Why do climate change negotiations stall? Scientific evidence and solutions for some structural problems

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  • 1 German Aerospace Center, , Germany
  • | 2 C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, , UK
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Climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge of our times. In order to cope with it, we have to organise action collectively. The most important way to cooperate globally is through United Nations negotiations, known as ‘conferences of the parties’. However, progress has been very slow, and disillusionment with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process has set in. From a scientific point of view, several obstacles surfacing in these negotiations have been well researched. Institutional analysis may provide suggestions or even solutions to some of these problems. Hence, we think that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations could profit from scientific support. We provide scientific background for three prominent problems: how to reconcile different interests in a global public goods situation; how to ameliorate the consensus decision-making process; and how to design institutions to implement resolutions. Enhancing communication, trust and fairness, and enforcing sanctions, are suggested as key elements for that. Finally, we point to similar processes that have been brought to a successful end.

Abstract

Climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge of our times. In order to cope with it, we have to organise action collectively. The most important way to cooperate globally is through United Nations negotiations, known as ‘conferences of the parties’. However, progress has been very slow, and disillusionment with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process has set in. From a scientific point of view, several obstacles surfacing in these negotiations have been well researched. Institutional analysis may provide suggestions or even solutions to some of these problems. Hence, we think that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations could profit from scientific support. We provide scientific background for three prominent problems: how to reconcile different interests in a global public goods situation; how to ameliorate the consensus decision-making process; and how to design institutions to implement resolutions. Enhancing communication, trust and fairness, and enforcing sanctions, are suggested as key elements for that. Finally, we point to similar processes that have been brought to a successful end.

Introduction: why do climate negotiations stall?

Human-made climate change is a reality (IPCC, 1996). In order to organise action to collectively tackle it, global cooperation in the negotiations acting through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is crucial. However, although progress has been made in some areas, with 26 conferences of the parties (COPs) meetings since 1995, disillusionment and delay has set in because sufficiently strong measures against climate change have not yet emerged from the process.

Meanwhile, climate change is getting more severe by the day – more frequent droughts, more intense storms and melting polar ice being just a few warnings of the drastic changes yet to come if no concerted action is taken on a global level (IPCC, forthcoming). The much-quoted 2018 report of the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that governments have a rapidly closing window between now and 2030 in which to take national and global climate action to keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (Masson-Delmotte et al, 2019).

A number of problems have been identified that stand in the way of successful global collective action. Among them is the very problem structure itself – a global public goods (GPG) problem, where each country benefits the most if other countries curb emissions and bear the costs. Since it is unclear what the optimum for each country is – as the scientific evidence is weak – egoistic, strategic interests dominate, as predicted by game theory (Chaudhuri, 2011). Thus, the problematic incentive structure of a social dilemma is exacerbated by large uncertainties (Raihani and Aitken, 2011), including the following:

  • What threshold in degrees of rising temperature minimises risks and yet is affordable?

  • How should greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions best be decreased? What is the cost-optimal way?

  • How many countries are needed to start and sustain concerted action? What is the fair share of action that each country should be taking?

  • When will adequate technology be available and accessible to all?

In addition, each country has a different opinion on what is fair and what is best for themselves (Brick and Visser, 2015), and how to act.

As of now, however, there seems to be compelling evidence that the earlier the action against climate change is taken, the more economically affordable it will be (Stern, 2007; IPCC, 2015), which should be a driver of action. The COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the declining value of fossil-fuel industries and risk of stranded assets, has also amplified the economic case for action, though despite signals of the importance of a ‘green recovery’, whether this will translate to long-term concrete action by governments is still to be seen (World Economic Forum, 2020).

Another problem is the different or even opposing interests and political stances of the various actors involved, as well as missing incentives to act, which affect multiple levels of cooperation (Levin, 2010). The structure of the negotiations themselves is also problematic. Thousands of ever-changing negotiators with different levels of authority, expertise and interests try to reach a consensus (Dimitrov, 2010; Schroeder et al, 2012). While this process gets bigger and more diverse, it also has to build on an opaque preparatory process in between negotiations by yet other persons.

At the same time, the views of many stakeholders do not have sufficient cut-through to negotiators. Youth groups, climate activity groups, cities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that represent environmental action, for example, have limited power and no official vote or platform within the formal negotiations, often limited to being ‘observers’. Their important different perspectives are not part of the negotiations, but they can provide impetus to action and much-needed expertise that could inform climate discussions through public pressure and advocacy. Indigenous groups, for example, are often the most affected by climate change impacts but often lack representation in their national governments. These groups have been campaigning for greater representation in climate negotiations given their vulnerability and expertise in coping with climate challenges. It has taken over 20 years of direct campaigning for even a minor concession to be made to allow them to feature in the negotiations, and even then, this contribution remains far weaker than that of powerful national governments (United Nations Climate Change, 2019).

Yet another problem is the prioritisation of issues. The main issues that get priority in the negotiations may represent not the most important ones, but those that the most powerful countries decide are relevant (Dimitrov, 2010). The comparative weight of attention to, and negotiations on, monitoring emissions reductions compared to that for ‘loss and damage’ is a useful illustrative example. ‘Loss and damage’, which refers to the losses by nations due to historic emissions – losses suffered mostly by least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDs), which were not responsible for the emissions – is of priority to small island states. ‘Loss and damage’ discussions have been occurring through UNFCCC negotiations for over ten years but without any significant progress (Kreienkamp and Vanhala, 2017). At COP26, ‘loss and damage’ finally gained significant presence in the negotiations, but this was the result of the UK (as the COP president), rather than those nations most affected by the issue, deciding that it was a priority for the conference, highlighting the skewed power balance towards richer nations. This also demonstrates that even when an issue is put on the agenda by developing nations, the terms of debate on the issue are determined by richer nations.

Another factor that can negatively influence the negotiations is the pressure coming from many outside groups, for example, civil society, the private sector, environmental groups, political parties and alliances, to act on key issues that may be beyond the scope of the negotiations and COP meetings. For some of these issues, many negotiators may not have been given leeway for compromise by their governments at the negotiations themselves. While this pressure may sometimes lead to greater ambition and outcomes in the negotiations, it can also act as a distraction or hold up areas of action. If we add in major political and cultural differences, as well as wider geopolitical and economic tensions between countries – conservative versus liberal and developed versus developing, as well as different pollution levels and historical responsibility – then a missing chain of trust between countries can result. In addition, governments and goals change, and progress on existing agreements and the development of new ones becomes extremely challenging.

