Negotiating Climate Change: global to local

Leonardo DiCaprio, Actor and UN Messenger of Peace, addresses the opening of the Climate Summit 2014.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Actor and UN Messenger of Peace, addresses the opening of the Climate Summit 2014.

Last weekend and early this week, two big events on climate change action took place in New York. Yesterday, September 23rd, the UN Climate Change Summit took place on the invitation of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. 122 heads of government attended. However, a few key leaders were missing such as those from China, India and Germany.[1] Two days earlier, the streets of New York and other major cities across the world were flooded with the People’s Climate March which the organisers call “a weekend to bend history.” In Wales, the next meeting of the Climate Change Commission for Wales is aiming to move the climate change policy refresh of the Welsh government further. An ideal occasion to take stock of what is happening.

25 years of global climate talks

The UN Climate Change Summit and the People’s March come at a crucial time. By the end of next year, a new global agreement that regulates the emission of greenhouse gases and that supports those that are most vulnerable to climate change needs to be finalized. The scientific evidence is very clear that without significant emission reductions the world is facing a catastrophe. But even with massive action to reduce actions, the adverse effects of climate change will be felt around the world and especially by people in developing countries. This is part of an international political process that goes back 25 years.

After the UN General Assembly passed resolutions in the late 1980s acknowledging that climate change is a threat, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit lead to the adoption of the key United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The convention is the cornerstone of the negotiations that need to find a binding agreement by the end of next year. Its article two is crucial as the basis for all following negotiations. It states that “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human] interference with the climate system” is the main goal of the convention.

Since Rio, yearly meetings of the parties to the UNFCCC take place. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol is the most visible and biggest single outcome. In it industrialised countries committed themselves to reducing their aggregated greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008-2012. However, one big disadvantage of the protocol was the fact that the United States never became a member. Moreover, at the end of this commitment period which saw mixed results in terms of emission reduction, states failed to agree on a new global deal. The 2010 Copenhagen conference that set out to present a successor deal to Kyoto in the form of binding commitments to reduce emission failed and this failure still haunts the diplomatic and activist community.

Subsequent yearly meetings have made small steps to remedy the situation. One important achievement since then is the founding of the Green Climate Fund, a large-scale public finance fund aimed specifically to support projects, programmes and other activities in developing countries. However, currently, the fight for money being made available to the fund is still on.

The focus of the diplomatic and activist community is now on the Paris meeting at the end of 2015. Here, a global binding deal is expected to take shape.

The 2014 UN Climate Change Summit

The UN Climate Change Summit takes place outside of the UNFCCC’s cycle of conferences. The idea of the summit called for by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is to create new impetus to move forward in the negotiations. The summit aims at “serv[ing] as a public platform for leaders at the highest level.” And while participants from the governmental, civil society, and business sector are asked to bring concrete actions, it is important to be clear about what can be expected from such a summit.

122 heads of state are said to attend. While it is important to gain this high-level attendance which is seen as a sign of commitment, this will not be the place for negotiations. Governments will take this opportunity to announce new goals and new strategic plans. About 50% of the time on that day will be reserved for reading such prepared statements. There are rumours that more ambitious decisions might be announced – either in the form of a carbon prize or even a global commitment to zero net emissions.[2] And indeed, the summit will be an ideal time for presenting small concessions or small changes in policy to eagerly waiting members of the global media. A summit such as this one is best suited to “inject momentum into a stagnant negotiation.”[3] In this sense, the summit comes at an important time in preparation for the 2015 Paris negotiations.

What is more important though, is the chance of civil society to organize around the summit. The People’s Climate March is an example of this. But what happens here is more than awareness raising, it is the potential to mobilize new people and garner support for actions to follow. Moreover, the summit is an ideal opportunity to hold governments accountable. So-called naming and shaming works best when a summit is attended by high-level state representatives and generates high media attention.

A judgment on whether or not the summit and the civil society mobilisation have any success will have to wait until the Paris meeting at the end of 2015 what kind of global climate deal we are getting there will be determine the future in significant ways.

Bringing it home to Wales: paradiplomacy, new legislation, and local activism

Global action is the crucial element in achieving any progress that has an impact on the trajectory of the future of the planet. Achieving anything close to the emission targets we need to reach in order to avoid dangerous human interference with the climate and the ecosystem will require a global deal. Significant changes to economies, especially energy production and consumption, in both developed countries and emerging economies will not happen in the absence of a deal that includes everyone based on responsibility and ability.

However, despite the crucial importance of a global deal, two things should not be forgotten. First, regional and local partners have a place at the global negotiation table. Second, all action happens locally; there is no substitute for the implementation of climate goals through the activities of people living their lives and managing their businesses. From this perspective, Wales is a partner in the fight for climate action as well as an important actor.

