Time to Reconsider Voting at Climate Negotiations

15 février 2021

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The climate negotiation process is often described as painfully slow, time-consuming, bureaucratic, and inefficient.[i] Given the state of the climate emergency, it is clear that the negotiations are failing to spur adequate action and that alternatives to the current consensus model are worth exploring.[ii] Reforming the global climate decision-making process could accelerate climate action and effectively protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of climate change.

The Issue with Consensus

Each year, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement adopt new decisions for the effective implementation of the treaties through their corresponding decision-making bodies: the COP, the CMP, and the CMA, respectively. Because the Draft Rules of Procedure[iii] that would have allowed for voting were never adopted (due to opposition from Saudi Arabia),[iv] decisions by the three decision-making bodies are taken by consensus.[v] This means that decisions can be adopted only if no formal objection is raised by the respective parties to the treaty. Reaching consensus is an extremely complex task that requires significant time and major collaborative effort. In some cases, reaching consensus is impossible.[vi] Another downside of consensus is the strong risk of having an outcome that only represents the lowest common denominator acceptable to all parties.[vii] Consensus can hinder ambition.

The consensus rule has had important consequences on the negotiations. For instance, in 2013, Russia vetoed the adoption of the agenda of a meeting in Bonn and effectively delayed the negotiations by two weeks.[viii] Another example occurred at COP24 in 2018, where one of the agenda items was to welcome the highly anticipated IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 ºC. The report could not, however, be symbolically welcomed because the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait (4 parties out of 197) opposed it. After long negotiations, the COP finally decided to just note, rather than welcome, the report.[ix] There are serious disadvantages—not to mention unfairness—associated with the consensus rule.

Voting – the Key to Success?

An alternative to consensus would be to develop and implement a voting scheme.[x] Voting provides many advantages, such as making the process more efficient in terms of invested time and efforts vis-à-vis results. It would also promote more effective climate action by accelerating decision-making on substantial matters and offer a way to circumvent traditionally obstructive states that abuse their veto power.[xi]

Other multilateral environmental agreements offer up promising smart voting options. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, for example, require a simple majority to approve procedural decisions and a two-thirds majority to approve all other decisions. [xii] Parties to the International Whaling Convention aim to make decisions by consensus, but majority voting is allowed if consensus cannot be reached. When voting, a two-thirds majority is required to approve changes to certain specific and sensible regulations, while all other decisions are taken by simple majority.[xiii]

Some of the decision-making bodies under treaties that allow voting have never actually resorted to a vote.[xiv] To some extent, this has happened because merely having a voting option “can act as a consensus builder”[xv] since “the threat of a vote often forces the least ambitious to become more accommodating.”[xvi] For instance, some scholars believe that the voting possibility was key for the 1990 decision under the Montreal Protocol where parties agreed to shorten the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).[xvii]

Since they do not rely only on consensus, “the frustrations of ad hoc consensus decision-making do not vex the political processes of the world’s most effective international environmental bodies.”[xviii] The voting schemes and positive experiences of other agreements therefore provide important insights for designing an ad hoc and smart voting mechanism for global climate decision-making.

The UNFCCC could still strive for consensus, but implement voting safeguards to ensure action is taken. For example, if consensus cannot be reached, non-financial and non-procedural decisions could be taken by a vote with set rules for approval (e.g. qualified majority, two-thirds majority, consensus minus an x amount of parties). Procedural matters (e.g. adopting a meeting agenda) could be decided with a simple majority. Parties could opt for financial decisions to always be taken by consensus. As in other treaties, putting in place a voting option within the UNFCCC has the potential to act as a consensus builder, and it is possible that it would never actually used.

A Way Forward

For the sake of efficiency and effectiveness, discussions must be reopened around voting schemes for climate negotiations. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the normal negotiation process, with COP26 postponed to 2021. This delay will supercharge the agenda for COP26, which already has major matters pending. Potentially interested parties[xix] should nevertheless start discussions about reforming the decision-making process, seek out allies, and request that the issue is formally discussed at COP27. Interested parties could also survey other states to identify current positions on a voting mechanism.