Even if agreements are reached (for example, the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree goal), follow-up implementation is not a given, even if the relevant decisions have been made. For example, it may be politically challenging for some national governments to realise unpopular but climate-friendly measures. Hence, implementation of what is agreed in the negotiation space may never occur, which again affects trust. A most notable example of this is the pledge made at COP15 in Copenhagen by developed countries to mobilise US$100 billion per year for climate finance to developing countries by 2020. However, the financial aid that materialised has been much less than expected, which has contributed to distrust in the negotiations (OECD, 2020), evidenced by this broken promise being a key discussion point and block in the recent COP26 negotiations. Another problem for implementation is that a government may undo measures from its predecessor (for example, the recent and current back and forth that is being seen in the US), meaning that progress may be stunted and non-linear.

Finally, the current global framework under the Paris Agreement relies on national goals: the nationally determined contributions (NDCs). These are maintained and regulated by respective national governments. Hence, they are not legally binding through international law. Furthermore, control by other countries is non-existent, and sanctions for non-compliance are nearly impossible. It is not surprising that delivering progress on goals falters. As a result, implementation is patchy and sporadic, and global emissions continue to climb (Crippa et al, 2020), though at least some individual countries have made progress in reducing their emissions and setting targets (such as the UK and European Union [EU] countries).

In contrast to these poor results, there is a host of scientific literature on how to improve things (Raihani and Aitken, 2011). These suggestions include many aspects, for example, on how to improve cooperation, facilitate negotiations, develop institutions or create greater trust. Hence, there are many ways in which research might improve the outcome of negotiations. The goal of this article is to bring this knowledge to bear on selected problems of the UNFCCC in order to suggest ameliorations of the negotiation process. To do this, we identify and describe three major problems, and go on to suggest how the scientific evidence might contribute to their solution.

Hence, our guiding research question is: what scientific evidence is pertinent to improving climate change negotiations and implementation? The first of our three problems is the need to overcome opposed interests (for example, between fossil-fuel-based Saudi Arabia and the small island of Tuvalu threatened by sea-level change). The second problem is that of having to reach an agreement with all countries in the negotiations themselves (the problem of the consensus requirement). Finally, the third problem is weak institutional design and the enforcement of the implementation of measures, as nations resist international impositions on the grounds that they would intrude on national sovereignty.

Problems in climate negotiations

It is important to make clear from the outset that this article argues from a scientific perspective. There is near-universal agreement among scientists that human-made climate change is already happening, will accelerate and has catastrophic global impacts. Negative impacts include a sea-level rise (with emigrational waves of millions of people in its wake), disrupted food production, increased annual excess deaths (such as 35,000 deaths in Europe alone), a temperature rise, droughts, displacement, huge financial losses and the costs of structural change (Stern, 2007; IPCC, 2015, forthcoming). Given these impacts, improving the UNFCCC means, in our view, adopting stronger and more effective measures against climate change that will deliver global action. From other perspectives (for example, from a short-term economic perspective or from that of a country tied to fossil fuels), of course, these goals might be viewed quite differently.

Problem 1: how to reconcile different interests in a social dilemma?

Different perspectives are at the root of the problems that will be discussed throughout this section. This is most evident in the problem structure: the global public good. Negative impacts from rising GHG emissions will not be equally detrimental to all countries. Some, for example, Russia and parts of the US, might even benefit from higher agricultural production; others, like Saudi Arabia, depend heavily on fossil fuels for their welfare and face an extensive challenge to diversify their economies. In stark contrast, for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), an alliance of 39 low-lying coastal countries and small islands, the impacts of climate change, predominantly rising sea levels and intense storms, are ‘a matter of life and death’, and the urgency and risk posed is in the very near term. Their existence is at stake.

National differences in attitudes to climate change exist at the level of both populations and governments. While some governments and their peoples are very concerned about environmental issues (for example, Sweden), other governments are not (for example, Brazil), even if their citizens see things differently. This citizen concern is often a significant driver of political action (or inaction) and can shape the positions national governments bring to the UNFCCC negotiations. Hence, positions on climate change differ widely, one reason being that climate change effects will hurt some countries, and indeed some communities within countries, more than others.

Adding a large number of different interests into a problem structure (a social dilemma) that is itself detrimental to success makes finding solutions much harder. Since combating climate change means solving a GPG problem, it is very clear that collective action is a necessity and that the efforts of single nations or small groups will not suffice (except maybe by China, the US, the EU and India).

These different interests manifest themselves in a number of different ways, for example, in debates about responsibilities and fairness. Developing countries insist that they should not be held responsible for historic GHG emissions since industrialisation given that developed countries, who industrialised first, mostly account for these. In contrast, developed countries argue that developing countries, and particularly emerging economies, will soon have an equal or larger impact in terms of historic emissions. In terms of annual total emissions, this has already taken place.

A second point of debate is how to measure GHG emissions. If measured in absolute quantity, China and the US are by far the largest polluters; if measured per capita, countries like Kuwait or Qatar are far larger polluters. In addition, countries like China produce many consumer goods for other countries, demonstrating that there is a problem and gap in the process to fairly distinguish production from consumption emissions.

A third major point is the distribution of costs and benefits between generations. Assuredly, each generation that will curb emissions will not see the benefits in their lifetimes. This can contribute to a lack of urgency in action by politicians who run on short-term political cycles. However, inaction will also burden future generations with the costs of delayed action, both financial and material. While there are many differences in the positions adopted by countries, similar positions exist as well, having resulted in the formation of alliances between countries during the UNFCCC negotiations. Examples include the UN-wide operating G-77 (a coalition of developing countries, now with 134 members), AOSIS, the African group, the Arab states and the LDCs. Being a member of an alliance often results in a stronger position for each country, as well as other advantages (Pearce and Yeo, 2015). This phenomenon of group formation according to cooperation level, that is, high cooperators interacting with other high cooperators, while free riders have to deal with other free riders, is well known in the literature (Page et al, 2005). We will come back to it in the section applying research findings to the negotiation problems.