At the global negotiations on climate change and sustainability, Wales acts as para-diplomat. In “A dictionary of diplomacy” Geoff Berridge and Alan James subscribe largely a lobbying function to paradiplomacy.[4] According to a 2008 Clingendeal paper paradiplomacy consists of three layers: the first one focuses on economic issues and is largely aimed at attracting foreign investment (the same function that Berridge and James point to), the second is cooperation (cultural, educational, technical, and technological), and the third layer is political and focuses on the expression of a distinct identity. The three layers work together cumulatively.[5]

For example, at last year’s UNFCCC negotiations in Warsaw, First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones said that he wants ”Wales to continue to lead by example. The UN event is a opportunity for us to learn from others and to share our own experience and our own vision with people from across the world.”[6] Diplomacy is a game dominated by sovereign states. However, one aspect that should not be underestimated is the possibility to acquire symbolic capital through attending and speaking at high-level diplomatic events.[7] It is this symbolic capital that can then be brought home to galvanize further action.

However, with regard to the upcoming summit, it seems that Wales is missing out as it will not be represented at the UN Climate Change Summit. Peter Davies, the Sustainable Futures Commissioner and Chair of the Climate Change Commission for Wales expressed his disappointment that the First Minister, will not be attending. Neither will there be any other involvement from the Welsh government. It is hard to judge whether or not this is a missed opportunity.

Yet, there is ample reason to look ahead. As world leaders are meeting in New York, the Climate Change Commission for Wales will be holding its next meeting on the 24th and 25th of September. Two of the main points will be The Well Being of Future Generations Bill and the Climate Change Strategy Refresh undertaken by the Welsh Government. Especially the latter is a much needed and much awaited document at this time.[8]

But just like the global stage, political will needs to be galvanized. Wales has a non-legally binding target of 40% emission reduction, compared to a 1990 base level, by 2020. However, the First Minister recently announced that Wales is lagging behind.[9]

Yet, it seems that there is potential to remedy this situation. Recent studies show that the most economic growth is coming form the energy and environment sector.[10] Further, there is a clear recognition in Wales that climate change is a threat.[11] The destructive coastline flooding this Winter serves as a crucial reminder of that.

If we had to take two ingredients from what is happening in New York, what is needed is high-level political commitment and a march on the street. Maybe, as the former Welsh Minister for Environment said upon returning from Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in 2012, “[n]ow is the time to take action and recognise that regional governments really can make a difference.”[12]


Katharina Hone is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. With the NGO DiploFoundation she has been teaching online courses on climate change diplomacy since 2008 and was recently involved in running a capacity development program for participants from Pacific Island States. She is also a member of the Environmental Politics Research Group at the University of Aberystwyth. Twitter: @kathone


[1] Ed King, ‘Un Confirms Officials from 162 Countries Will Attend Climate Summit’, RtCC. Responding to Climate Change, 15 September 2014.

[2] Ed King, ‘Un Climate Summit Set for Major Carbon Pricing Announcement’, RtCC. Responding to Climate Change, 12 September 2014, Ed King, ‘Zero Net Emissions: Will Leaders Agree Target at Un Climate Summit?’, RtCC. Responding to Climate Change, 17 September 2014.

[3] G. R. Berridge, Diplomacy. Theory and Practice (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 177.

[4] G. R. Berridge and Alan James, A Dictionary of Diplomacy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 199.

[5] André Lecours, Political Issues of Paradiplomacy: Lessons from the Developed World (Online: Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, available from: http://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/20081217_cdsp_diplomacy_paper_paradiplomacy.pdf [Last accessed 18 September 2014], 2008), 2-4.

[6] Welsh Government, ‘Welsh Government Speaks up for Action at Un Climate Change Conference’, Available from: http://wales.gov.uk/newsroom/environmentandcountryside/2013/131121climate/?lang=en [Last accessed 18 September 2014] (2013).

[7] Richard Wyn Jones and Elin Royles, ‘Wales in the World: Intergovernmental Relations and Sub-State Diplomacy’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 14, 2 (2012), 252.

[8] Compare Haf Elgar, ‘New Term, New Minister, Same Challenges’, ClickonWales, 17 September 2014.

[9] Graham Henry, ‘Environmental Alliance Warns Wales Will Miss Its Climate Change Emissions Target’, Wales Online, 11 September 2014.

[10] Rupert Hall, ‘Energy and Environment Sectors Are Worth a Whopping £4.8bn to Wales and the Uk Supporting 58,000 Jobs’, Wales Online, 10 August 2014.

[11] Stuart Capstick, Nick Pidgeon, and Mark Whitehead, Public Perceptionof Climate Change in Wales: Summary Findings of a Survey of the Welsh Public Conducted During November and December 2012 (Cardiff: Climate Change Consortium of Wales, 2012).

[12] http://wales.gov.uk/newsroom/environmentandcountryside/2013/131121climate/?lang=en

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