Elliot Diringer

Alternative Models for the 2015 Climate Change Agreement

By Daniel Bodansky and Elliot Diringer
Fridtjof Nansen Institute
Climate Policy Perspectives 13
October 2014

A primary goal of the Durban Platform negotiations should be to develop an agreement that will maximize reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over time. Achieving this objective will be a function of not only the ambition of the 2015 agreement, but also the levels of participation and compliance by states. A higher level of ambition will not necessarily make the agreement more effective, if fewer states participate or comply.

In many if not most countries, the climate change issue is driven more by national than by international politics, so the agreement needs to allow states to determine the content of their own commitments. This approach represents a concession to political and diplomatic realities, as well as to the limits of international agreements in influencing countries' behavior in an area so vital to their interests.

At the same time, the 2015 agreement needs to prod states to do as much as possible, through multilateral rules on transparency and accountability that help foster a virtuous cycle, in which states make progressively more ambitious contributions. Thus far, the top-down elements of the hybrid approach remain largely an abstraction. What remains to be seen is whether parties will be able to agree on rules that sufficiently discipline national flexibility and promote stronger ambition.

Read more at Fridtjof Nansen Institute

Published by Fridtjof Nansen Institute
Daniel Bodansky
Elliot Diringer

Building Flexibility and Ambition into a 2015 Climate Agreement

Building Flexibility and Ambition into a 2015 Climate Agreement

June 2014

By Daniel Bodansky, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University
Elliot Diringer, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

Download the full report (PDF)

This paper explores options for a hybrid approach in the 2015 agreement, focusing in particular on mitigation efforts, rather than the broader array of issues under consideration in the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform (ADP), such as finance, technology, and adaptation. It looks at the rationales for a hybrid approach, ways to design hybridity into an international agreement, and how top-down and bottom-up approaches have figured in the UNFCCC’s evolution. Finally, the paper examines the types of top-down features that could complement nationally determined contributions to promote greater ambition, including a long-term goal as a benchmark for evaluating countries’ efforts, reporting and review procedures to promote transparency and accountability, and provisions for updating or initiating the next round of commitments. In so doing, it also considers cross-cutting issues such as timing, the overall structure of the agreement, the differentiation of countries’ obligations, and ways to make the 2015 agreement dynamic and, in turn, durable.


Daniel Bodansky
Elliot Diringer

Climate change: A patchwork of emissions cuts

by Elliot Diringer, Executive Vice President – Published in Nature, September 2013

Climate change: A patchwork of emissions cuts

Download the article as a PDF.

Read Elliot Diringer’s article in Nature on the potential path forward for international climate talks. Below is a brief summary.
With the failure in recent years of international attempts to deliver a binding treaty on emissions reductions, individual countries are finding their own ways to address the issue.
This patchwork approach could work for climate-change mitigation, C2ES Executive Vice President Elliot Diringer says in Nature, but we need an overarching framework of rules by which progress can be measured.
“Much of the real work to stave off climate catastrophe must happen at home,” Diringer writes. There are encouraging signs for reaching a new international agreement, but nations are still struggling with how to build ambition into the model, to ensure that collective action does reduce global emissions overall.
Diringer writes that home-made national approaches can be effective for climate-change mitigation if countries agree on rules and build trust.

Published by Nature
Elliot Diringer

Letting Go of Kyoto

November 2011

This commentary was originally published by Nature

A preoccupation with binding commitments blocks progress in the global effort against climate change. It’s time to correct course, says Elliot Diringer.

When governments gather for another round of United Nations (UN) climate change negotiations later this month in Durban, South Africa, they face a familiar thicket of issues. Yet for many – and, no doubt, for headline writers around the world – one stands above all the rest: the survival or death of the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto’s emission targets expire at the end of 2012, making Durban the last chance to set new targets in time to avoid a ‘commitment gap’.

Kyoto will likely emerge from Durban alive, but just barely. This should not be cause for alarm. While the protocol remains an important emblem of multilateralism, it has become, in reality, more of an impediment than a means to genuine progress. More important than ensuring Kyoto’s long-term survival is building something better to take its place.

Durban affords an overdue opportunity to honestly reconsider what it is we can look to the UN climate process to deliver, and when. With the start of the Kyoto negotiations 16 years ago, the international community decided that legally binding commitments were the answer to climate change. A binding-or-nothing mentality has held sway ever since, and the result often has been ‘nothing’.

Although it has been obvious for some time that most of the developed world is unwilling to one-sidedly assume new binding targets, many developing countries will arrive in Durban insisting on precisely that.  Without a compromise, the outcome this time may be less than nothing. It might, in the worst case, be the unraveling of the entire enterprise.

