An overhead shot of the climate conference in Bonn last June. Desks are arranged in a circle in a high-ceilinged conference room with floor to ceiling windows. Many of the seats are occupied by representatives from various countries.
AP Photo / Martin Meissner

Why Global Climate Negotiations Have Stalled

And why more effective climate multilateralism is how we can fix it.

According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last year, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.” In other words, very little has changed from what we’ve known for decades: Climate change is real, it’s largely our fault, and we still aren’t doing nearly enough to reverse it.

After meticulous review of more than 14,000 papers published in the most prestigious journals, scientists from all 195 countries have once again firmly established that the Earth’s temperature has been steadily trending upwards since the Industrial Revolution. Climate disasters are worryingly increasing, and rising summer temperatures are already reaching levels unbearable for humans, ecosystems, and wildlife. Meanwhile, violent floods and unexpected rainstorms are ravaging cities and towns around the world. There are also the less perceptible and slower-onset symptoms, which have only further aggravated the bigger climate crisis. The North Pole’s steady decline, for example, is already wreaking havoc on vulnerable ecosystems and communities, decreasing coastal land for Small Island Developing States due to rising sea levels. Newly and acutely exposed, these nations have been forced to risk their lives and their little resources to cope without larger international support.

Echoing the movie Don’t Look Up, science is once again telling us that climatic distortions are happening, and every day the dimension and frequency of those distortions will only get more severe. Yet, despite the strong IPCC evidence and the current lived reality of climate impacts, certain segments of society, including large swaths of the media and various industries and governments, would still prefer not to “look up” at all. For them, opting for business-as-usual remains the more comfortable and profitable option, perpetuating a hazardous path of inaction. Even more concerning, these inactive groups have had a large influence in critical spaces for climate action, including recent international climate negotiations.

Since 1992, governments worldwide have convened at least twice a year, functioning under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the goal of increasing climate action. It is at these conferences that the states have adopted previous conventions, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement: The annual Conference of the Parties (COP) serves as the “supreme decision-making body of the Convention” and the key organ for the implementation of the year’s negotiations.

However, in recent years, momentum has stalled. While the urgency and need for climate action has only grown, the tide of inaction has, as well. The pace at which we are fighting climate change is too slow in comparison with how quickly severe climate effects have accelerated. After I returned from the Bonn Climate Change Conference (SB58) this past June, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated: Slow action amidst rapid climate change is only going to lead to more critical scenarios—and the only path out of it is embracing multilateralism.

The vital role of climate multilateralism

The literature on climate change qualifies it as a “common concern of humankind,” reinforcing its global nature and, therefore, the shared responsibility of every country to confront it. At the same time, climate multilateralism acknowledges that certain countries share a greater responsibility for causing it, and should contribute more resources to its solutions. Developed nations, historically responsible for the vast majority of emissions that are today heating up our planet, must take the lead in reducing them and provide more vulnerable nations with the necessary resources to tackle the climate impacts they’ve caused. Similarly, groups that are disproportionately affected by climate change—including non-party stakeholders—deserve representation when it comes to discussing its solutions, an expansion of the concept that the UNFCCC defines as “inclusive multilateralism.”

The significance of climate multilateralism cannot be overstated; it has been the bedrock for previous crucial negotiations and agreements. Without it, we would be trying to face the global climate threat as individual nations rather than a cohesive whole, leading to fragmented strategies and inefficient outcomes. But it also comes with its own problems—less with the concept of climate multilateralism itself, and more with enhancing its efficacy.

“In other words, very little has changed from what we’ve known for decades: Climate change is real, it’s largely our fault, and we still aren’t doing nearly enough to reverse it.”

Slow progress in climate negotiations

Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, climate negotiations have struggled to make major progress, due to everything from administrative issues to more fundamental challenges, like the constant obstacle of the fossil fuel industry’s interest in preventing it. But perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for progress has been how effectively time is spent at these conferences, and how negotiations are prioritized. For example, I had the opportunity to follow, as an observer, the Just Transition program negotiations in Bonn. This program advocates for a global shift “from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy,” and is one of multiple, ongoing negotiations that aims to ensure equitable outcomes when considering climate mitigation and adaptation.  Initially, the discussions focused on making sure participating nations understood the concept of Just Transition, and different views emerged. Some developed countries stressed a narrow view of the program, connecting it only to labor and energy aspects, and excluding how various communities might potentially be affected by it. Alternatively, some developing countries, alongside a few developed ones, advocated for broadening the program’s framework, arguing for the necessity of fair transitions for different communities, and a more extensive scope beyond energy issues.

