This year on the 22nd of September, world leaders clocked 16 hours of speech-making at the UN Climate Summit in New York. While this might say a lot about the attention span of the delegates, the more pertinent question is whether there was any substantive commitment once the rhetoric is scraped off the surface. Over the past three decades, multilateral environmental negotiations have become increasingly prominent within the UN system. The UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) lists over 155 environmental agreements and treaties that have been negotiated at the regional and global levels since 1921. More than 90 of these negotiations were at the regional and global levels since the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment. Consider, as an example of the outcomes of these meetings, the following paragraph from the Stockholm Declaration of 1972:

Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth. In the long and tortuous evolution of the human race on this planet a stage has been reached when, through the rapid acceleration of science and technology, man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale. Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights the right to life itself. 

While, in principle, countries committed to the statement above and endorsed its spirit, how much have we actually delivered on our promises beyond just drafting treaties? Will we reach our goals? If so, how and when? This uncertainty certainly undermines political action in economic spheres like public finance, investment and markets in general. However, the newly released report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has finally put to rest the claim that clean growth compromises economic development. Despite it all, the doubt lingers…

The answer, I believe, lies in environmental cooperation. Natural resources and the environment can be both sources of tension andplatforms for cooperation between parties in dispute. Environmental diplomacy – defined as a combination of tools and approaches to help parties in dispute create opportunities for cooperation, confidence building and conflict transformation by addressing joint environmental and natural resource issues – is therefore of critical and growing importance to the prevention, management and resolution of disputes, tensions and conflicts over natural resources. Since 1990 at least eighteen violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources. In fact, recent research suggests that over the last sixty years at least forty per cent of all intrastate conflicts have a link to natural resources. Civil wars such as those in Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have centred on “high-value” resources like timber, diamonds, gold, minerals and oil. Other conflicts, including those in Darfur and countries in the Middle East including Mesopotamia, Syria and Iraq, have involved control of scarce resources such as fertile land and water. Environmental policy can be the key for conflict resolution. For example, Finland and Russia have been at the forefront of environmental cooperation for many years. With concerns over oil spills, maritime transport and biodiversity degradation, both countries regularly exchange information and technology and conduct seminars on implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.


As the global population continues to rise and the demand for resources continues to grow, there is significant potential for conflicts over natural resources to intensify in the coming decades. In addition, the potential consequences of climate change for water availability, food security, disease prevalence, coastal boundaries and population distribution may aggravate existing tensions and generate new conflicts. At this moment, nations are reviewing their climate policies and action plans before the COP20. Preparations are also already underway for COP21 next year when the post-2015 agenda will be adopted. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are poised to replace the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDGs, as opposed to their predecessors, have sustainability as their overarching theme. For some environmentalists, this signals a shift back to square one. They believe that SDGs are just a re-formulation of hollow promises that don’t provide enough incentives for countries to follow up on them. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute, differs, “The SDGs will be backed up by an implementation mechanism which will break down each goal into achievable and measurable targets.” The 30 member Open Working Group of the General Assembly, tasked with preparing a proposal on the SDGs recently came up with an Outcome Document following months of debate and discussions. Paragraph 14 of this doucment states –“The implementation of sustainable development goals will depend on a global partnership for sustainable development with the active engagement of governments, as well as civil society, the private sector, and the United Nations system. A robust mechanism of implementation review will be essential for the success of the SDGs. The General Assembly, the ECOSOC system and the High Level Political Forum will play a key role in this regard.” If this is an inidcation of the mechanism that is being touted as the ‘difference between SDGs and MDGs’, there isn’t substantive progress other than in stating the obvious. However, what is interesting is that the OWG process uses a constituency-based system of representation, which means that most of the seats in the working group are shared by several countries. This has fostered multilateral cooperation and understanding on several key issues that these goals will address like poverty, education and so on.

Unfortunately, this still doesn’t answer the skepticism regarding the role of climate negotiations – which today take place in the context of so-called ‘conference diplomacy’. Within the UN system, conference diplomacy refers to processes of internationally coordinated policy making through negotiations that take place at regular or special sessions of intergovernmental bodies. Functions include exchanging information, serving as a forum, drafting a treaty, making non-binding and binding commitments, pledging voluntary contributions and reviewing progress under existing treaties. However, for critics, the entire process causes more damage than constructive action. Some even use the term ‘extended holidays’ for the climate talks. Says Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia (Asia’s leading biodiversity magazine), “The buzz words you hear at such summits or at the many UN conferences that take place do offer those uttering and listening a certain comfort level. A feeling that acknowledging global warming and biodiversity loss and articulating concern is enough to place one on the right side of the fence. This is way off the mark.” Therefore, a good starting point in formulating a taskforce is to ensure that it doesn’t end up becoming an annual meeting that leaves little in its wake when it comes to action. Clear goal setting, incentivisation and strict enforcement are the need of the hour. But this raises more issues, about linking country specific plans to global responses.