Hence, different interests, mingled with uncertainties and unresolved fairness questions, make finding a consensus about the right measures nearly impossible. In addition, the most powerful countries are able to block certain outcomes and have done so in the past. However, many observers and scientists agree that there is one particular design feature of the negotiations that exacerbates the problem of opposing standpoints sharply: the problem of consensus decision-making. The following section describes this problem in more detail.

Problem 2: how to avoid blocking in a consensus decision-making system

The 197 parties to the UNFCCC have met annually since 1995 in the so-called ‘conferences of the parties’ to decide on commitments regarding climate change. However, to adopt a decision, there has to be consensus on it. This system, which has its origin in UN rules of procedure (Kemp, 2015), was recognised as a problem very early (Vihma, 2015) and continues to be one of the biggest blocks, as it gives blocking countries undue weight.

A change of the voting system, for example, to majority vote, would ameliorate this unfortunate situation in terms of stronger decisions. However, this change has been rejected and the political process to try and collect a majority for the change has been seen as too complex (Vihma, 2015). What is more, the fear is that such a lengthy process would deflect from the real goals. Another argument for keeping consensus decision-making is that this system ensures the integrity of the process, as it preserves an equal structure, in contrast to a majority vote, where minorities are at a disadvantage. Consensus decision-making is considered more akin to participatory decision-making processes with inclusive and cooperative aspects (Ostrom, 1990). To sum up, changing the system seems impossible, even if the shortcomings are clear to everyone. Furthermore, even ambitious groups like the EU are not particularly interested in changing it: ‘Moreover, the support of key countries for majority voting as a practice in the COP does not seem to be in place’ (Vihma, 2015: 63). Hence, the conclusion seems to be: ‘It does not seem to be politically feasible to address the lack of majority voting in the decision-making of the UNFCCC. Voting is thus highly unlikely to become a practice used to resolve most of the outstanding issues and problems related to COP decision making’ (Vihma, 2015: 68).

An example of the negative consequences of consensus decision-making was the recent failure to reach consensus on how to appraise an IPCC report, which led to dropping it altogether (McGrath, 2018). Another example is the Copenhagen Accords in 2009, which was blocked by seven countries who opposed it. However, while Saudi Arabia and Bolivia blocked it because it was too ambitious regarding climate goals, Tuvalu was also against it because it was not ambitious enough (Schroeder et al, 2012)! This problem with consensus decision-making was witnessed recently at COP26 in Glasgow, where India was able to push through ‘watered-down’ language on a global agreement on coal phase-out in the final minutes of the COP negotiations, reducing the overall ambition in the final outcome, the Glasgow Climate Pact. Consensus decision-making, therefore, not only prevents stronger action, but can also act as a protest mechanism.

Consensus decision-making has even been dubbed the ‘Law of the Least Ambitious Programme’. Big opportunities are missed since the ‘lowest common denominator’ only serves the interests of the least ambitious party. Majority voting seems to lead to a speedier process than consensus decision-making (Schroeder et al, 2012).

This shows clearly that consensus decision-making is not suited for the purpose of advancing negotiations. In fact, in Cancun in 2010, the Mexican president of the COP ignored Bolivia’s attempt to veto the adoption of the Cancun Agreements and declared the decision as duly adopted, which, of course, was decried by Bolivia later as a betrayal of democratic principles and the core values of the UN (Vihma, 2015).

We conclude that the existing opposing interests cannot be brought into line as long as a consensus decision-making procedure is in place. Country interests are too different for that – just take AOSIS and Saudi Arabia as examples (Kemp, 2015). In fact, Saudi Arabia has been a constant block in multiple sessions throughout the COPs, keeping an adamant position against any action against climate change (Depledge, 2008). It is a Catch-22: in order to get rid of consensus decision-making, you have to have a consensus!

A similar Catch-22 has been observed around the wider agenda of UN reform, in particular, reform of the Security Council. While numerous attempts at reform have taken place over the years, the institutional reliance on consensus has prevented any progress being made (Segers, 2014). This suggests that it is a structural issue affecting UN institutions and is not unique to the UNFCCC negotiations. Reform in the climate sphere could have a profound impact on democratising the UN more generally. We will take up this issue in the section applying research findings to the negotiation problems, where we discuss possible solutions.

Problem 3: lacking institutions to enforce sanctions – how to implement resolutions

So far, we have discussed inherent problems of the negotiations. This section is dedicated to the implementation of resolutions emerging from the negotiations. There are three major issues at stake.

First, countries may only be promising to reach certain goals in the negotiations, while not having any intention to really implement any measures. Reasons may include different, opposing interests, for example, party interests or other domestic political reasons, such as changing governments. There may also be a huge difference between negotiations, for example, in Copenhagen, where face saving via large untraceable promises (such as developed countries committing to mobilise US$100 billion a year for climate finance to developing countries) replaced detailed and technical negotiations: ‘When negotiations failed, priority switched from saving the world to saving face’ (Dimitrov, 2010: 808).

A second problem is that enforcement is completely lacking. Under the current globally agreed framework, the Paris Agreement, neither it is binding for countries to reach their NDCs, nor is there any legal possibility for the UN to enforce the agreement. The responsibility lies with national governments, which are only accountable to themselves. Since no country has any jurisdiction over any other country, enforcement on that level is also politically almost impossible.

A third problem is that legislation, as well as the necessary capacity and the government apparatus for implementing measures within countries, is not in place. Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, its implementation has varied a great deal between countries. Some have mainstreamed the agreement into existing policies; others have tried to develop new policies; and still others have lacked the human resources to make progress at all. In 2017, only 48 per cent of countries had national climate legislation in place (Iacobuta et al, 2018), and even then, it is yet another significant step from legislation to implementation at the national level.

Work is under way by many national governments in strengthening capacity to be able to implement climate action or work with partners to explore options (Burgess, 2016). For example, many countries have net-zero goals and carbon pricing. However, most goals have never been specified at a level detailed enough to allow the development of laws and regulations implementable by companies, individuals and the government itself. Analogously, market conditions that would create a supportive environment for advancing action or building government capacity to further action are often missing too.

