The UNFCCC has operated for almost 20 years without any agreed rules of procedure, having failed to establish any at the first COP. Consensus is simply an unofficial and poorly defined process used in the absence of official rules. This is finally being challenged. Mexico and Papua New Guinea have proposed introducing majority voting into the COP (based on amendments to Articles 7 and 18 of the Convention), a proposal which was discussed at both COP17 and COP18.
COP18 unfolded in a very similar manner to COP17, with negotiations on majority voting taking place through informal consultations and bilaterals, instead of a formal contact group, and reaching no firm conclusion on the issue. The proposal has been forwarded to COP19 for further discussion. Papua New Guinea noted in their closing plenary speech that support for the proposal was growing, but that more time was needed. While the negotiations on this matter are difficult to track due to the lack of a transparent contact group, some interesting political dynamics are apparent from closer inspection. On one hand, the Environmental Integrity Group and a number of South American states (mainly from the newly formed Association of Independent Latin American and Caribbean States) are active proponents of this idea, while on the other, less welcoming hand, stand much of the Umbrella Group (such as the US and Canada) and BASIC (China and India) parties. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the EU, while undecided, are largely receptive to the proposal.
The basis of the opposition is quite clear. The powerful (China, India and the US) do not wish to be put into a situation where they could potentially be outvoted by a majority of smaller States. Similarly, much of the Umbrella Group fear that the G-77 could regain its solidarity to outvote developed countries. The outspoken States of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc, particularly Bolivia, are renowned for being unafraid to utilise their veto. Naturally they object to the idea of losing this power and hence their strength of voice, particularly after Bolivia’s objections were gavelled over at Cancun. However, opposition to the proposal appears to be shrinking with every passing COP and crisis.
Perhaps the most important contribution of COP18 to the emergence of majority voting was the wider outcome of the conference. One of the few perceived advantages of consensus is the idea of legitimacy, but with the overruling of Russia, each strike of the Qatari president’s gavel dented the assumed legitimacy of consensus decision-making. A similar incident against Bolivia at COP16, problems at COP15 and disputes over the chairmanship of the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (AWG-ADP) in Bonn earlier this year have highlighted a growing inability of the COP to effectively reach consensus. A collapse of talks or another crisis of legitimacy for consensus would surely make majority voting look ever more tempting for a stalled multilateral process.
Adoption of majority voting at COP19 is possible, but for now looks unlikely. Progress on this issue may depend upon the actions of Mexico and Papua New Guinea, such as whether they take this issue into a contact group. Moving negotiations to a contact group could prove to be a good strategic move as it would not only allow for greater transparency, but would give the issue of majority voting greater traction amongst civil society and the media. It is this coverage that could ultimately tilt the balance by converting some of the current fence-sitters.
The flexibility of Mexico and Papua New Guinea in altering their proposal could be another significant element. The addition of weighted voting (on the criteria of population or GDP) or a double qualification (a vote requiring both a three quarters majority and a simple majority of developing and developed countries) to their proposal could prove to be modifications that help overcome the opposition of the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa India and China) and Umbrella Groups.
In light of recent negotiations, it seems very unlikely that the objective of the UNFCCC can be achieved if the current decision-making process remains. A change is needed. Reform of the Convention itself is needed. Importantly, this is a change towards the original design of the Convention, as it would allow for the adoption of the original rules of procedure and would abide by the right to vote as enshrined in Article 18 of the text.
Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Majority voting could prove to be the solution for a decision-making process that is looking more like collective insanity with every passing COP.
(Luke Kemp is from the Australian National University, Fenner School of Environment and Society)