The more sensible course is an incremental one. Modest successes were achieved at last year’s climate-change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico. The parties should build on that with further steps to strengthen the regime; they should also declare their intent to work toward binding commitments, while acknowledging that this will take time.  Meanwhile, governments and climate advocates must work at home to build domestic support for strong national action.  Without that, future international commitments will mean little, binding or not.

In Durban, governments will again be challenged by the same two fundamental issues that dominated at the very start of the global climate effort two decades ago. One is governance: Is the best approach a binding top-down treaty with sanctions for non-compliance, a loose bottom-up arrangement with countries free to define their own voluntary commitments, or something in-between? The second is fairness: How is effort against this quintessentially global challenge equitably apportioned among countries whose degrees of responsibility and capacity vary so widely, and are continually evolving?

First principles

The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change took a first stab at both. On fairness, it established the principle that countries should act “in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” Applying that principle, it set specific obligations for developed countries only – returning their greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. But this was simply an “aim”, not a binding target. As to the ultimate shape of the regime, the Convention left the door wide open.

It soon became evident that most developed countries would miss this goal, and in 1995 the parties launched a new round of talks that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  They agreed right off that new commitments would apply to developed countries only. And, inspired in part by the success of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances, they decided that this time the targets would be legally binding. (The prescribed consequences for non-compliance, however, are technically not binding – illustrating the many shades of grey associated with the ‘binding’ concept.)

It took until 2005 for Kyoto to win enough ratifications – notwithstanding its renunciation by the United States – to enter into force. In that time and in the years since, the emissions picture has shifted dramatically. Global greenhouse-gas emissions are up 25% since 1997. China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest annual emitter. Collectively, developing country emissions are now 58% of the total, and rising fast.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that countries such as Japan, Canada and Russia adamantly refuse to assume new binding targets unless the other major economies at present outside Kyoto’s reach – most notably, the United States and China – do so as well. And for now, the odds of that happening are nil.

Yet for many, binding commitments remain a holy grail. This produced a near disaster two years ago at the Copenhagen meeting, where the widely held but wholly unrealistic expectation of a binding outcome was destined to go unmet. World leaders managed to hash out a political deal, the Copenhagen Accord, but in the final vitriolic hours, a handful of parties blocked its formal adoption. To both those in the room and those watching from afar, the UN climate process appeared to teeter. Another go-round like that in Durban could push it over the edge.

A key premise of the Kyoto experiment was that binding international commitments would drive national efforts. Yet outside Europe, where concern about climate change has always run strongest, there is little evidence that this is true. A prime counter example is Canada, where emissions are now 17-30% above 1990 levels (depending on whether land-use emissions are counted), despite a binding commitment to reduce them to 6% below.

Where ambitious national efforts have emerged, two other drivers appear more influential: political will and economic self-interest. Australia is arguably a case of the former. Heavily reliant, like Canada, on natural resources and energy-intensive exports, Australia’s last government fell when it tried to push through emissions trading. But the new minority government – a coalition including the Green party – recommitted to the issues and just this month enacted an ambitious carbon-pricing scheme.

The mercantile motive, meanwhile, is nowhere more evident than in China, which has quickly dominated the emerging clean-energy market and now produces nearly 50% of the world’s wind turbines and solar panels.  China will also soon introduce emissions trading at the regional level.

In most cases, economic motive and political will both play a part. Germany and the United Kingdom are going beyond European Union (EU) mandates with 2020 emission targets 40% and 34%, respectively, below 1990 levels. South Korea devoted most of its 2009 US$38-billion economic stimulus to green growth, including energy efficiency and renewables. It and some other developing countries, including Brazil, India and South Africa, are fashioning or implementing market-based policies to drive efficiency or reduce emissions. Where neither political will nor competitive drive has yet taken hold, as in the United States, investment and action unfortunately lag.

If the principal drivers of action are domestic, do international commitments matter? Yes. In the long term, Kyoto’s adherents are right: emissions commitments should be binding. Strong, sustained action to preserve a global good requires confidence that all are indeed contributing their fair share. But we need to be more realistic about how and when we get there.

Fortunately, if governments are prepared to look beyond Kyoto, they can find in last year’s Cancún Agreements the seeds of a more viable successor. That pact gave the essential elements of the Copenhagen Accord the UN imprimatur, and offered countries the opportunity to pledge explicit targets or actions for 2020. More than 80, including all the major economies, have now done so.     

