Towards an Integrated Multi-Track Climate Framework

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.