Votes, not vetoes: a new way to cut a United Nations climate deal

No vote: despite activists’ urgings, the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks were stymied by the threat of veto. EPA/HENNING BAGGER/AAP

Anyone who has watched in frustration as the United Nations repeatedly failed to secure a meaningful climate treaty could be forgiven for taking a rather glum view on this weekend’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

On Sunday in Berlin, the IPCC’s Working Group that deals with ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions will outline the options at our disposal, such as renewable energy sources.

The focus will then turn to whether the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, at its talks in Lima this year and Paris in 2015, can craft a treaty that will ensure countries take action.

The UN climate talks are struggling to reach the decisions needed to avoid catastrophic global temperature rise. A major reason for this is its insistence on consensus agreement.

Instead, I offer a small, yet radical, proposal that could make a genuine change to climate negotiations and finally allow substantial progress to be made: make the decision-making process about majority voting, rather than vetoes.

Veto power

Consensus has no official definition in the negotiations, but is generally interpreted as unanimity: agreement in the absence of any stated objection. This effectively gives every country a veto and has led to stalled conferences and lowest-common-denominator outcomes.

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord is a classic example. China, among others, used the threat of veto to secure a watered-down set of commitments. Several smaller countries then objected, and the Accord was not adopted as a legally binding agreement.

This style of decision-making is very unlikely to deliver the major international breakthrough we need. We need to change the system to do away with this kind of grandstanding.

Majority rules

A system of majority voting has one major advantage: it doesn’t allow a single or handful of countries to stymie progress. It is therefore a speedier and more effective way of reaching broad agreement.

By doing away with the threat of veto, majority voting can also help build consensus. When countries have veto power, they are under no pressure to budge an inch in their negotiating stance. Anthony McGann, a political scientist at the University of California Irvine, has described consensus as the tyranny of the minority, describing it as the system “least likely to produce consensual behaviour”.

By contrast, majority votes tend to encourage compromise. A minority blocker, faced with the prospect of a vote it would lose, can better its outcome by altering its stance and seeking concessions from others, rather than sticking to its guns. By deterring the blockers, majority voting acts as a better consensus-builder than consensus itself.

Shifting the political stage

Moving towards majority voting could conceivably create a new political dynamic – one in which progressive nations can move ahead without constantly being hampered by the laggards of climate politics. Of course, naturally progressive countries could just move ahead domestically, but the assurance that international law provides, and the structures for funding and markets are crucial.

This is why so many countries are basing their targets upon the success of an international climate agreement. Australia has pledged to raise its current 5% emissions-reduction target to 25% if there is adequate international action (although such a change seems unlikely under the Abbott government’s Direct Action plan).

As a result, decisions and treaties could be adopted by a critical mass of countries, while contrarian nations are left behind. The key is that the critical mass will need leadership of the kind the United States has proven incapable of showing. Europe and/or China will need to step up.

Looking at the precedent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Montreal Protocol (the treaty which saved us all from the growing ozone hole), once a threshold of countries has joined, participation could continue to grow and become near-universal. Countries might be prompted to join a greenhouse emissions treaty by falling renewable energy prices, or mounting climate impacts.

Contrast that with the previous pattern of countries of watering down agreements and then refusing to join, as the United States did with the Kyoto Protocol.

Perhaps a more promising way forward is to use voting to unblock particular issues within the negotiations. Blockages are often created by just one or two countries opposing action on specific issues, such as India and Saudi Arabia preventing action on regulating “black carbon” and hydroflurocarbons. Voting could allow for individual issues to move forward, building trust that could ultimately fashion a global deal.

Voting would allow for semi-global agreements on either specific issues, or entire treaties. An entire new world of governance by a critical mass could be possible.

How can majority voting be introduced?

Importantly, a change to voting is not a pipe-dream; there are legal avenues for implementation. Currently, Papua New Guinea and Mexico (supported by the European Union and a majority of developing countries) are attempting to amend the UNFCCC’s constitution along these lines. This is one of the few processes that can be passed through a three-quarters majority vote. The problem is that the outcome is only binding on those parties who vote for it. Even if a vote is successful, countries who voted to maintain the status quo would still be bound by consensus.

A more promising way of introducing voting is by adopting the UNFCCC’s original draft Rules of Procedure. Strangely enough, the climate talks have operated for 20 years without any official rules; their adoption was blocked by Saudi Arabia precisely because of disputes over the rules for voting. The negotiations were always meant to have voting, but Saudi Arabia was more interested in maintaining a veto.

Techically, the rules would need to be adopted by consensus. But there is a loophole. As consensus is not officially defined, a strong president of the talks could ignore the protests of a minority and adopt the Rules of Procedure and therefore introduce majority voting. This would not be unprecedented; the convention itself was adopted despite the objections of some countries.

Barriers to progress

There are, however, several impediments to introducing voting. First, developed countries are afraid of being outvoted by developing countries on financial matters, as poorer countries make up a significant majority. A simple solution is to design a voting system that requires a large majority (say, 90%) in order to pass decisions with financial implications. This would prevent developing countries from wielding overwhelming power on monetary matters. Other issues could have different thresholds, depending on feasibility and importance.

Second, countries have by now become accustomed to having a veto, and may view a lack of unanimous consensus as a threat to the legitimacy of the negotiations.

The rebuttal to this is that the credibility of the climate talks is based on outcomes, not procedures. People around the world are not losing faith in climate talks because of procedural injustice; they are losing patience because of the infuriating lack of progress.

The climate threat can now legitimately be described as a crisis, and that too may help to drive change. Crisis, as we saw during the 2008 global finance collapse, is a powerful force for ditching political norms and embracing new practices.

As the old adage goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. With each passing year, the UN climate talks look more like collective insanity. If the Paris talks collapse like Copenhagen did, perhaps everyone might admit it’s time to try a new way of doing things.