Environmental problems are by nature, transnational. This then raises the question – how does one connect ‘global’ problems to discussions that happen at the negotiating tables between nations? Breaking up the phases of a negotiation helps us gauge its efficiency –

  1. Deciding to negotiate – Often, the hard part lies in bringing countries to accept responsibility. Indeed, the most intriguing feature of the negotiations is the shifting alliances and positions of different countries. Traditionally, negotiations have been conducted with developed (‘Annex 1’) and developing countries (‘Non-Annex 1’) on opposing sides.


  1. Reaching agreement – This is the most exhausting stage, with negotiators debating on each and every clause of the agreement in order to reach a balance. Negotiating rooms often double as hotel rooms.


  1. Endgame – Ratifying decisions also involves regionalism and power play. Recent times have seen several blocs and coalitions form as a result of this stage. Examples include Latin American Economies, BRIC and Middle Eastern nations. An encouraging example of this has been the Arab Youth Climate Movement, that has created a trans-national platform for climate action. The new movement was initiated with support from the Arab organisation indyACT, 350.organd the global TckTck campaign which organised a regional workshop in Egypt this year.

The paradox here is that international cooperation on climate change is tough without national concurrence, but mere concurrence as a formality is insufficient to ensure that effective cooperation will occur. Do we then need a global body? As Fred Pearce, writing for the Yale 360 has said, “There is increasing discussion of a new way forward that does not depend on sweeping international agreements. Some analysts are pointing to Plan B — recasting the climate issue as one of national self-interest rather than global treaties.” In other words, what if we aren’t able to come up with an ambitious deal in Paris next year? I have, in an inidividual capacity, been engaged with various sustainability initiatives with organisations like TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), CliMates think tank and the Indian Youth Climate Network. In line with these projects, last month, I was invited as one of the panelists to the “Leader’s Forum on Women Leading the Way: Raising Ambition for Climate Action” before the UN Climate Summit. It was organised by UN Women , the UN arm dedicated to gender equality, and the Mary Robinson Foundation. Responding to my statement on climate justice on behalf of young people, Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC  (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty), paraphrased the frustration with the environmental diplomatic processes perfectly when she told officials that it was high time “we cut the crap!” The forum saw several heads of state like Michelle Bachelet and Julia Guilard and had its outcomes fed into the UN Summit. What was interesting, however, was the fact that despite several leaders like those of India and China skipping the meeting, the Summit was different from past ones in that it saw immense participation from the business sector. This is certainly a tell-tale sign that climate change isn’t just on the political agenda.It is on the financial and economic agenda too. That gives a key takeaway about the global response to climate policy that I seek to address – the implementing body must not only be a platform for governments but an intersection of academia, business and civil society.

My observations of international climate talks and environmental negotiations have led me to believe that there is a need to revise the environmental diplomatic process to achieve greater results in terms of tangible action. Some of the steps that could be taken by the international community include addressing natural resources as part of the peace-making and peace-keeping process, building capacity and catalyzing resources for the implementation of joint action plans and projects; monitoring implementation of joint action plans and providing dispute resolution support.  There is a need to provide a neutral platform for dialogue, information-sharing, and joint action in the management of natural resources and environmental threats. In conclusion, we need to move away from the current model of diplomatic engagement that incentivizes excess of deliberation as opposed to a combination of deliberation, commitment and implementation. I believe that instead of acting as a divider, climate change has the capacity to unite us in a common shared interest for humanity. In this regard, a global authority isn’t an impractical idea. But I would also stress that before we move onto this ambitious scheme, it would do us well to get our national priorities on climate change clear so that our meetings are constructive and don’t live up to the reputation of being ‘counter-productive’.

“Getting action in the United Nations”, a diplomat once complained, “is like the mating of elephants. It takes places at a very high level, with an enormous amount of huffing and puffing, raises a tremendous amount of dust and then nothing happens for another 23 months!” I sincerely hope that this statement can no longer be applied to international climate negotiations. Like all other multilateral engagements, this too depends on the political will to follow through. It is clear that while national ambition is a precursor for a global agreement, we need engagement at an intergovernmental and quasi-regional level to address the challenges that face us. The Road to Paris has already begun.


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