To sum up, many countries face a situation where uncertainty is huge: which measures against climate change should be implemented, how and when? At the same time, there are strong free-riding incentives to not implement anything given that each national government decides which action to take, with no framework in place to make it binding. In addition, although there is a system of reporting national emissions and policies, implementation lags far behind COP decisions and there is no enforcement mechanism for those that report slow progress. On a transnational level, there are no sanctions whatsoever and no real accountability. Again, it is not hard to see why progress is slow.

Applying research findings to the negotiation problems

Now that we have made clear that there are many problems – and three problems in particular – that hinder progress in climate negotiations, let us turn to the scientific evidence collected in these fields. Typically, experimental behavioural economics puts participants in a kind of social dilemma and varies incentives and institutional rules like sanctions to see if cooperation levels change (Ostrom et al, 1994; Chaudhuri, 2011). This section has two goals: first, to find out whether the climate negotiations follow patterns already described in the literature; and, second, if that is the case, to find out whether there are solutions to these problems.

Most important is the question of whether results can be transferred to the real world. Transferability of results from laboratory experiments to real negotiations should be possible, as many studies have shown that basic behavioural patterns are robust across different situations (Frey, 2017). Furthermore, although there is a certain context sensitivity that may sometimes offset results, research on institutions in natural resource management (Ostrom, 1990), as well as field studies (Cardenas, 2003), show very similar patterns in the real world to those found in the lab.

Research in public goods games: on different interests and group formation

Since the problem structure of climate change is fairly well understood (public good), there are, not surprisingly, a number of game-theoretic approaches to finding solutions to UNFCCC-style problems (Smead et al, 2014). They analyse, for example, how prior commitments and other factors influence outcomes. There are even some studies that explicitly take up aspects of climate change in their setting, for example, migration or differences between rich and poor countries or cooperation levels (Milinski et al, 2016; Marotzke et al, 2020).

More generally, one paradigm to studying social dilemmas like GPGs is the laboratory experimental analysis of public goods games (Zelmer, 2003; Chaudhuri, 2011), and a very good introduction and overview of factors influencing cooperation in public goods games can be found in the introduction to this journal issue (Lazarus, 2020). One robust finding here is that it is very easy to bring about a group identity – a simple token suffices (‘You are the green group’). It is also easy to get groups to compete against each other and to increase out-group hostility (Tajfel, 1970; Hewstone et al, 2002; Voland, 2013).

Only a few studies allow endogenous group formation (Page et al, 2005; Charness et al, 2014), and these consistently find that high cooperators find each other and are able to maintain a high level of cooperation (Frey, 2016). Free riders do not find other participants to exploit and tend to end up in groups with other free riders (Gürerk et al, 2006, Rockenbach and Milinski, 2006). The largest share of participants are so-called ‘conditional cooperators’, that is, individuals adapting their contributions to the public good to the contributions of others (Fischbacher et al, 2001). Given that around 25 per cent are free riders, 70 per cent are conditional cooperators and only 5 per cent are high cooperators (Frey, 2017), this leads to the famous downward spiral of contributions, as conditional cooperators reduce contributions after having been cheated by free riders (Fehr and Gächter, 2002).

Analogously to group-formation processes in the laboratory, we witness group formation into alliances in the climate negotiations, for example, AOSIS, G-77 and so on. As has been suggested, in-group/out-group behaviour is a deeply rooted basic behavioural pattern (Hewstone et al, 2002; Voland, 2013). Similarly, the development of NDCs is a typical group-formation process: as a large group finds it difficult to agree on a single goal, the group tends to split into smaller groups, with the members of each smaller group sharing the same goal – in the laboratory, this is the same cooperation level (Page et al, 2005). Given the results from the laboratory, one way to improve negotiations might be to separate free riders (that is, countries blocking ambitious climate goals) from conditional cooperators and high cooperators (that is, AOSIS). Then, cooperation levels (that is, commitments) could increase and stay stable at high levels, for reasons we go on to explain. The separation would not have to be enforced exogenously, but would follow the formation of alliances between like-minded countries. Separation, then, means that each group would come to their own climate actions – from very ambitious to none at all. Potentially, the example of the most ambitious group would then lead the conditional cooperators in the second-most ambitious group without free-riders to lower GHG emissions as well (Eckersley, 2012; Falkner et al, 2021). One drawback is, of course, that the largest emitters in the second-most ambitious group might end up in the free-riding group and not curb emissions at all. However, reputation effects might be able to prevent that, especially since research has shown that free riders increase cooperation levels under such circumstances (Rockenbach and Milinski, 2006). In addition, COP26 has shown that even countries that have blocked agreements in the past have changed sides due to changing national politics and are now acknowledging the negative impacts of climate change. However, this remains a research gap that needs to be filled, particularly with studies using realistic field settings. Two points are important to note: first, since group formation tends to increase hostility between groups, this has to be expected and mediated, with positive contact being a major facilitator of inter-group relations (Hewstone and Swart, 2011); and, second, free riders can sometimes be encouraged to raise contributions by the threat of sanctions, as explained later in the article.

Comparing consensus decision-making to majority voting

We start out with the fact that, as described earlier, consensus decision-making has been seen as a major block on the advancement of climate negotiations. At the same time, most political researchers agree that majority voting is a more effective system than consensus decision-making (Tjosvold and Field, 1983). Most democracies prefer a proportional system, where power is shared according to the proportion of votes, indicating a plurality of different opinions side by side and not a consensus on one person, standpoint or party.1

Other UN negotiations have also deferred to a majority approach to get important decisions through. For example, UN General Assembly (GA) resolutions rely not on consensus, but rather on a majority – a 50 per cent majority as standard, rising to a two-thirds majority if the issue is deemed of high importance. Examples of success in this regard include (but are not limited to), the UN GA resolutions to expand Security Council membership (in 1963), the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in 1948) and establishing the Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People (in 2007). The aforementioned recent problems around the blocking of language for ambitious climate action related to the coal phase-out at COP26 also reignited questions in media commentary around whether majority voting would be more effective in the UNFCCC process.