This time, the numbers were set unilaterally, not negotiated as in Kyoto; pledges came from both developed and developing countries; and they are voluntary, not binding. In other words, even as the Kyoto negotiations have dragged on, a parallel ‘bottom-up’ framework has begun to take shape.    

As yet, it is hardly adequate. To begin with, the 2020 pledges are too weak to put countries on track towards limiting warming to 2 °C, the goal set in Copenhagen and affirmed in Cancún. Beyond that, the operational elements of Cancún – a new Green Climate Fund for developing countries, stronger reporting and scrutiny of countries’ actions, and new adaptation and technology mechanisms – are mere shells, with a raft of details still to be agreed on.

Small Steps

In Durban, parties should indeed set their sights towards eventual binding commitments. But they should focus primarily on the more prosaic nuts and bolts of strengthening transparency and support for developing countries. However incremental, such steps will get us further than a recurring cycle of false expectation and failure.

For the Kyoto Protocol itself, the likely outcome is some sort of half-measure. A leading option is to set new emission targets through a ‘political’ second commitment period, which can be approved outright by ministers gathered in Durban, rather than a legally binding amendment to the protocol, which would have to be brought home and ratified, a long and difficult process for many governments. Even if joined by only the EU and a handful of others, such a life-support mechanism would avert a blow-up, and buy time to build a sounder alternative.

Looking across the multilateral landscape, it is clear that strong, durable agreements don’t typically spring forth fully formed – they evolve over time. Kyoto was a bold attempt to short-circuit the process. The real tragedy is not its demise, but that the binding-or-nothing mindset has in the meantime kept us from pursuing other multilateral means of tackling climate change. Durban is a chance to correct course. 

Elliot Diringer is Executive Vice President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

by Elliot Diringer--Published in Nature magazine

From Cancún to Durban: Changing the Paradigm?

Remarks by Elliot Diringer

International Dialogue: “Implementing Cancún Agreements”

Government of Mexico, Mexico City – March 22, 2011


Thank you, Minister Espinsoa, for the kind introduction, for the invitation to participate in today’s dialogue, and for the opportunity to share some thoughts this afternoon on behalf of the Pew Center.

I’d like to begin by taking a few moments to pay tribute to our host, the Mexican government, and to the extraordinary leadership Mexico has provided, and continues to provide, on the issue of climate change. Please believe me – I am not simply being polite. I am quite sincere in offering these words of thanks. 

It has been my pleasure and privilege to work for many years with dedicated public servants like Fernando Tudela, who has labored tirelessly to advance this cause here at home and abroad; and, more recently, with relative newcomers like Ambassador de Alba, whose multilateral spirit and skill contributed in no small measure to the recent success in Cancún.

Of course these soldiers on the front lines would not have such success without the support and leadership of those at the top. Minister Espinsosa, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to witness the clarity, composure and confidence with which you presided over the Cancún conference. And I must of course recognize the leadership of President Calderon, who has devoted the kind of personal and sustained attention to this issue that one hopes all world leaders will in time.

But what is especially gratifying to me is that Mexico’s leadership did not end in Cancún. The fact that we are here today, and the fact that Ministers are gathering here tomorrow, is testament to an enduring commitment to see that the promise and the possibilities of Cancún are indeed fulfilled.

The promise and the possibilities of Cancún – that is what I would like to speak about this afternoon. Over the years, as a journalist, as an official, and for 10 years now with the Pew Center, I’ve had the opportunity to follow and participate in the climate negotiations. 

I’ve been there for the lows, and for the highs. And in my estimation, Cancún very definitely ranks among the high points in this long collective struggle.

By many measures – not least the needs of our planet – the outcome in Cancún was a modest one.  It by no means guarantees that we will meet our long-term goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees. Nor does it provide the degree of certainty the business community is looking for to help drive investment in the near term.

But measured against the years of stalemate that preceded it, Cancún was a major step forward. In fact, the Cancún Agreements represent the most tangible progress we’ve been able to achieve within the UN climate talks in nearly a decade. The challenge before us now is to build on Cancún – to keep moving forward – andto avoid the temptation to slip back into the squabbles that had kept us at an impasse for so many years.

This will not be easy. It requires a new way of thinking about the multilateral climate effort – a new mindset, a new paradigm. Cancún may have launched us in this new direction.  But it’s still too early to know. Depending on how we handle the decisions now before us, it may in the end prove just a momentary lapse of sanity in an otherwise dysfunctional process.