Having heard the discussion, and having done additional research on Just Transition, I was hopeful. These kinds of debates were necessary for global forums, and any agreements reached could eventually contribute to more commitments and implemented actions. However, my optimism dwindled during the second week, when—rather than continue with the negotiations—the negotiators chose to dedicate two days to discussing when they might be able to schedule a workshop on the topic for the parties and stakeholders interested.

While workshops are undeniably invaluable for complex issues, which in turn can facilitate agreements on more substantive matters, spending two sessions picking a date for a workshop seemed both inefficient and a waste of resources to me. Gathering delegations from almost every country is costly, so it’s crucial attendees prioritize agendas and methodologies that actually drive progress on climate action—not stall it further.

Sitting in the Just Transition negotiations, it became clear another crucial aspect affecting the efficacy of climate multilateralism is fairness. Delegations from less developed countries, often smaller in number, rely heavily on climate multilateralism in order to be heard. These nations, assuming huge efforts, send delegations to represent the voices of the most vulnerable communities from their respective countries. It is against the equity principle of the climate regime, then, to prioritize discussions on topics that while important, could be addressed elsewhere. This bureaucratization of negotiations impedes agreements on more substantive and relevant areas, and ignores the financial and operative efforts required of less developed countries, often preventing them from participating. Indeed, during the Just Transition program negotiation, it was the EU who began the debate on the date of the workshop, disregarding the efforts and budgeting of poorer countries and organizations, hoping to return to their home countries with more substantive and positive news than news of a forthcoming workshop.

Oil and gas lobbylists: Wolves in sheep’s clothing

Another critical factor affecting climate negotiations is the substantive participation of lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry. These lobbyists, usually sponsored by countries with fossil fuel interests, have a clear objective: to impede and delay meaningful climate action. According to Global Witness, at COP 27, 636 registered fossil fuel lobbyists participated in climate talks, representing an increase of over 25% from COP 26. The same report points out there were more fossil fuel lobbyists than delegates from the ten countries most impacted by climate change at the same conference.

Although these lobbyists have the legitimate right to attend climate negotiations, their immense financial resources and support from oil-producing nations causes them to be overrepresented and to wield too much power. In addition, many of them are not transparent about the interests they represent, often adopting environmental or government badges to camouflage their advocacy against climate action.

A paradigmatic case that highlights the potential dangers of this was last year, when BP’s chair, Bernard Looney, alongside four other BP employees, attended COP 27 as delegates of Mauritania, a country where the company holds major investments. Mauritania, meanwhile, is a country that has been dramatically affected by climate change, showing the conflict of interest between the country’s most vulnerable communities and the people sent to represent them.

Fortunately, there have been positive steps toward promoting transparency and legitimacy in climate negotiations. During the last plenary of SB58, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Simon Stiell announced that from now on, “every single badged participant attending the event will be required to list their affiliation and relationship to that organization.” This significant transparency measure aims to ensure greater accountability for attendees, especially regarding the role of the fossil fuel industry in climate negotiations. During COP 28, scheduled for later this year, delegates will be required to fill a form designating the organization they represent, enhancing the integrity of negotiations and potentially combating some factors delaying progress.

As the pace of climate effects exceeds the progress of climate multilateralism, it becomes imperative to rethink and improve the way that our discussions and agreements take place. Climate multilateralism is indeed the most essential instrument for attaining global agreements and actions, making it crucial to enhance its efficacy in alignment with the urgent climate crisis—and we must take steps to ensure its success.

Transparency measures, combined with continued vigilance and accountability, are a good first step to help safeguard the integrity of climate negotiations. So is rethinking how best to delegate time and efforts at the conferences themselves: Effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness are all vital to maximizing and fostering actionable commitments, strengthening climate multilateralism, and galvanizing collective efforts towards a more resilient and sustainable world. By acknowledging the urgency of the situation and collectively working towards decisive action, we can build a more secure and thriving future for generations to come. Now, we just have to do it.