Experiments in the laboratory have shown that when groups are forced to decide upon rules like whether to use sanctioning or on how much to exploit natural resources, they are able to do so effectively with majority ruling (Ostrom et al, 1994). Hence, majority ruling is suitable for such kinds of problems. In contrast, groups requiring consensus were not very effective in agreeing on institutional rules; under consensus decision-making, some participants defected from the agreed decision.

How might majority rule be introduced in practice? There are two ways to do this, either to adopt the as-of-now unadopted rules of procedure or to amend the convention, as shown in Figure 1.

The steps of the flowchart are as follows. Amendments to the convention is connected to three-fourths majority vote, which in turn is connected to non-universal ratification and universal ratification. Non-universal ratification along with amendments to the convention is connected to dual institutions. Adoption of rules of procedure is connected to consensus, which in turn is connected to majority voting, which is further connected to layered voting, double qualified majority voting, and alternative, a draft of rule 42.1. Universal ratification is connected to majority voting. Consensus is connected to ALTERNATIVE B, (CONSENSUS) OF DRAFT RULE 42.1. A text, perception of political flexibility, points to layered voting. Another text, level of familiarity, points to double qualified majority voting. A third text, level of debate over annex system, points to double qualified majority voting. A fourth text, level of concern over financial matters, points to alternatives A and B.
Figure 1:

Ways to change the voting system in the UNFCCC

Citation: Global Discourse 2022; 10.1332/204378921X16431423735159

Since the rules of procedure have never been agreed upon, a consensus is necessary to change them in order to switch to majority voting – a clear Catch-22. If amendments are made to the convention (which can be done by a three-quarters majority vote), the countries that do not accept the amendment are not bound by decisions under the new system.

We now pick up some thoughts on less drastic measures by which something like a majority vote might be achieved. First, the COP president has considerable power and is able to interpret the fuzzy notion of consensus in a flexible way so as to enable the adoption of decisions (Depledge, 2016). For example, this was demonstrated by the Mexican COP president, who declared the Cancun Agreements as adopted since the majority was for it, though there was no unanimity, only a widespread consensus. While countries could go to international courts, for example, the International Court of Justice, given such a decision, no country has in fact done so, not even Bolivia, which threatened to do so (Kemp, 2015).

Recently, the movement for a Green New Deal and a ‘just transition’ for fossil-fuel-dependent industries has gained traction in several developed countries at the national level and in many cities, and has increasingly been linked to the UNFCCC process (Martin and Lacey-Barnacle, 2021). This movement favours an ‘all-society’ approach to ambitious climate action and includes measures such as compensation and retraining for those affected by a low-carbon economic transition. This means an improved dialogue with vulnerable and affected populations, local and national coalition building, consideration of workers’ rights in policy action, and a national-level green stimulus that supports equitable and ambitious climate action. The current popularity of this approach – see the EU’s recent agreement of a Green New Deal (in 2020) and creation of an EU Just Transition Fund (in 2020) (European Commission, 2020) – could provide a lever or incentive at the national level to unlock progress in the negotiations. An international programme of support for a Green New Deal tied to the UNFCCC negotiations and targeted at vulnerable economies, following the model of the EU’s Just Transition Fund, could be one option to help unblock obstacles from countries in the negotiations.

Finally, the current practices of consensus building could be significantly improved by making amendments to blocking and suggesting alternatives to it (Vihma, 2015). For example, simply blocking decisions is not considered responsible behaviour, and amendments could be made. Usually, blockers can be asked to ‘stand aside’, that is, not to block, but this does not seem to be viable in the case of climate negotiations. However, certain requirements could be made of blocking parties, for example: that two or more countries are required for a block (which is de facto already the case); that a blocking party has to supply an alternative mediating proposal; that there is a limited number of blocks available to each country; or that routine issues are non-blockable (Wikipedia, 2020). These requirements may be more easily agreed upon than a complete change to majority voting. Their adoption would require a greater role for them in governance and procedure, and could also be implemented and pushed forward by the COP president.

Developing institutions to foster the implementation of commitments

A third major issue concerns the lack of institutions to enforce and guarantee a transparent and fair implementation of commitments. There is a lot of research on these issues in the cooperation literature. While the main focus of this section is on implementation, measures like developing trust and transparency start at the negotiations.

Communication

Results from experimental economics have shown that the existence of face-to-face communication is one major positive factor for increasing cooperation (Ostrom et al, 1994; Sally, 1995; Bochet and Putterman, 2009). Climate negotiations do fulfil this prerequisite but could certainly be improved, for example, by applying communication research or by moving towards smaller groups with even more personal interactions.

Sanctioning

Sanctioning of free-riding parties is a major topic in public goods games research (Fehr and Gächter, 2002, Herrmann et al, 2008, Nikiforakis, 2008). In general, participants in a social dilemma without the option of punishment cooperate less than those in studies where punishment is possible (Fehr and Gächter, 2002). Furthermore, while some authors find that punishment may be inefficient in terms of reaching the optimum welfare for the group (Herrmann et al, 2008, Nikiforakis, 2008), other studies have shown that sanctions are definitely more efficient and better for group welfare in the longer term (Gächter et al, 2008; Frey and Rusch, 2012), and that participants prefer to engage with others in a sanctioning institution than in one that is sanction-free (Gürerk et al, 2006). It has also been shown that graduated sanctions, that is, low levels of fines that only escalate following further infringement of agreed rules, have very beneficial effects in many long-enduring real-world institutions (Ostrom, 1990).

Hence, results from this research strongly suggest working with sanctions, while there are currently no sanctions for countries that do not implement the goals of the agreement (Averchenkova and Bassi, 2016). For example, economic sanctions for blocking countries have been suggested (Depledge, 2016). Considering the results in the behavioural economics literature, enforcing sanctions is definitely a way to increase cooperation (Ostrom et al, 1994; Fehr and Gächter, 2002; Rockenbach and Milinski, 2006), and although public good behaviour can break down if all members can impose sanctions (Herrmann et al, 2008), sanctions do increase welfare for the group in the long term (Gächter et al, 2008; Frey and Rusch, 2012). This could be done unilaterally by countries who are parties to the negotiations, and if enough countries adopt this approach, it could have knock-on effects. One example is France, which has recently required respect for the Paris Agreement in all trade agreements with other countries, a stance that has subsequently been adopted by the EU.2 Another example is the proposed carbon-adjustment border mechanism, whereby the EU is now proposing to impose some kind of tariff at the border on goods that do not meet certain environmental criteria. A similar approach was replicated for economic stimulus packages linked to the COVID-19 pandemic by these governments in 2020.3

Finally, it has been suggested that the concerns of blocking countries should be addressed more seriously. It is clear that a fossil-fuel-free and decarbonised world will have major negative economic impacts on oil-producing countries. Thinking about how to support economic diversification could go a long way to change their role in climate negotiations (Depledge, 2016).