Let me explain what I mean by drawing on an analysis we undertook after Copenhagen. Most viewed Copenhagen as a failure because it did not produce a legally binding agreement.  At the Pew Center, we wanted to understand this so-called failure in a broader context; and we wanted to better understand the options for moving forward. We thought that, to do that, it would be instructive to look at the experiences of other multilateral regimes.  How did these regimes come into existence, and more to the point, how did they progress? We looked at other environmental agreements, the trade regime, human rights agreements, and others.

What we saw was that international regimes don’t generally emerge fully formed. No, most grow incrementally over time. They evolve. They expand in scope and in membership. They develop stronger institutions. They move from general, voluntary obligations to specific binding commitments. And all of this takes time.

In the case of climate change, the Framework Convention adopted in Rio in 1992 anticipated this type of incremental, evolutionary process. But soon after its entry into force, parties decided to accelerate the regime’s evolution. They launched a new round in 1995 that led just two years later to the Kyoto Protocol. This represented not an evolution, but a radical step-change, moving in one big leap from a largely voluntary framework to a legally binding system of targets and timetables. For 15 years now, since the start of the Kyoto negotiations, the primary aim of the international negotiations has been to establish, and then to extend, this legally binding regime.

Parties did succeed in establishing a binding regime, despite the withdrawal of the United States. And the Kyoto Protocol is without doubt a major achievement, on many levels. But as we all know, its impact has been limited. And the effort to extend or to expand this legally binding structure has been locked in a perennial stalemate for years. The political conditions simply are not there.

Looking first to the north, to my own country, the United States – I’m happy to get into particulars later if you would like, but for now let me just say this: Without stronger consensus for action at home, the United States cannot commit abroad – and that will take time. 

But even apart from the situation in the U.S., the reality is that few if any of the developed countries will take new binding commitments unless China and the other major emerging economies do as well, which they insist they will not.

This is the circular conundrum we’ve been stuck in, literally, for years. And unfortunately, in our preoccupation with binding outcomes, we have largely overlooked other ways to strengthen the multilateral effort short of binding commitments. In effect, the mentality has been binding or nothing.

Given the political conditions – or lack thereof – it was of course entirely predictable that Copenhagen would fail to deliver a binding agreement.  But that does not mean Copenhagen was a failure. The Copenhagen Accord, while only a political agreement, and while not formally adopted by parties, reflected consensus among world leaders on most of the key issues before them. And it produced specific, quantified mitigation pledges from more than 80 countries – the first time, in fact, that such pledges were made by all of the world’s major economies, both developed and developing.

What’s more, Copenhagen helped set the stage for success in Cancún. I saw the issues in Cancun falling into two baskets. The first contained the legal issues – basically, anything at all relating to the question of binding commitments: whether countries would take binding commitments; which countries; when; in what form.  Included here, by implication, was the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. On all of these issues, countries were very far apart, as they have been for years, and there was very little chance of meaningful compromise. Japan was perhaps the most open in its refusal to take a new Kyoto target, but many if not most developed countries were in exactly the same place.

The second basket contained the operational issues – finance; measurement, reporting and verification; adaptation; technology and forestry. These are all things that were addressed to one degree or another in the Copenhagen Accord. What’s important to understand is that progress on these issues does not require any new legal agreement. Each of them can be advanced in tangible ways under the Convention and the Protocol by decisions of the parties. Which is exactly what was achieved in Cancún. The Cancún Agreements are a package of decisions by the parties. And what that package does, in large measure, is to import the essential elements of the Copenhagen Accord into the UN climate system and take initial steps to implement them.

What this represents is incremental progress – evolutionary progress – the kind of progress that had eluded us for years because we were so preoccupied with binding outcomes. So we were able to move forward in Cancún on this second basket – the operational issues. But we were able to do so – and this is an important point – only because parties were willing to put aside their differences on the first basket, the legal issues. For the moment at least, they were willing to move beyond binding or nothing.

Why? To what do we owe this success? I can think of a number of factors. First, I must again cite the leadership of our Mexican hosts. I honestly can’t think of a presidency that has done a better job preparing and managing the negotiations – all through the year, right up until the final moments.

I think a second reason for Cancún’s success was that the two big elephants in the room – the United States and China – were getting along better than they were a year earlier in Copenhagen.

But perhaps the strongest reason for Cancún’s success was the palpable sense among parties that the process itself was at stake. Another major failure would have been crippling if not fatal to the whole enterprise. So parties that before might have insisted on binding or nothing were willing to declare a package of incremental steps a major achievement – if for no other reason than to keep intact the process they desperately hope will deliver much more down the road.

There was, in other words, a much greater sense of realism in Cancún. Unlike the false expectations ginned up for Copenhagen – false expectations that inevitably doomed it to “failure” – everyone was more realistic about what actually could be achieved. 

