-CC dogma in Republican Party politics.
  • Two consequences:
    1. Senate needs to be convinced over time;
    2. Executive often prefers to act towards treaty objectives outside treaty. (Thus, much going on to promote energy efficiency and reduce energy dependence is not explicitly linked to CC.)
    • Worst US experience: Clinton/Gore invested expectations in “Made in USA” KP, despite its non-alignment with Byrd/Hagel sense of Senate resolution: was this domestic miscalculation or play to international gallery?? Don’t know – but Bush’s repudiation was, by comparison, straightforward.


4. USA – China pas de deux: tendency to impasse, preference for bottom-up pledges

  • China has emerged as second CC super-power over two decades of negotiation. US position on CC has morphed into sub-plot of geo-political relationship/rivalry with China.
  • China/US emission numbers show:
    1. Comparable current atmospheric impacts
    2. Widely different historical contributions and present circumstances.
  • China and USA are in league apart, “G.2”, eyes very much on each other in pas de deux. Two consequences:
    1. (Evident) Tendency to standoff: China expects US to lead (historical responsibility) – USA needs assurance that China will follow (future responsibility, current competitiveness).
    2. (Less-evident) China shares US preference for bottom-up “best effort” pledges, avoiding external “imposition”.

(UNFCCC process)

5. Dance around principles: equity, leadership, CBDR/RC

  • Fairness and leadership are clear, sound ethical and political principles.
  • “Common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities (CBDR/RC)” is unclear diplomatic formula, defensively/statically interpreted by developing countries, with emphasis on D vs. C and neglect of RC.


  1. Brazil, China, India dragged feet for 10 years on 1st national communication, citing lack of capacity and funds.
  2. Rich Gulf States, Singapore still classed as non-Annex I “developing” (miles ahead of poorest Annex I, Ukraine).
  3. Only 2 Parties have opted for “graduation” to Annex I, and only in consequence of EU accession: Malta followed by Cyprus.
    • AI Parties would prefer to replace two camps with evolutionary spectrum – but issue is probably more of an irritant than a fundamental obstacle to progress.
    • Despite their “emergence”, BASIC countries are not “rich”. Their GDP/cap in global listings is South Africa no. 77, Brazil 78, China 103, and India 130.


6. Outsize negotiating table

  • G77/China assembles countries with disparate weights, interests.
    1. Reflects elements of shared history, not quickly forgotten.
    2. Is evolving: BASIC, AOSIS/LDCs, coalitions of willing
  • The big mitigation deal needs only handful of major economies (10-12), counting EUas:
      1. MEF has addressed this, but is only talk-shop, arms length from negotiations, no willingness to report in to COP.
      2. Any deal among MEs would need to be subject to test of endorsement by COP to ensure legitimacy and, above all, adequacy of ambition.


7. Lack of voting procedures (footnote)

  • Lack of voting rules on matters of substance (except as specified in Convention).
  • Consensus requirement protects a heavyweight against isolation on substance or budget.
  • But also enables tactical defence of special interests, whether economic (OPEC) or ideological (ALBA).
  • This creates procedural challenges to presiding officers in coming to closure. They were overcome in adopting the Convention (Ripert, 1992), the Berlin Mandate (Merkel, 1995) and the Cancun Agreements (Espinosa, 2010) – but caused chaos in Copenhagen (Rasmussen, 2009).
  • Occasional efforts to address this lacuna have not got anywhere.

C. Some pointers for future negotiations (post-Durban)

  • Given the preferences of US and China, I do not expect that the 2015 deal envisaged in the Durban Platform (effective 2020) will come to an elegant, logical resolution, e.g. sharing out a top-down global carbon budget, or fixing a common level for carbon taxes.
  • I expect the 2015 outcome to be an aggregation of pledges or commitments, in which motivated countries (islands, LDCs, EU etc) will push for highest level of ambition.
  • This bottom-up push will not be unlike the Kyoto dynamic, except it will engage all Parties and be related to a chosen political target (2°C or 1.5°C).
  • Explicit mention of Convention principles and Annexes – even of “developed” and “developing” countries – was kept out of Durban Platform text (by the USA?). But the principles will still figure in any negotiations “under the Convention”. (cf. echoes of Durban in India, statements by PM Manmohan Singh)
  • It may make political sense to shift emphasis of this principled discussion from responsibility (liability) to capability: from “what should you do?” to “what can you do?” – and thus “what more can we help you to do?”


  • The Durban Platform text leaves open the legal nature of the 2015 deal.
  • Many negotiators/commentators attach importance to legally binding form and language (“shall” not “should”). Others feel that penalties for non-compliance deter ambition. The recent declarations by Canada, which has walked out of the legally binding KP, and Japan and Russia, which will not join CP2, cast doubt on the real value of the “legal-bindingness”.
  • I would argue that the legal form of the 2015 outcome is not as important as its ambition and the means for verifying delivery of actions and outcomes pledged. The winning formula may be ambition + predictability + accountability (common accounting). Can’t over-emphasize importance of common accounting under Convention; it is an under-developed function of COP/SBI.
  • The words “applicable to all Parties” in the Durban Platform text may open the way to the “symmetry of legal obligations” sought by the USA (to satisfy the Senate). This concept allows for differentiation of effort/content of commitments by developed and developing countries.
  • While the Durban Platform text provides for an all-embracing work plan (para. 5), its main focus is on mitigation ambition (PP2, paras 6-8). I suggest that an ambitious outcome on mitigation must be the political priority of the new round of negotiations, while work continues through established bodies on other elements of the Convention machinery, notably on financing, technology and adaptation (through the Green Climate Fund, the Technology Mechanism and the Adaptation Committee).


  • The forthcoming IPCC 5th Assessment (2013-14) and the Convention Parties’ review of the desirable global warming limit (2013-15) will be important determinants of ambition.
  • There may be merit in providing for a space within the Durban Platform process for a conversation among “major economies” on the menu of post-2020 mitigation commitments and related market mechanisms. These commitments are likely to focus on economy-wide targets of one sort or another, appropriate to national circumstances, but may also include measures to control specific emissions, sectoral standards, support for certain types of policies and cooperative technological development. The results of such discussions would have to be submitted to the COP for consideration and action, to ensure legitimacy and adequacy of ambition.
  • An ambitious outcome requires a relaxation of economic defensiveness. This change is unlikely to be led by governments. The drive must come from smart business, combining long-term vision with a sense of the profits to be gained from investing in technological innovation aimed at securing a low-carbon future. Governments, for their part, must set the framework and incentives for responsible corporate initiative.

Points for closure

It bears recalling that climate change is not the be all and end all of global challenges. The political willingness and ability to address the problem effectively cannot be assumed when large swathes of our planet are still dominated by poverty and injustice, when the faith expressed by the Charter of the United Nations “in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small” remains a hope.

Climate change was a glimmer on the horizon of international concern when the 1972 Stockholm Conference put the “human environment” on the global agenda. Only one foreign head of government participated in that event: the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. She proclaimed then that poverty was the worst form of pollution. We can still say that today.

Read more on: Climate politics | COP17 | | |