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Understanding Impasse in Climate Change Negotiations: The North-South Conflict and Beyond

Sırça‘s two cents on why the UNFCCC context looks ever-tortuous and the COP process, more often than not, dead-locked.


A recap on negotiations…

Climate change has been identified as a global problem for over three decades now. It is, at least “in theory, the perfect topic for an international environmental agreement. All countries are affected by, and contribute to the build up of greenhouse gases (GHG), and should be willing to join in the effort to stop it” (PANOS: 27). The overarching nature of the problem has indeed been reflected in the institutionalisation of efforts to overcome it. On the one hand, the efforts to understand and assess the science behind the phenomenon in a “policy relevant” manner have been institutionalised with the establishment of the IPCC in 1988. On the other hand, the efforts to find solutions to this big picture problem, as well as to address the several political, economic and social implications it carries with have culminated in an international climate regime with the creation of the UNFCCC which has been in force since 1994 (Schroeder, 2010: 27-29).

Each and every IPCC report published since point to the overwhelming scientific evidence on the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the threats it poses to humans and the planet, and the urgency with which it needs to be tackled. As such, there has not been a lack of interest in the issue, however the same can hardly be said about the level of progress in the climate regime and the international negotiation process it constitutes thereof. Indeed, the entire process has been the target of criticism at large for being very slow and deficient relative to the urgency it calls for. The lack of meaningful and effective progress in negotiations has historically been attributed to the North-South conflict that the climate regime portrays (Parks & Roberts, 2010: 111). However, whether this remains to be the key barrier or there are other factors to account for towards realising progress in negotiations calls for a more nuanced approach. It is the aim of this piece to elaborate the explanatory elements of the North-South conflict in understanding the climate negotiation impasse, check their applicability in the current context and identify its shortcomings in order to sketch a more realistic and useful portrait of the current negotiation processes. This will be done so in the following way. First, the North-South conflict will be explored within the broader theoretical framework of structuralism and inequality with the purpose to highlight the underlying, most persistent and relevant aspects of the concept. Second, the limitations to this approach will be assessed. Third, other barriers to progress in negotiations will be introduced in an attempt to complement the North-South approach.

Structuralism, Inequality and the North-South Conflict in Climate Negotiations

At the heart of the North-South debate lays the concept of inequality between the two dichotomous blocs. While emphasising the importance of historical economic analysis in making sense of the current international system, structuralism posits that particular mechanisms of inequality and dominance continue to exist today and contribute to the uneven development among and within nations (Viotti & Kauppi, 2012: 190-191). The difference and relationship between the capital-rich developed North versus the capital-poor developing South is not only a defining characteristic, but also the main factor that feeds in to the worldviews, causal beliefs and interests of the two blocs and thereby reiterating their dichotomy (Roberts & Parks, 2007).

Despite its shortcomings of oversimplification, the North-South divide has been widely explored as an analytical tool to explain the processes and outcomes of climate negotiations (Mejia, 2010: 10). In fact, upon closer inspection, we see how the UNFCCC process and Kyoto Protocol have been defined by, built upon, and, as a result, institutionalised the North-South conflict within the climate regime. In this sense, the North-South conflict has been an underlying and omnipresent element in negotiations. Roberts and Parks (2007: 6) argue that “by reinforcing structuralist worldviews and causal beliefs, creating incentives for zero-sum and negative-sum behaviour, polarizing preferences, generating divergent and unstable expectations about future behaviour, eroding trust and . . . making it difficult to coalesce around a socially shared understanding of what is ‘fair’”, inequality renders North-South cooperation less likely. More specifically, there are three sources of inequality that have been relevant and persist today in terms of tackling the big questions at hand: whose responsibility is it to reduce emissions by how much, when, and who pays for it all? (Roberts & Parks, 2007: 23; Bulkeley & Newell, 2010: 35-54).

There are different perceptions about what constitutes “fair” with regards to cutting GHG emissions. Since there is a lack of a “socially shared understanding”, there has been disagreement between the two blocs about burden sharing. With the Kyoto Protocol the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities has been embraced, which has been the source of “the construction of a divided regime” by allotting different responsibilities to Annex I and non-Annex I countries (Mejia, 2010: 14). Moreover, the Protocol’s “grandfathering” approach, reducing developed country emissions from a baseline, has been subject of criticism for its inefficiency and perceived negative impact on developing countries should it be carried into a post- 2012 deal (Müller, 2005: 3-4).

Also prominent in the North-South conflict is inequality in terms of vulnerability. The argument gets more relevant and contested each day as the adverse effects of climate change are mostly felt by the South that is dependent on the North to overcome them (Parks & Roberts, 2010: 114-116). These arguments are not only the basis for main lines of conflict between the North and South historically, but are already echoed in the post-Kyoto phase at present in terms of what can be achieved with post-2012 negotiations, and therefore highly relevant to our understanding of progress at present.

Limitations to the Extend of the North-South Divide 

As argued so far in this essay, the North-South conflict was and continues to be a major impediment against agreeing upon shared principles in the climate regime. However, the multiplicity of interests, the global power shift with the rise of hitherto less significant or powerful nations, and the very reality of the effects of climate change are also factors that have been shaping new interests and coalitions around the bargaining table. In this sense, it would be incomplete and misleading to conceive of negotiations as if they are established between two homogenous blocks, when in reality the current dynamics transcend and redefine the North-South conflict (Mejia, 2010: 11). Such dynamics are manifested more visibly in two fronts: the North-North and South-South conflicts.

