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Like many international negotiations, UN climate talks eschew voting and require consensus of all nations for an accord — a curious form of democracy.

COP26 No voting at UN climate meeting where consensus rules

A climate demonstrator outside parliament in London, 25 October 2021 (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

This story is the second in a series about the COP26 summit in Glasgow, which starts on October 31.

“It is democracy, Jim, but not as we know it.”

That’s what Mr Spock of the Star Trek media show might well say if he and Captain James Kirk were beamed down to UN Climate Change talks next week.

Forget simple majorities or even weighted majorities. The United Nations climate process works on consensus. Nothing is agreed on anything until everyone agrees on everything — or, to add a small but crucial qualification, no one officially objects to anything.

Once the chair of the annual high-level talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) decides a consensus has been achieved, down bangs the gavel and the deal is deemed done. There is no voting, ever.

There have been many stories from past major UN climate change talks about countries claiming their objections in the final plenary session were overruled or just plain ignored, that their delegate was waving both hands in the air to get attention from the chair but no one took any notice.

But that is largely public relations grandstanding, playing to the audience back home. An official objection prevents consensus and therefore stops the gavel in mid-air.

“Nicaragua was the last holdout in Paris with complaints about some of the text,” a veteran observer of international climate change negotiations said, referring to the 2015 climate change talks in the French capital. “But it turned out it didn’t have a specific objection. It just wanted to be heard.”

No voting — and little or no sleep

The process is enshrined in the UNFCCC constitution. It is designed to make sure the small, poorer nations with limited resources and scant greenhouse gas emissions can make their voices heard. Many of these countries are already bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change.

The process also provides a podium for the larger, richer nations that have relatively unlimited resources and have been emitting vast quantities of such gases for generations.

But the lofty ambition of having everyone agree on everything can mean never being able to achieve anything or, at best, making the lowest common denominator the highest likely outcome.

“With 197 national and institutional participants, all of whom have to agree on everything, it amazes outsiders that the process ever gets anywhere,” the observer, who asked not to be identified, noted. “The fact that it does is a tribute to the skill, determination and stamina of the negotiators.”

Working with little or no sleep for days on end, often in poorly-ventilated, windowless rooms, and snatching the odd sandwich in breaks or rushing between meetings, it is not surprising that the attrition rate among negotiators is high.

That is not just at the annual top-level meetings. There are regular lower-level meetings over the course of the year on specific scientific, technical and financial elements of each final package.

On more than one occasion, ambulances have been called and delegates rushed to hospital from such negotiating meetings. In at least one case, the delegate died.

That is why every effort is made to pre-cook as much as possible, before the annual climax, when the world’s media arrive in droves, eager if not desperate to grab hold of any thread they can find to indicate what is going on.

Horse-trading helps generate consensus.

The impossibility of having 197 negotiators all talking at the same time and making radically different interventions is the main reason why they tend to gravitate into separate interest groups with local, regional or sectoral corners to fight.

By far the largest of these is the G77, which confusingly has some 134 members and not the 77 implied by the name. China does not officially consider itself a member, but it supports and financially contributes to G77, and official G77 statements are made with China.

But this group contains sub-divisions such as the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Group of Mountain, Landlocked Developing Countries (GMLDC). There are also BINGOs (Business and Industry Non-Governmental Organisations), TUNGOs (Trade Related NGOs) and YOUNGOs (Youth NGOs) among a host of other acronyms.

Despite wide deviations in the interests of each grouping — it is not necessarily immediately clear how the experiences and aims of, say, the Maldives and Bhutan coincide — the consensus rule is paramount.

“That is where a lot of horse-trading goes on,” the observer said. “A country wanting specific wording on one area might agree to accept an alternative in return for getting support on something else. If there is still no agreement, there is a mechanism to refer the dispute up the hierarchy, if necessary all the way up to political leaders.”

Saudi Arabia has a reputation for being difficult, arguing ceaselessly against any suggestion that the use of oil or gas is profligate and harmful to the climate and should therefore be curbed. But it also puts out its hand for a share of any money made available by the developed nations to adapt to or mitigate climate change.

No trust means no consensus over climate.

Throughout the process, apart from seemingly bottomless supplies of stamina and tanker-loads of coffee, there has to be trust between different delegations — some of which arrive by busload while others are so small they can share a taxi. Some of the negotiators probably see more of each other than they do of their families, bolstering trust.

“That is in part what went wrong at Copenhagen,” the observer said, referring to the 2009 UN climate change conference in the Danish capital.

“The discovery early on that the Danes were circulating a negotiating text only to selected countries and keeping everyone else in the dark badly undermined the trust in each other and therefore the whole process,” the observer said. “Then China felt its position had been misunderstood or even deliberately misinterpreted, and it got very angry, so the whole process disintegrated.”

Adding to the complexity, sensitivity and exhaustion is the fact that while the UN has six official languages, many negotiations are conducted in English. That is fine if it happens to be a first, second or even third language and the individual delegation is large enough to cover all the angles.

But it is certainly not adequate, however good the official translators, if the delegation is too small to get to all the meetings and thus misses some key developments and critical nuances.

The likely outcome of the conference is far from rosy.

The more exhausted delegates get, the shorter their tempers and the more scope for misunderstandings and mistakes. If these creep into the language, it can cause major headaches. This is exacerbated by the fact that the texts agreed in the plenary sessions are legal documents.

“There was a big problem at one stage in Paris over one word,” the observer said, referring to the 2015 climate change conference in the French capital.

“This particular part of the text said developed countries shall take action while developing ones should do so. The developed countries objected that shall implied an obligation on their part while should meant the developing states only needed to take action if they could, i.e. no obligation. But it was a typo. The word in both cases was supposed to have been should.”

As for the meeting in Glasgow starting on Sunday and slated to last two weeks, no one seems very clear about the likely outcome — particularly in view of the expected absence of both Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The meeting is meant to enshrine cranked-up pledges for action from all participants, but this appears highly unlikely, especially given that the fresh plans that have been put forward fall far short of the action foreseen in Paris.

What is more, the developed nations have failed to fulfill their promise in Paris to come up with $100 billion in 2020 to help developing nations tackle climate change.

Bottom line: the outlook for the COVID-delayed Glasgow meeting to accelerate actions scientists say are desperately urgent is far from rosy.

After a fortnight in Glasgow — where accommodation is said to be both scarce and changing hands for extortionate sums despite a threatened transport strike — Mr Spock and Captain Kirk might well be beamed back up to the USS Enterprise with empty pockets and sore heads.

Questions to consider:

  1. How does agreement by consensus work?
  2. Why did the words shall and should create problems at the Paris climate talks in 2015?
  3. Are there instances when you’ve been in a group that reaches decisions by consensus? If so, why not simply vote?
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Jeremy Lovell was a correspondent for Reuters for more than 23 years in Europe, Asia and Africa. He covered Dutch, Belgian, British and South African elections, the EU's Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis, Belgian pedophile murders, NATO going to war for the first time, Zimbabwean farm invasions and climate change, energy and the environment.

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Climate changeCOP26: No voting at UN climate meeting, where consensus rules