Reputation

A second major factor shown to affect outcomes very positively is reputation (Milinski et al, 2006; Számadó et al, 2021). However, reputation effects in the climate context are sometimes deemed unimportant by the negotiators. For example, the representatives of Saudi Arabia posed before the ‘fossil of the day’ poster, an award given daily by NGO observers to the negotiators for the country that is most slowing down progress. This indicates that their reputation is not at all at stake – they will not be held accountable.

On the other hand, the Copenhagen conference deteriorated into a face-saving contest for the high-ranked politicians at the end (Dimitrov, 2010). By a similar token, the attendance of all major heads of state at the Paris COP21 ensured that the stakes were high for ensuring that a deal resulted from the negotiations – the investment of their political capital added pressure to ensuring national negotiators had to deliver an outcome. We conclude that reputational effects can be exploited to support positive outcomes.

Transparency

The literature shows quite clearly that transparency is absolutely crucial for institutional success (Ostrom, 1990). Without institutional rules that are transparent to all participants, the chances are that such rules will not be followed or will be actively broken. This has been demonstrated for many communities in natural resource management.

Again, in climate negotiations, this is highly problematic. On the one hand, an extensive and rigorous transparency framework has existed in the UNFCCC regime since 1994. There are standard methodologies for reporting on emissions, along with a technical expert review process, which now also applies to developing countries. On the other hand, it is very easy for countries with low ambitions to set very low goals in their NDCs, as the implementation of the goals themselves is not transparent given that it is devolved to the national level. Nor are the numbers fully transparent, as they are issued by the countries themselves. Finally, it is unclear what will happen if goals are not reached because despite these mechanisms, there is no penalty for non-compliance, for not meeting goals or for missing national targets created by the UN to increase ambition (on missing sanctions, see also earlier).

Assessing these targets and numbers would help and is indeed done by several NGOs, for example, Climate Action Tracker, but the UNFCCC review of the cumulative impact of nations’ NDCs refrains from assessing individual assessments or suggestions for improvement by nations, sticking strongly to impartiality. This enables countries to lag behind or claim that they are doing enough, preventing a thorough and transparent baseline for negotiations.

Hence, the recommendation here would be to make the whole process more transparent, to set global standards and to institutionalise CO2 accounting by an independent organisation, such as the IPCC. For that, countries would have to agree to independent checks and standards. In the event of non-compliance, sanctions should be imposed. Surprisingly, if given the choice, most participants in the laboratory choose to have sanctioning institutions (Ostrom et al, 1994; Gürerk et al, 2006; Rockenbach and Milinski, 2006). This means that states would have to respect legislation that may interfere with their national laws. The recent COP26 in 2021 was meant to be the moment to ratchet up nations’ NDCs based on the five-year agreed timeline to scale up. In reality, the universal ambitious ratcheting up by all nations could not be agreed on or fully achieved, and the Glasgow Climate Pact instead asked governments to return the following year with even stronger commitments, as well as on an annual basis at COPs with stronger pledges. The COP27 in 2022 will be the first of these annual check-ins and could therefore be an opportune time for nations to agree to greater transparency measures in order to unlock future progress.

Fairness

Many studies have shown that people do not accept institutions if they are not fair (Falk et al, 2003). They also show that unfairness is highly problematic for solving collective action problems. What is the situation for climate actions?

Public opinion places a considerable amount of faith and trust in the UN climate negotiation process. This is evidenced by polling, for example, by the Pew Research Center, which showed that 78 per cent of those surveyed supported their government signing an international climate agreement (Stokes et al, 2015). Likewise, many public campaigns from leading NGOs are focused on negotiation outcomes. However, within the climate negotiations, both countries and lobbying groups frequently feel that they are treated unfairly.

Fairness issues include the unequal representation of countries, for example, LDCs’ negotiation teams tend to be smaller and less well resourced than those of richer, developed countries (Andrei et al, 2016), with some exceptions. This means that LDCs, the most affected by climate impacts, have to negotiate in some meetings with no or less support from technical experts, placing them at a severe disadvantage.

Responsibilities for CO2 emissions are also often seen as unfair. While the UNFCCC has acknowledged that industrialised countries have a higher historic responsibility, there is an ongoing debate about how CO2 emissions should be best measured. Different measures, for example, whether emissions are measured per capita or in absolute amounts, result in very different responsibilities. Another issue is that a large part of our global emissions budget has already been used up by emissions from developed countries.

Hence, there are heated debates about the different obligations (historical versus future, equal versus proportional to population and so on). In addition, the Paris Agreement has been seen as a step backwards concerning fairness, as it interprets the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) and respective capabilities differently, with the previous stricter bifurcation between developed and developing countries in terms of mitigation commitments having been removed. Under the Kyoto Protocol, for example, developed countries took on legally binding commitments, whereas developing countries did not. In addition, CBDR was a key guiding principle. Having been established at the Rio conventions in 1992 and enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, CBDR mandates that all states are responsible for addressing global environmental destruction yet not equally responsible. CBDR was removed as a guiding principle of the Paris Agreement, being replaced instead with all countries having voluntary NDCs, which gives nations the responsibility to determine their own pledges and make their own assessment of their individual responsibilities or ‘fair share’.

In the Paris Agreement, there was a move towards concepts of ‘equity’ (a less extensive version of CBDR that acknowledges the need for proportionate national commitments dependent on stage of development), but an agreed definition or rules on this have yet to be formalised or universally accepted (Méjean et al, 2015; Sheriff, 2019). From a scientific point of view, this lack of progress is highly problematic, as fairness is a precondition for working institutions. Therefore, restoring the perception of fairness by countries seems to be a precondition before climate actions will be de facto implemented, as there is a difference between signing the Paris agreement so as not to lose face and actually standing behind its goals and implementing them.