Hypothetically, one could contemplate about the level of progress, or lack thereof, in climate negotiations if they were to take place between the countries of the Northern bloc only. But also in real terms, two of the Northern powerhouses, the US and the European Union (EU), historically have had very different approaches to negotiations. The EU has a reputation as a protagonist in climate action. It has been a staunch supporter of legally binding targets and timetables for the future as well as effective and inclusive multilateralism. It is a “‘leadiator’, a leader-cum-mediator that work[s] with rather than against the changing geopolitical context” (Backstrand & Elgstrom, 2013: 1381). The US on the other hand has always favoured voluntary action. Its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the unanimous 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution that mandates quid pro quo in climate deals especially with BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and preference for “minilateralism” point to the very divergent interests and tactics of the two actors in negotiations (Backstrand & Elgstrom, 2013: 1372; Bulkeley & Newell, 2010: 30).

In a similar fashion, it is also not possible to speak of a unitary Southern voice any longer. Although the G77 has historically negotiated on behalf of the South, with the rise of BASIC countries we see the emergence of “new geographies of responsibility” and further fragmentation of the rest due to differing priorities and interests in negotiations (Bulkeley & Newell, 2010: 39). For instance, the priorities of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) are becoming clearly different to that of most of the least developed countries (LDC) whereby the former group has shown progressive initiative in striving for legally-binding emissions reduction targets and financing and the latter has been stuck in a rhetoric of mistrust and “getting even” at the expense of negative-sum results (Roberts & Parks, 2007: 19). Furthermore, the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) motives in negotiations, in terms of holding adaptation assistance and a clear concern over revenues rather than reduction targets, have been subject to resentment and suspicion among the wider G77 (Barnett et al., 2004; Dessai, 2004). The Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen was especially telling in demonstrating that “the old order of developed versus developing has been replaced by more interesting alliances” (Milliband, 2009). While the Copenhagen Accord unmistakably differentiated responsibilities within the Southern bloc, it also blurred the black-and-white distinction between the North and the South, a trend that will echo in the post-2012 and second Kyoto deals (Mejia, 2010).

Distinguishing Other Barriers

Noting the new dividing lines among nations beyond the North-South conflict also highlights the limitations of analysing the climate negotiations from a static perspective. Indeed, there are other mutually inclusive factors that affect the behaviour of the nations and stagnate progress in negotiations. At least three more factors  contribute to the lack of progress problem: material self-interest, domestic politics, and institutional design.

First and foremost, the climate regime showcases that “nations have historically always engaged in international problems from the standpoint of national interest rather than global obligations” (Brown, 2013). As such, the stance of the US and members of the Umbrella Group, OPEC, and AOSIS and the coalitions within and across the North-South divide become more meaningful when assessed with an eye on their perceived self-interests. For instance, Lange et al. (2010) show how the uses of equity arguments by the actors in climate negotiations, developed and developing, can be explained by their calculated self-interests.

Second, when the nations’ material self-interests are taken into account, it also becomes increasingly difficult to decouple the role of domestic politics from international policy preferences. Climate negotiations, after all, is yet another platform for Putnam’s (1988) logic of two-level games for the nations to exert influence and achieve outcomes according to their own motivations, as mainly the US position on reciprocity and AOSIS emphasis on adaptation assistance demonstrates.

Lastly, another factor that dampens progress in negotiations is the institutional design of the regime itself which plays to the hands of the developed countries by heightening a “capacity gap” as it relates to expertise in and affordability of the COPs (Schroeder et al., 2012). While this problem has the root cause of the differences between North and South, it has the potential to be solved independently from it by, for example, the establishment of rules about majority voting instead of consensus based decision-making process and capping the size of delegations. A rethinking of the institutional design of COPs is therefore necessary in terms of detecting the inherent effect of the North-South divide, but also at the same time distinguishing it as a practical dysfunction and barrier in itself for negotiations.

In conclusion…

I have argued that the lack of progress in climate negotiations has been largely attributed to the historical North-South conflict between the nations. Whereas this stands out to be the overarching theme that has contributed to the very structure of climate regime architecture and the proposed solutions to the climate problem, it has at times, and especially currently during the post-Kyoto phase of negotiations, fallen short of explaining the new dynamics that have been shaping up within the regime. Moreover, it is understood that international climate negotiations are not immune from the forces that shape the global playing field today. That is why too much reliance on the rhetoric of the North-South conflict carries the danger of blurring our understanding of the causes and solutions to the impasse in negotiations by negating the explanatory power of other key barriers. Therefore it is suggested that the North- South lens should be used to serve as a means to inform and enhance our understanding of the issue, but not as an end in itself.

© Sırça S. Göğüş

Suggested citing:

Gogus, S. S., 2014. Understanding impasse in climate change negotiations: the North-South conflict and beyond. [Online]. Available at:  [accessed + date when the website was accessed].


About Sirca S. Gogus

Sırça believes that living in an ever-connected globe, at the age of Anthropocene, not only yields opportunities in front of individuals, but also bestows certain responsibilities on them. That is why she has made the very conscious decision to devote her academic and professional career to the climate-development-energy nexus. With a background in social and political sciences, which she complemented with European governance and public affairs, she's been trotting the globe for the past six years. Sirca’s greatest ambition is to be a life-long learner. Her favourite pastime is being on the beach. She might or might not be daydreaming frequently the day she can engage in both simultaneously. In the spirit of fairplay, she thinks all fields of sport are equal as football being the most equal one.

3 comments on “Understanding Impasse in Climate Change Negotiations: The North-South Conflict and Beyond

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