Can we count on this greater sense of realism going forward? We still have both baskets of issues – the operational and the legal. Will parties be prepared to make further progress on the one even if they can’t make progress on the other? That, I believe, is the critical issue for Durban.

The Cancún Agreements present us with an important opportunity – an opportunity for a more evolutionary path forward. What could that mean? It could mean a new, equitably managed climate fund, one that provides direct access for developing countries, and provides the kind of accountability that will help encourage developed countries to actually contribute the sums that are need. It could mean a stronger, more balanced system of transparency, so that all of the major economies are regularly reporting on their efforts, just as they do in the IMF, the World Bank, the Montreal Protocol and many other regimes, and everyone can see how everyone else is doing in fulfilling their pledges.

It could mean at long last a mechanism to deliver effective adaptation assistance to developing countries that are being forced to cope already with new hardships resulting from a problem they did not create. It could mean new mechanisms to help equip tropical countries to protect their forests, and to promote the deployment of low-carbon technologies. On all of these, the Cancún Agreements provide a first step, but only a first step. Completing the work program laid out in the Cancún Agreements is an enormous task, one that could easily occupy all the available negotiating time between now and Durban, and beyond as well. 

I see plenty of reasons to invest the effort in this more evolutionary path forward. Let’s imagine for a moment that we fully implement the new elements agreed in Cancún, and that at the same time countries move forward with actions at home to implement their pledges. Where will this path take us? By mobilizing resources and increasing transparency, it will help strengthen action in the near term. It will help build confidence among parties – confidence in themselves, confidence in one another, and confidence in the regime itself.  And in so doing, it will help build a stronger foundation for binding commitments later on down the road.

But what about that second basket of issues – the legal Issues? I want to be clear on this point: I continue to believe that in the long run we will be best served by a fair, effective and binding agreement. That’s not because I believe a binding agreement is any guarantee of a country’s performance – Canada’s open flouting of the Kyoto Protocol is the obvious case in point.

At the end of the day, though, legal obligations do represent a higher level of commitment. On the whole, I believe, they provide countries with stronger confidence that others will do what they’ve promised. And with this greater sense of confidence and reciprocity, countries are more likely to put forward their strongest possible efforts. Which is truly what we need – our strongest possible efforts.

So for me, the question is not the desirability of binding outcomes. The question is what, if anything, countries are prepared to say about them at this stage. The way the issue was finessed in Cancún was essentially to sidestep it. The Cancun Agreements of course extend the perennial Kyoto negotiations, but otherwise they are without prejudice to the “prospects for, or the content of, a legally-binding outcome in the future.”

But sidestepping the issue will not be so easy in Durban. Any hope of avoiding a commitment gap under Kyoto requires agreement in Durban on a second commitment period. I, for one, believe that is no more likely in Durban than it was in Cancún. But some are not yet prepared to abandon that hope – or demand – however remote the odds of it being fulfilled.

So I believe that if we are to have any further progress in Durban on the operational side, the legal issues will again have to be finessed. This time, I think, the answer is to address them directly, even if only generally. Even if parties cannot agree on the form or the timing of a future legal agreement, they should be willing to declare unequivocally that it is in fact their intent to work toward legally binding outcomes. We should be clear that the phase begun in Cancún is not the endpoint. We are not locking ourselves into permanent pledge-and-review.  Rather, it is an evolutionary step toward a fair, effective and binding international framework. 

We’ll have a better sense next month in Bangkok whether the realism of Cancún is likely to carry over to Durban. Are parties prepared for a new, more productive phase focused on the nuts and bolts of regime-building? Or will we revert to binding-or-nothing? Are some so attached to Kyoto that they are willing to forego further concrete progress? Or will they be open to a new paradigm? Only when we know the answers to those questions will we know whether the possibilities and the promise of Cancún can be realized. 

These, I believe, are the choices before us. Making the right choices will require creativity, compromise and, above all, realism. I’d like to conclude by again thanking our hosts for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you, and by thanking you all for listening.

The Evolution of Multilateral Regimes: Implications for Climate Change

December 2010

By: Daniel Bodansky and Elliot Diringer

Download this paper (pdf)

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Cancun Side Event



The 2009 Copenhagen climate summit may in retrospect prove a critical turning point in the evolution of the international climate change effort. For a decade and a half, the principal aim under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had been to establish, and then to extend, a legally-binding regime regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite late efforts to temper hopes for Copenhagen, the general expectation was that the summit would carry forward this process by producing a legally-binding outcome. The result, instead, was the Copenhagen Accord, a non-binding agreement that captured political consensus on a number of core issues but in the end was not formally adopted by the official Conference of the Parties (COP).