Trust

Like fairness and transparency, the evidence shows that trust is required to make institutions work (Ostrom, 1990; Frey, 2020). However, the level of trust for climate actions has declined, as the history of negotiations has produced more negative than positive results. This can be attributed to external political issues, unrelated to climate, such as trade or geopolitics (for example, between the US and China), declining global cooperation on international issues, and the recent retreat from climate change action of the US under President Trump, despite its large carbon footprint.

However, with the election of Joe Biden, his executive order to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and his promise to rapidly scale up domestic climate action, renewed momentum is returning to the institutions of the multilateral climate system. COP26 recently saw a reversal of the US’s four-year limited presence in the UNFCCC negotiations with attendance by President Biden. However, his presence was met with calls from developing-country governments and civil society for greater action by the US, and it still remains to be seen whether the trust lost in the US can be rebuilt for constructive negotiations.

During these last four years, there has been a bottom-up acceleration of climate action and ambition in the US by cities and states, who have been driving forward Paris Agreement goals and effectively ‘filling the void’ left by the absence of the national government (C40, 2018). This provides an important springboard for the current US government to drive forward action and rebuild trust. How fast this can be capitalised on remains to be seen; however, it is notable that President Biden’s recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Build Back Better Bill place emphasis (and funding) on climate action at city and state levels in the coming year. Similarly, his rapid rejoining of the Paris Agreement at the start of his presidency and recent attendance at COP26 have started to build momentum in the international process (Walt, 2021).

In contrast, negotiators confirm that trust in China has generally been positive and it is seen as a constructive force, following specifications pre-set by the government in every detail. Furthermore, trust between the three leaders – the EU, US and China – as recognised by the delegates (Parker and Karlsson, 2018), is essential for the negotiations, as they are responsible for the majority of GHG emissions. Trusting leaders is important, as strong leadership is strongly associated in the literature with success, which assigns leadership a very positive role (Gutiérrez et al, 2011; Frey, 2020).

Still, it is problematic that almost no country has fulfilled its financial promises, undermining most of the trust that may have existed, while strong future multinational accountability is perceived as improbable (Dasgupta, 2009; Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen et al, 2017). Without any positive history, it is to be expected that egoistic strategies will dominate (Ostrom et al, 1994; Fehr and Gächter, 2002). Since curbing global emissions has had very limited success despite goals that have become ever-more ambitious, climate negotiations are demonstrably an example of a ‘negative history’ of cooperation. However, technically, all countries that were parties to the Kyoto Protocol met their legally binding commitments from 2008 to 2012 (Shishlov et al, 2016). In fact, this is mainly due to very unambitious goals, an economic crisis, the carbon bubble and the way commitments are calculated. As of today, the world is still heading to a temperature rise of well beyond three degrees (UNEP and UNEP DTU Partnership, 2020).

While the outcomes of COP26 did not prove sufficient in delivering the climate action that is needed to keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees, new agreements to have annual check-ins on pledges and the upgrading of pledges by national governments at the COPs could provide an opportunity for improving and strengthening the trust in the negotiations and in implementing resolutions. The existing evidence from research suggests again – as for fairness – that it is important to build up the trust that has been lost before moving forward becomes possible (Ostrom, 1990).

It is also important to note that fairness, trust, transparency, reputational effects and sanctioning are but important building blocks of working institutional arrangements; their interplay – including with many other important influences – is also of high relevance. Research has just begun to analyse a larger set of factors in their combination and their influence on institutions (Frey, 2020).

Other factors, for example, clear thresholds

Finally, many other influencing factors have been demonstrated to be relevant for cooperative success in empirical experiments (Lazarus, 2020). Among them are good communication channels, clear thresholds for common goals and removing uncertainties concerning economic costs and uncertainties in general (Chaudhuri, 2011; Raihani and Aitken, 2011; Barrett and Dannenberg, 2012; Frey, 2020). Apart from sanctions, reputation and communication, which, as we have discussed, have been shown to robustly increase cooperation, other factors like decreasing anonymity (Ostrom et al, 1994), providing a meaningful and encouraging context (Milinski et al, 2006), and demonstrating the benefits from the public good compared to free riding (Croson and Marks, 2000) make a higher cooperation rate very probable.

Let us take a closer look at the importance of clear thresholds (Barrett and Dannenberg, 2012). Laboratory studies show that cooperation increases if successful cooperation is clearly defined by a threshold that has to be reached and if there is clarity as to what is required as a contribution from each participant (Croson and Marks, 2000; Milinski et al, 2006).

It is clearly an issue that countries have not even agreed on the major threshold to be reached (between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius), and there are ongoing debates between countries about the value of the economically optimal threshold. However, others argue that one of the Paris Agreement’s successes was precisely in establishing a clear, quantitative temperature goal. Moreover, the net-zero goal – achieving a balance between emissions and removals – also provides a clear threshold and has been taken up by many jurisdictions, illustrating the importance of such thresholds. There are, of course, debates about what exactly is meant by net zero.

Discussion: successes in other fields

In understanding which approaches outlined in this article may work best in delivering a more effective outcome at the UN climate negotiations, it is worth expanding on some key questions, most notably, whether successes in other areas of the multilateral sphere may be replicable within the UNFCCC process. Given that there are parallel successful processes within the UN system, could they be brought to the UNFCCC to address some of the challenges identified? Table 1 presents an overview of some well-known and acknowledged UN processes that have delivered transparency or improved inclusivity, some reasons why they have been successful, and what lessons they provide for the UNFCCC.