Alternatives to consensus have already been discussed several times without success, but the history of negotiations has shown that states’ interests and positions can change over time. There are certainly important political obstacles that need to be overcome (for example the fear of “losing” sovereignty), but with a strong collaborative strategy from interested parties, this transformation is possible. It is also important to identify the disadvantages of having a voting mechanism, such as the formation of powerful blocks and the corralling of votes by influential stakeholders, and collectively find ways to address those challenges.

In case of strong objections, interested parties could at least advocate for applying a voting mechanism to strictly procedural matters. This alone would have a very positive impact on the overall pace of the decision-making process.

The climate emergency is time-sensitive and the world needs to respond quickly. Both scientists and activists lament that global action is moving too slowly.[xx] There is a clear need to adapt the climate negotiation process by making it more efficient and less bureaucratic. Changing the decision-making process from a consensus system to a tailor-made and smart voting mechanism has the potential to accelerate climate action.


Image by Tania Malréchauffé via Unsplash

[i] Catherine Jex, “Is the UN too slow to tackle climate change?,” Science Nordic, 2015, accessed 27 November 2020. Antto Vihma and Kati Kulovesi, “Can attention to the process improve the efficiency of the UNFCCC negotiations?,” CCLR (4) (2013): 242-251.

[ii] Antto Vihma, “Climate of Consensus: Managing Decision Making in the UN Climate Change Negotiations,” Review of European, comparative & international environmental law 24(1) (2015): 58-68.

[iii]Draft rules of procedure, (UNFCCC, 1996).

[iv] Luke Kemp, “Framework for the future? Exploring the possibility of majority voting in the climate negotiations,” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 16(5) (2016): 757-779.

[v]  Kemp [see iv].

[vi] Jesse Vogel, “The problem with Consensus in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change,” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 32(1) (2014): 14-21.

[vii] Cary Coglianese, “Is consensus an appropriate basis for regulatory policy?,” (2001) Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=270488

[viii] Kemp [see iv].

[ix] J. Allan et al., “Summary of the Katowice Climate Change Conference: 2-15 December 2018,” ENB 12(747) (2018).

[x] Vihma (see ii), Kemp (see iv) and Vogel (see vi).

[xi] Patrick Szell, “Decision Making under Multilateral Environmental Agreements,” Environmental Policy and Law 26(5) (1996): 210-214. See also Joanna Depledge, “Striving for No: Saudi Arabia in the Climate Change Regime,” Global environment politics 8(4) (2008): 9-35.

[xii] Vogel [see vi].

[xiii] Vogel [see vi].

[xiv] Kemp [see iv].

[xv]  Kemp [see iv, 761].

[xvi] Kemp [see iv, 761].

[xvii] Center for International Environmental Law, “Effective decision-making: A review of options for making decisions to conserve and manage pacific fish stocks,”  (1999) Available at: https://www.ciel.org/Publications/effectivedecisionmaking.pdf

[xviii] Vogel [see vi, 15].

[xix] For example, in 2011 Papua New Guinea and Mexico submitted a proposal to amend the Convention to include voting. “Revised proposal from Papua New Guinea and Mexico to amend Articles 7 and 18 of the Convention,” UNFCCC (2011), (FCCC/CP/2011/4/Rev.1).

[xx]  UN Climate Change Dialogues 2020: Highlights for Tuesday 24, November 2020,” ENB, 2020, accessed November 27, 2020. 

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Alejandra Guraieb

Alejandra holds a Bachelor of Laws from Universidad Iberoamericana Mexico City and a Master’s in Environmental Policy from Sciences Po, Paris. During her Master’s she undertook an internship at the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat. She is particularly interested in global climate governance and international environmental law.