Copenhagen’s “failure” has led many in and outside governments to begin rethinking the best way to mobilize an effective international response to climate change. To be certain, many parties remain fully committed to achieving new legally-binding commitments as quickly as possible; some are looking to do so at the 17th Conference of Parties (COP-17) to be held in 2011 in South Africa, or at Rio+20, the summit to be held in 2012 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. But many others are coming to believe that the path to a new legally-binding agreement will be longer and more incremental. In this view, the process of constructing a post-2012 international climate architecture will involve a gradual process of evolution.

An evolutionary path is, in fact, quite common in multilateral regime-building. While the progression of every regime is unique, reflecting its particular policy needs and political constraints, broad patterns can be seen. Few regimes spring forth wholly formed. Generally, they grow over time, becoming broader, deeper and more fully integrated as parties gain confidence in one another, and in the regime itself.

What a more incremental approach would imply in the case of climate change is not necessarily clear, however. Short of a legally-binding agreement, what types of international arrangements are most urgent or effective? Which of these can or should be pursued through the UNFCCC and which might be more productively pursued in other international forums? Is it critical that we know now the form of legally-binding agreement we aspire to—must it, for instance, include the Kyoto Protocol—or can that unfold over time?

This paper starts to explore these and related issues. It argues that a comprehensive and binding global agreement has strong virtues, and should be the ultimate goal, but that in working toward that end, parties should focus their efforts for now on concrete, incremental steps both within and outside the UNFCCC. The paper proceeds as follows: First, it examines why international regimes often evolve gradually over time, rather than emerging all at once. Next, it unpacks the various dimensions along which international regimes evolve. Then, it examines how the climate change regime has evolved to date. Finally, it outlines several different lines along which the climate change regime might evolve in the future.

Of course, an evolutionary process is by definition gradual and will take time. Given the urgency of addressing climate change, there is no guarantee that this process will reduce emissions quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate change. If a more rapid process were possible, it would be worth pursuing. The paper does not argue that an evolutionary approach is best; rather, it concludes that, at present, an evolutionary process is politically the most promising way forward.

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Daniel Bodansky
Elliot Diringer

Designing a Deal

Click here to download the article (PDF).

May 2010

By Elliot Diringer

This article originally appeared in Carbon Finance.


The aftermath of December’s Copenhagen talks shows that a new approach to international climate policy is needed to reach a post-2012 climate deal, says Elliot Diringer.

The popular view around the world is that the Copenhagen climate conference last December was a failure. In truth, it was a victim of false expectations. From the very start of the negotiations in Bali in 2007, there was little reason to believe that Copenhagen could deliver a binding climate agreement. Yet that was the expectation governments set, and maintained, through round after round of fruitless negotiations. When in the end a non-binding Copenhagen Accord materialized in place of a treaty, the common perception, unsurprisingly, was one of failure.

One obvious lesson is that expectations matter. Less obvious, but far more critical, are the lessons for next steps in the international climate effort.

Copenhagen calls for a new vision of the way forward. While a binding treaty should indeed be the goal – it is essential we keep that in sight – it is time to rethink when and how we get there. More frenzied high-level summitry is not likely to be the route. Rather, an ambitious and binding framework for global climate action will have to be built over time. No treaty is likely this year, or perhaps next year, either. How much longer it will take is impossible to say.

While a binding treaty should indeed be the goal – it is essential we keep that in sight – it is time to rethink when and how we get there. Probably the most practical course for now is to put aside more intractable issues such as burden-sharing and focus instead on the nuts and bolts. The Copenhagen Accord lays out the bare essentials of a post-2012 framework. The goal for talks in Cancún later this year should be a package of decisions that begins fleshing out this architecture, particularly in the areas of transparency and support for developing countries.

Even incremental progress is by no means assured, however, owing in part to the peculiar origins and status of the Copenhagen Accord, and the political and procedural complications left in its wake.

On one hand, the accord represents the most substantial climate consensus among the largest group of world leaders since the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. This consensus includes: a goal of limiting warming to 2°C; a balanced but differentiated approach to mitigation, with economy-wide emissions targets for developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions for developing countries; agreement in principle on how these efforts are to be verified; new mechanisms to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries; and clear goals for climate finance out to 2020.

But, on the other hand, having surfaced at the eleventh hour from behind closed doors, the accord was promptly rejected by a handful of countries as a backroom deal by a powerful few. They succeeded in blocking the accord’s formal adoption, leaving it a purely political outcome with no formal standing in the UN process. The emergence of this small but vocal bloc has injected a fractious new dynamic into the negotiations.

