For climate negotiations to succeed, all the stars must align in a way that often appears impossible, so numerous are the obstacles and pitfalls. Building alliances and coalitions across cultural, economic, and geographical divides is crucial to any breakthrough. In this context, argues Robyn Eckersley, leadership becomes the delicate art of bringing various parties together to forge agreements that move the process forward, however incrementally.

Beatrice White: Global crises have heightened understanding of our interdependence, yet we also see growing discourses around regional and national autonomy. The trends are pulling in different directions. What is the state of play with multilateralism, and where might we be heading?

Robyn Eckersley: There are some interesting and conflicting trends. The international order is in a state of flux, with its liberal nature and stability in question. A multipolar order is always less stable than a bipolar one. We’ve been there before. In 1815, the Concert of Europe provided a period of stability,[1] but then things started to buckle later that century. What’s new today is a multilateral order in which two of the most significant powers are outside the West: China and India.

We certainly need reform in our global governance institutions. Institutions like the UN Security Council and the G7 are anachronistic and favour certain states in the West. These countries will need to elinquish some of their privileges and powers if the institutions are to maintain legitimacy. We also see China and the BRICS[2] countries developing their own financial and lending institutions. However, the UN General Assembly remains crucial to developing countries as they are the majority and it’s one vote one state, whereas in the Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund it’s one vote per dollar. If I had to bet, my money would be on the growth of more regionalism, rather than larger or more concerted multilateralism.

What kind of changes does the current global governance framework need?

There needs to be more effort to green the institutions of economic governance, and more effort by major powers to green their economies. At the WTO [World Trade Organization], ministers are currently working on a declaration on trade and climate change. But they are likely to focus on the easy synergies and ignore the deep contradictions. The WTO does not require international trade to be sustainable, and it is premised on a continually expanding international economy. Neither the WTO’s trade agreements nor preferential trade agreements require the internalisation of the negative ecological externalities associated with trade. Unless we see the great powers like the US and China start to bring ecology and not just climate into their grand strategies, we’re in trouble.

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The carbon border adjustment mechanism that the EU is putting in place is a good development because it will impose a carbon price on carbon-intensive exports from recalcitrant countries like Australia, which repealed its carbon pricing mechanism in 2014. Under the climate regime’s burden-sharing principles of differentiated responsibilities, developed countries are supposed to take the lead in mitigation while assisting developing countries. In effect, one might argue that the EU mechanism forces a carbon price on exports from developed countries that have failed to take the lead in mitigation and would steal an unfair competitive advantage over those who have made an effort. However, it seems contrary to these burden-sharing principles to impose the same price on exports from developing countries. At the very least, the additional charge should be collected by the EU and recycled back to the country of origin to assist in their decarbonised development.

How do you assess the development of global climate and environmental governance? Did the Paris Agreement mark a turning point?

From the start, we knew the journey was going to be hard. Whatever agreement was negotiated, if it didn’t have all the major emitters present then it would not be effective. For all of the US’s faults, President Barack Obama understood that. He appeared to have a very weak hand, with a hostile congress, but he played it well domestically and engaged in diplomacy that eventually got China and India on board. The idea of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) came from the US, who knew that China and India would not accept legally binding commitments and that the US Senate might be prepared to accept a new agreement with this kind of flexibility. Of course, this flexibility worried the most vulnerable countries. Thanks to the leadership of the late, great Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, working with the EU, a High Ambition Coalition was formed, which demanded that a global rise in temperature be limited to 1.5 degrees in the agreement, among a range of other things.

The grand bargain of Paris was flexibility for the major emitters. To give the vulnerable countries something back, we got a more ambitious temperature target and, thanks to the EU, some very hard procedural language that stated that each successive NDC will be more ambitious than the previous one (but with a non-punitive review – thanks to China’s strenuous negotiation).

Unlikely coalitions that cross traditional political boundaries are very valuable

I thought, at the time, it was a historic breakthrough because we couldn’t really expect more. But the very presence of a durable climate agreement with a more ambitious temperature target of 1.5 degrees is working some magic in driving governments, business, financial institutions, and international organisations to try harder. Plus, environmental NGOs can point to the target to hold governments to account to at all levels.

So that’s where we’ve landed. Will this be good enough? It is certainly not optimal. There have been many compromises, but we have to make the treaty we have work. In the current context, the 1.5-degree target appears as the one light on the hill, thanks to the High Ambition Coalition. As a result of this success, we’re seeing similar coalitions forming in the biodiversity negotiations that are taking place. The beauty of this coalition in Paris was that it cut across those stale, well-worn negotiating groups which are either in the Global South or the Global North. What we need now are more coalitions that bridge this divide, bringing the relative leaders like the EU and vulnerable states together.

So coalitions with ambition are crucial. But these do not necessarily form organically. What is climate leadership? How would you evaluate the EU as a climate leader?

I distinguish between two types of leadership. One is just being a frontrunner in a field of performance. Australia is a frontrunner in global fossil fuel exports; it’s a leader in that sense, but it’s not something we’re very proud of. China is a leader in producing solar panels, just like it’s a leader in financing coal, but that is fortunately changing. In a performance field, frontrunners can be cooperative or competitive. They might be trying to compete at the expense of others, or they could be leading because they actually want to set an example. This type of performance or directional leadership can feed into the second kind of leadership, which is political leadership. This entails building support around a common goal and enabling collective action. It often starts by building a like-minded coalition of the willing.

The EU’s finest diplomatic moment was at COP17 in Durban in 2011, where it played a key political leadership role in brokering a new roadmap and building support through a promise of performance leadership. Here the EU agreed to a second commitment period (2013-2020) under the Kyoto Protocol in return for the major emitters in the developing world agreeing to negotiate a new roadmap.

