Photo credits: Cyan
Photo credits: Cyan

States’ Interests at International Climate Negotiations

Climate change is one of the most debated issues of the 21st century. The debate is multifaceted, as it ranges from whether the phenomenon should constitute a top international concern to how information on greenhouse gases should be locally collected. Little is know, however, about which issues are most systematically raised in political realms, by whom and under what circumstances. My research sheds light on these points by providing new rigorous measurements of national preferences at the international talks of the United Nations climate negotiations.

Background: The International Climate Policy Debate

When defining the global climate change debate, the key word to keep in mind is uncertainty. Much about the politics of climate change is based on the definition of uncertainty — and, consequently, whether the risk of doing nothing is more costly than the cost of acting.

Debates over these costs can lead to large disagreements. For example, an electorate often disagrees on how climate change affects different regions or sectors within their country. Similarly, nations frequently disagree on how to design international regulations to cap global greenhouse gas emissions while protecting cross-national interests. While the existence of disagreements is common knowledge, it is unclear how systematic these disagreements are, whether they are based on material conflicts or normative frictions, and if they explain why global climate negotiations have led to so few successful outcomes, with the exception of the growly ‘old’ Kyoto Protocol.

I argue that the lack of clarity on the causes and consequences of climate change disagreements is due to the lack of good data on countries’ preferences. In other words, we do not know what drives climate policy coordination (and failure) because we do not have precise measurements of what decision-makers want. Focusing on the international politics of climate change, I tackle this research gap in a recently published paper. To advance the study of climate change policy debates, the paper introduces a new dataset on national positions at the annual climate change negotiations of the United Nations.

States’ interests at international climate negotiations: new measures of bargaining positions

I collected the new data through an original text analysis of two rounds of National Communications of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The dataset is rich, as it comprehends scaled positions for more than 90 countries over more than 25 issues at two points in time (2001-04 and 2008-11). Overall, the dataset improves over previous measurements of climate policy preferences methodologically and substantively. Methodologically, I combined qualitative issue identification and structured coding in order to (1) select the contentious issues across the annual climate negotiations, and (2) gather issue-specific climate positions with the use of state-of-the-art text-analytical methods. The issue-specific positions are mainly ‘loaded’ — with some exceptions — on a dimension that distinguishes more and less cooperative countries. The validity of this scaling is supported by a significant correlation between the factorization of the issue-specific positions and a Wordfish text analysis of the National Communications (see Figure 1).

Figure 1


Substantively, my data inform the state of the debate on global climate cooperation by disclosing theoretically interesting patterns across countries and years. The position scaling points to an important distinction between developed and developing countries, but it also indicates that several emerging countries like China and Brazil have comparable positions to countries like Canada and the US. Additionally, the data helps unveiling some of the drivers of climate policy making within countries. For example, in a separate paper that uses this dataset I find that less pro-active (or less cooperative) positions belong to countries where agricultural and mining sectors profit from domestic protection, such as high import tariffs. This suggests that the national positions expressed at the UNFCCC are rooted in important domestic economic structures.

Outlook: Upcoming International Negotiations and the Future of Climate Policy Debates

In sum, the new data offers a ‘map’ of national preferences over climate change-related issues that can be indicative for future international climate meetings, such as the UNFCCC Paris conference in December 2015. Based on my data, it is hard to imagine the delegates in Paris to avoid a fight. It is presumable that developing countries will try to extract as much climate aid and adaptation funds as possible from whatever new model of international climate governance a new treaty may bring. At the same time, it is plausible that a majority of developed countries will accept an agreement as long as the economic incentives to engage with carbon policy are strengthened over time. The data ultimately suggests that the future steps of the international climate negotiations will be hard bargaining, but not an impossible coordination game. If international meetings seem stalled is because of the combination of conflict of interests and institutional inefficiencies, but not only the former.

About Federica Genovese

Federica Genovese

Federica Genovese is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Government at University of Essex. She is also the University of Essex Eastern Academic Research Consortium (EARC) Fellow for the Quantitative Social Sciences.

Federica Genovese @ University of Essex

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