Table 1:

Summary of aspects relevant for climate negotiation improvements

Aspect/measureExampleWhat positive lessons are learned?Potential improvement to be applied to the UNFCCC
Transparent structure of negotiationsUN negotiation of UN Sustainable Development GoalsNegotiation was more inclusive by sticking to agreed parameters and timetable of negotiations, and avoiding deviation, with a lengthy but well-structured negotiation process on each goal, accessible to all.Better structured and timetabled negotiation, with more easily accessible and convened negotiation topics.
Legal binding nature of measuresKyoto ProtocolLegally binding nature of targets created; political and market conditions to hold countries accountable.Legal enforcement for sub-elements of the Paris Agreement that are negotiated, for example, reporting, which is currently not legally binding or enforceable on nations.
Central and transparent accounting of progressOffice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) Treaty Body Database (see: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/SitePages/Home.aspx) (It should be noted that similar databases/depositaries also exist for other UN treaties)While not legally enforceable, it creates an environment of disclosure that will improve transparency and trust between countries.Establish formalised reporting to the UN GA that elevates commitments outside of the UNFCCC to a forum with higher political attention (beyond the existing monitoring, reporting and verification stream of UNFCCC negotiations) and encourage countries to submit progress regularly, with the UN to process disclosures annually at UN GA to create transparency and public profile and accountability.
Majority votingUN GAWill avoid ‘blockers’ in negotiations holding up ambitious climate action.Explore majority decision-making, as seen in UN GA (two-thirds majority) for medium-priority decisions in the UNFCCC process to test the approach.
Capabilities and institutions in place to implement measuresUN human rights observer missionsStrengthening the role of the UN coordinating body to support the implementation of action by member states.This would require the UNFCCC moving beyond a technical secretariat to play a role at the domestic level on action undertaken by member states.
Reputation effects and sanctions in place for non-complianceUN Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – reporting of member states to UN Committee on Rights of the Child every four years accompanied by UN assessment of domesticationThis process forces member states to report on commitments every four years to the UN and allows the UN to assess progress.Similar mechanism as the UN Committee on Rights of the Child (reporting mechanism for UNCRC) to be established for the Paris Agreement, requiring interrogation and recommendations for improving national NDC commitments. While countries report the status of their NDCs every two years, this would be a process involving UN-led recommendations for upgrade. This could be built into the new yearly upgrade of NDCs at each COP, as included in the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Conclusion

Climate negotiations have been stalling for a long time. Although the Paris Climate Agreement was a success for both the multilateral system and global climate cooperation, a consensus of all parties has not been found since then to progress further and for the action that is required on climate. The Paris Agreement was always conceived as the minimum that national governments should be doing on climate change, with increased ambition and monitorable and enforceable action expected by individual national actions on top of this. Although moderate progress in increasing the ambition of national actions has been seen at COP26, the question of the higher ambition needed to keep warming at safe levels and sufficient financing for action has nonetheless been pushed to COP27 and beyond. It thus still remains to be seen whether the process will deliver the political drive needed to increase ambition

Instead, country specific goals (through NDCs) have been the only mechanism that maintains countries’ commitments to the Paris Agreement. Countries must now report annually. There is also a specific time frame for scaling up NDCs. However, even following the first ‘ratcheting up’ that took place at COP26, the sufficient upgrading of NDCs has not taken place, resulting in a further reporting round being established for the following year. To make matters worse, NDCs are non-binding, and neither do they currently meet the global collective goal of keeping temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees. In addition, they have no enforceable mechanism at the national or global levels to force increased commitments, and there are neither institutions to check on the compliance nor sanctions if goals are not met. While it was a deliberate choice by the parties not to introduce sanctions or strong compliance mechanisms, from a behavioural economics point of view (and for sufficient climate action), this is highly problematic. As a consequence, mistrust and inequities in the UN system are increasing.

Part of this failure can be explained by scientific results. There are a great number of studies pointing out that lacking institutions to enforce sanctions and rules is nearly always detrimental to success (Ostrom, 1990; Gutiérrez et al, 2011; Frey, 2020). These problems are exacerbated by a consensus decision-making system, with some parties being not at all motivated to act against their own short-term economic interests or short-term political wins within their four-year national election schedules.

At the same time, it is well known from research which factors contribute positively to such a problem structure, namely, a global public good. These are trust, transparency, clear and fair achievable goals, working and non-corrupt institutions to implement measures, and sanctions for non-compliance. This may include a small group of willing countries as trailblazers, setting milestones and a positive history for other countries.

At the time of writing in 2022, following COP26 in Glasgow, disillusionment with the UNFCCC process has again begun to surface. The inability of COP26 to deliver financial and emissions reductions commitments from national governments in order to address the scale of the climate crisis with sufficient ambition and urgency was well documented, as well as the ability of one country (India) to water down the ambitions of the final agreement in the last moments of the conference. Moreover, all over the world, a consensus is emerging among citizens that climate change has to be tackled soon, decisively and even with drastic measures impacting on their own lifestyles.

The UNFCCC remains the only forum to deliver global climate cooperation, and so the opportunity to improve it should not be ignored. Many other factors are now coming into play in ways that favour more successful climate negotiations: the US rejoining the Paris Agreement; falling fossil-fuel values; an overall fossil-fuel decline; and an increasing realisation that tackling the recovery from the pandemic will need to explore the interface of climate and inequality. There is a growing development of credible policies and momentum on the just transition at the national and sub-national levels in both developed and developing countries. This momentum on the just transition is particularly relevant for the climate change negotiations because countries that have previously acted to inhibit the climate negotiations – such as Poland and middle-income countries – have started to change position. Added to this is the growth of enabling conditions created by progressive and ambitious climate action in global cities and subnational regions, as well as the move by many global businesses to make commitments in their operations and leadership.

Therefore, for the first time in recent years, the political context, the technological pathways and the economic incentives are lined up to facilitate scaled-up climate action at the global level. We see the opportunity for new ways to foster better outcomes, such as the approach to COP27 and the G20. The opportunity is ripe to consider new and improved approaches to the multilateral process.

It is our hope that the scientific evidence presented here can be connected to climate change negotiations and actions in order to improve them, especially as the process continues to struggle to gain momentum and deliver the scale of action needed. We know that climate action still needs to accelerate – the annual United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) gap report has shown that the world is well off track in taking the action needed by 2030 (UNEP and UNEP DTU Partnership, 2020). We know that the multilateral system has the potential to deliver truly global solutions to one of the greatest collective global challenges we face. We must therefore take the opportunity to improve the system in order to deliver greater benefit for both people and planet.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to John Lazarus and the reviewer for their very detailed comments that have improved this paper very much.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
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  • 1 German Aerospace Center, , Germany
  • | 2 C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, , UK

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