The 1.5-degree tempreature target of the Paris Agreement appears as the one light on the hill

This broke the deadlock. Kyoto was so important to developing countries because that was their interpretation of common but differentiated responsibilities: “Why should we do anything until the rich countries have demonstrated their leadership in mitigation?” Bridging those differences was really important and got us to Paris.

So despite not always showing a great performance – especially under the earlier iterations of its emissions trading scheme – the EU has shown directional leadership. The EU has committed to an enhanced 2030 target of cutting emissions by 55 per cent and has dedicated 30 per cent of its budget to climate action. It is also contributing around a quarter of the 100 billion dollars that will be mobilised annually up to 2025. But the EU cannot solve this problem by itself, and it will need to muster all of its diplomatic skills to develop a productive relationship with China to accelerate the decarbonisation of the biggest emitter of all.

What is the likelihood of other major powers stepping up to the plate?

There’s always been a lot of bad faith by both the US and China. Obama showed his commitment to the common purpose by engaging in active climate diplomacy at Paris. But the US has walked away twice from the climate regime, first with the second Bush administration’s repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol and second with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. China has made much of this sorry record and highlighted how the US has contributed the lion’s share of historical emissions. Yet China is the biggest aggregate emitter (since around 2007) and the world’s second-biggest historical emitter. China keeps hiding behind its poor and ignoring its rapidly growing middle class, which is bigger than the total US population. China’s average per capita emissions are now higher than the EU’s but still lower than the US’s giant yeti carbon footprint and big military carbon boot-print.

However, one promising idea that China has developed – and maybe it’s just empty rhetoric – is the idea of ecological civilisation. Given that climate change is a civilisational challenge, I love the term. “Let’s build an ecological civilisation.” China meant it purely for domestic consumption and it’s not trying to proselytise, but we should congratulate China for working with that idea and use it as a form of track-two diplomacy by building cooperation between citizens and universities and organisations, but also diplomatically at a very high level.

Non-state actors, such as civil society groups and the worldwide movements and networks of people calling for climate action, are also involved in this process. How significant are these forces?

Absolutely crucial! The failure of Copenhagen[3] created a new generation of anti-fossil fuel movements such as Keep It In The Ground, driven by organisations like and figures such as Bill McKibben. The whole idea of a carbon budget was born then, as well as the idea of un-burnable carbon. These are powerful concepts for campaigning and crunching numbers, and climate think tanks such as Climate Action Tracker and Climate Analytics have been providing critical analysis and guidance for developing countries, particularly small-island developing nations. Non-state actors have demonstrated incredible innovation and brainpower, and they’re mobilising across all levels of society and governance, from cities and municipalities to businesses and organisations.

Then you’ve got Fridays for Future with the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion. These are wonderful developments, born out of frustration with inadequate action nationally. The climate emergency frame plays a significant role in galvanising declarations and enhanced commitments.

Your work contrasts an inclusive multilateralism, which aspires to get everyone around the table, with exclusive “minilateralism”, where smaller groups of countries reach agreements to move forward together. There is often a dilemma in foreign affairs between insisting on the principles of equity and solidarity as a pre-condition to any engagement or adopting a pragmatic attitude to make progress in any configuration that allows for it. What is your advice?

Both inclusive multilateralism and exclusive minilateralism have their problems. The former is too slow and can lead to the lowest common denominator. The latter is simply unfair and self-serving if confined to the major emitters. It’s like putting the foxes in charge of the hen house. More promising is inclusive minilateralism that includes representation from the most responsible, the most capable, and the most vulnerable. This ensures a diverse range of views and is more representative, while the smaller size can facilitate a deeper discussion and trust-building. Agreements reached in forums of this kind can also be scaled up.

Unlikely coalitions that cross traditional political boundaries are very valuable, particularly at the national level. If climate NGOs can find other organisations with at least some common interests – discovered via careful “back channel” diplomacy – then this can be the basis for campaigns with wider political reach. This might include faith groups, social welfare groups, unions, farmers’ groups, and certain industry associations. Building looser and broader, cross-cutting coalitions is an important development, not just in decarbonisation but in building ecologically sustainable economies more generally. It can depolarise. You’ll find that folks on the other side of the divide don’t have horns; that they’re real people who have real concerns that must be respectfully acknowledged and taken on board.

Taking a longer view, is the move away from fossil fuels good news for the international system?

If you think of some of the terrible events that have happened during the 20th century, many were about oil. Think of the OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] oil embargo of 1973 to 1974 that sent the price of oil sky-high. And why did the US decide to establish a military command centre in the Middle East after the 1979 Iranian Revolution if not for concerns about access to oil? The Iran-Iraq War and the first and second Gulf Wars also had much to do with oil. A lot of blood has been spilt and treasure wasted over securing access to oil. Once the world is hooked on renewable energy, countries will enjoy much greater energy independence. We know some countries may not be able to be fully independent, but with developments in battery storage and the green hydrogen revolution – which might be over-hyped but will have a role – we can take a lot of that out of the equation. Gazprom won’t be holding the EU to ransom in a cold winter, for instance. That’s going to create a lot more energy independence, relative to the last century, and a lot less blackmail, price gouging, and military conflict.

Renewable energy is such a good news story on so many grounds, but it is very important that we assist developing countries in building their own capability, and I do worry about who will control the lithium, cobalt, and rare earths that will feed the renewable energy revolution.

[1] The Concert of Europe was a general consensus between the Great Powers of Europe (Austria, Prussia, Russia, the UK, and later France) which acted to ensure the European balance of power from the fall of Napoleon to the outbreak of the First World War.

[2] BRICS is the acronym coined to associate five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

[3] COP15 in 2009 was widely recognised as a failure, as the negotiations concluded without a fair, ambitious, or legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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