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COP18: At the negotiation table not all are equal

Published on 30 November 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

As much as “one state, one vote” rules or methods of consensus decision-making aim at giving the impression of resulting in a decision among equals, this is simply not the case. To anyone involved in diplomacy this statement is akin to a truism.

It is as true for the climate change negotiations currently underway in the form of the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar, as it is for most international negotiations. In case of climate change negotiations, this lack of equity is especially problematic though. Those who are most affected by climate change and are least likely to have the resources to adapt to it are also those with the least power at the negotiation table.

Being almost at the midway point of the two weeks of the negotiation marathon that is COP18, this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the lack of equity and the inequality at the negotiation table. Whatever the modest outcome of COP18 will be, it won’t be an agreement reached among equals.


Wikipedia informs us that a “truism is a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning.”But this also means that from time to time it needs to be mentioned again to serve as a reminder and to not allow the fact that it is self-evident result in ignoring a problem. A look at the data underpinning the inequality at the negotiation table of the climate change negotiations (COPs) is probably the best and most robust reminder.

A good source is Schroeder’s, Boykoff’s, and Spiers’ “Equity and state representations in climate change negotiations”. They find that, overall, climate change negotiations have become a much bigger affair over the years. From the 1st COP in 1994 to the 15th COP in 2009, the number of official representatives increased 14-fold. Yet, while G8 countries and the big 5 (China, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Mexico) increased their delegation sizes, small developing countries downsized. So, the gap in negotiation resources between the richest and the poorest nations persisted and indeed widened. This leads to two phenomena that express the inequality at the negotiation table best: a considerable “capacity gap” on the one hand and “negotiation by exhaustion” on the other. As a response, the authors recommend to introduce a cap for the size of national delegations that ensures broad representation of various governmental departments while at the same time keeping delegations to a manageable size.

Read the full publication here.

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