In the first negotiating session since Copenhagen, in Bonn in April, parties managed a procedural compromise indirectly acknowledging the accord as one basis for drawing up a new negotiating text. The next session, in June, may reveal more about what that means substantively – and what could be in store for Cancún.

For concrete decisions to be feasible in Cancún, they must reflect progress across a range of issues balancing both developed and developing country needs. In Copenhagen, parties appeared closest to agreement on adaptation, technology, and forestry. The accord touches on these only lightly. But decisions in these areas will likely be possible only with further progress on the core issues of transparency and finance, two areas where the accord has more to say.

On transparency, the accord calls for developing countries to report on their mitigation actions every two years, followed by “international consultations and analysis”. In Cancún, parties must at least make a start on the guidelines needed to operationalize these, and on parallel processes to verify support from developed countries.

On finance, the $30 billion in prompt-start funding promised in the accord can and should begin flowing this year through established channels. But further decisions are required on the structure of the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, and on the broader arrangements that will be needed to achieve the accord’s goal of $100 billion a year in public and private resources by 2020.

A central issue for Cancún is not simply whether operational progress on these fronts is possible – a challenge in itself – but whether all parties would deem it sufficient. Some will also want to address more difficult political questions, including the adequacy of the 2020 actions pledged thus far and the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. Insisting on decisions on these in Cancún, however, could mean no outcome at all.

An incremental approach may seem a paltry response to a desperate challenge growing only more urgent. What is urgent, however, is the need for action. And, for the time being, we have no binding treaty to deliver it. Too many countries – not only the US – are not ready to sign on. The immediate drivers for action – and for the carbon market – must be domestic.

At the international level, we must look for practical outcomes that, step by step, erect a functioning multilateral framework. As the post-2012 regime takes shape, and parties begin working within it, they will grow more comfortable and confident. As they move forward with domestic actions, their confidence will grow – confidence in their ability to confront the challenge at home, and confidence that others are acting, too. In time, this will hopefully translate into a willingness to assume more ambitious – and binding – commitments.

A new binding treaty is not, in this vision, an essential foundation for near-term action. Rather, it will be the culmination of this next critical stage in an evolving international effort. Modest successes, each contributing to the next, will likely get us there sooner than grand but false expectations. That, hopefully, is the message we take from Copenhagen.

Elliot Diringer is Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

by Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies-- Appeared in Carbon Finance, May 2010
Elliot Diringer

U.S. Election and Prospects for a New Climate Agreement

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By Elliot Diringer
October 2008

This article was first published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Transatlantic Climate Policy Group.

After years of stalemate in the international climate negotiations, the inauguration of a new U.S. president presents an opportunity for a genuine breakthrough.  Both John McCain and Barack Obama support mandatory limits on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and both favor renewed international engagement.  But unrealistic expectations about how quickly the United States will move – and how far – could severely damage prospects for any sort of agreement next year in Copenhagen.

An effective post-2012 climate agreement is impossible without the United States, the world’s largest economy and largest historic emitter.  Europe was able to persuade other developed countries to push ahead with initial commitments under the Kyoto Protocol despite the U.S. withdrawal.  But there appears very little appetite among those countries to take on new, stronger commitments without the United States, and even less prospect of commitments by the major developing countries.

Fortunately, there is at long last real momentum for stronger efforts to reduce U.S. emissions.  While skeptics remain, the political establishment has largely accepted the scientific consensus that human-induced warming is underway and must be addressed.  Many states are taking mandatory steps to reduce emissions; 24 states have entered into regional initiatives to establish cap-and-trade systems.  Many corporate leaders are calling for mandatory federal action, and Congress is seriously debating the establishment of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system more than twice the size of Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

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by Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies— Published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Transatlantic Climate Policy Group, October 2008
Elliot Diringer

Towards a New International Climate Change Agreement

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by Elliot Diringer
September 2008

This article is draft version of a chapter in the forthcoming book, Development in the Balance: How Will the World's Poor Cope with Climate Change?, to be published by the Brookings Institution Press

Executive Summary:

A successful post-2012 climate agreement must engage all the world's major economies through a "multi-track" framework allowing different types of commitments for developed and developing countries. The 25 major economies accounting for 84 percent of global emissions are extremely diverse, with per capita incomes and per capita emissions ranging by a factor of 18. Strategies for integrating climate action with broader economic and development agendas will vary with national circumstance. Accommodating these differences requires a flexible but binding international framework integrating different types of commitments, such as economy-wide emission targets, policy-based commitments, and sectoral agreements. Incentives for developing countries, including both market-based schemes and direct assistance, also must be provided. A post-2012 agreement might advance adaptation on two fronts: proactively, by facilitating comprehensive national planning; and reactively, by helping countries cope with the risks that remain. Given the time it will take a new U.S. administration and Congress to establish a domestic climate policy, a detailed post-2012 agreement is unlikely when governments meet in late 2009 in Copenhagen. Instead, governments should aim for consensus on a broad framework and continue negotiating toward specific commitments.

by Elliot Diringer, Director of International StrategiesPreview to a chapter in the forthcoming book, Development in the Balance: How Will the World's Poor Cope with Climate Change?
Elliot Diringer

Towards an Integrated Multi-Track Climate Framework

Multi-Track Framework Cover

Towards an Integrated Multi-Track Climate Framework

Prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change
December 2007

Daniel Bodansky, University of Georgia School of Law
Elliot Diringer, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Press Release


With the approach of 2012, and the expiration of the initial greenhouse gas targets under the KyotoProtocol, governments are grappling with how best to advance the international climate effort in the years beyond. The central challenge is as clear as it is formidable: fashioning an international framework ensuring that all of the world’s major economies contribute equitably and effectively to the global climate effort. 

One way of characterizing the many different proposals put forward by governments, experts, and advocates is in terms of where they fall along a certain continuum: Towards one end are so-called “bottom-up” approaches, which envision the international effort as an aggregation of nationally defined programs put forward by countries on a strictly voluntary basis. At the other end are “top-down” approaches, in which governments negotiate explicit and binding international commitments that in turn shape and drive national policies.1   

This paper suggests a middle course, one that seeks to introduce “bottom-up” flexibility while retaining the cohesion and reciprocity of “top-down.” We call this an integrated multi-track approach.2 In this approach, all major economies enter into commitments aimed at reducing or moderating their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the type of commitment varies. For example, some countries have binding economy-wide emission targets, as under Kyoto, while others commit to implement national policies such as efficiency standards, renewable energy targets, or measures to reduce deforestation.3 Some, in addition, could participate in sectoral agreements on targets, standards, or other measures addressing emissions from particular sectors.4  

The broad contours of such an approach were outlined in the report of the Climate Dialogue at Pocantico, a group of policymakers and stakeholders from 15 countries convened by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.5 In assessing a wide range of post-2012 options, the group concluded that the major economies, given their tremendous diversity, are more apt to engage in the international effort if given latitude to pursue different policy “tracks.” But the dialogue participants also concluded that the collective effort will be stronger if these multiple tracks are brought together in an overarching framework allowing coordination and tradeoffs among countries:  

[A] purely “bottom up” approach might produce only an ad hoc assemblage of disparate initiatives, with little certainty that the overall effort would be sufficiently timely or robust… Expressly linking approaches may allow for a more robust overall effort. In order for governments and for the private sector to undertake and sustain ambitious climate action, they must be confident that their counterparts are contributing their fair share. An integrated agreement could help provide this mutual assurance. By linking and negotiating across tracks, it may be possible to arrive at an arrangement that is at once flexible enough to accommodate different approaches, and reciprocal enough to achieve a higher overall level of effort.6


This paper elaborates on the rationale for an integrated multi-track approach; draws lessons from other multilateral regimes, including those addressing international trade and other transboundary environmental challenges; and identifies key issues in designing a multi-track climate framework. It assesses three models: an “individualized commitments” approach, which affords countries the greatest flexibility; a “parallel agreements” approach, which provides more structure and integration; and an “integrated commitments” approach, in which countries agree to negotiate within given tracks towards a comprehensive package agreement.

The paper concludes that of the three, the “integrated commitments” model is the one most likely to produce a collective level of effort sufficient to meeting the challenge of climate change. While still allowing countries the flexibility of different commitment types, this approach encourages stronger reciprocity and effort by establishing some agreement at the outset on commitment types, and to which countries they will apply, and by requiring that all tracks be agreed as one comprehensive package.  

There was consensus among the Pocantico dialogue participants—and there is now consensus among most, if not all, governments—that the appropriate venue for developing the post-2012 climate framework is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). An integrated multi-track post-2012 agreement under the UNFCCC would likely include elements under the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and, potentially, under new protocols or other instruments. In the present negotiating context, the key to producing such an agreement is a new mandate for negotiations under the Convention—encompassing or linked to ongoing negotiations under Kyoto—with the aim of a comprehensive package of commitments for all major emitting countries.  

See Notes in full report to view references


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Daniel Bodansky
Elliot Diringer
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