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“One state one vote” in climate change negotiations

Published on 29 December 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Let’s bring out the big questions: Should climate change negotiations be organised according to the “one state one vote” principle?

This time between Christmas and New Year is called “in between the years” in Germany. It is the best time to reflect back and look ahead. The above question was raised as part of a previous conversation between Aldo Matteucci and me on representation and climate change negotiations. And “being in between the years” is the ideal time to tackle it.

Before the start of the recent iteration of global climate change negotiations, the COP18, I wrote a piece on inequalities at the negotiation table. I argued that while formally accepting the principle of “one state one vote,” the reality at the global climate change negotiations looks very different. Those affected most by climate change and with the least means for adaptation are also those with the least power at the negotiation table. Those who have most at stake in the negotiations (their very existence) face other delegations that far outnumber them and can draw on much richer pools of specialists. “One state one vote,” while formally being upheld, becomes an empty principle.

This is where Aldo came in asking “Why should “one country one vote” be a useful criterion in climate change (abatement) negotiations?” Aldo argued that the degree of being affected by climate change might be a more useful criterion to decide who should be at the negotiation table and who should be given what powers. For example, coastal regions of Bangladesh and Venice will suffer a similar fate when it comes to sea level rise. Why shouldn’t those two be equally represented and the negotiation table? Moreover, Aldo questioned the idea of “one state one vote” by referring to historic contingencies. Some small islands are independent states (after struggles for independence) while others are still part of larger states. Both entities are similar in size and will be affected similarly, yet they are represented in very different ways at the negotiation table. These are some thought provoking points that also raise larger questions about the conduct of diplomacy and global governance.

“One state one vote” is one of the cornerstones of international relations and enshrined in international law as the legal equality of states. It encapsulates several ideas:

  • States as self-contained entities that can neatly be separated from each other (territorial integrity)
  • Each state having a specific interest (reason of state)
  • Each state having the power to make decisions and having perfect internal control to implement them (sovereignty)
  • States accepting each other as equal (sovereignty) and having the same rights, none being superior to the other (Par in parem non habet imperium)

If you wanted an image for this: every state is like person; and in international negotiations all these “state persons” meet, sit around a table, make decisions, and are equal to each other.

Let’s consider this in the light of climate change negotiations.

First of all, a legal principle needs to be distinguished from geographic and political realities. However, we might still ask whether or not the principle makes sense in light of these geographic and political realities.  

If we look at the four points outlined above, climate change (but also many other global issues) challenges each of the principles.

  • Climate change does not stop borders; consequences such as resource shortages and migration are felt across borders.
  • In some cases it might be hard to find one common position for a state where regions or interest groups of a state will be affected differently. And while some might stand to suffer others might stand to gain.
  • When it comes to internal sovereignty, climate change might exacerbate conditions in vulnerable countries and failing states. Moreover, even with perfect internal decision-making and implementation powers, the complexity and connectedness of problems related to climate change makes unilateral decisions (especially when it comes to mitigation of climate change) ineffective.
  • This last point about formal equality of states goes back to the inequalities at the negotiation table I outlined in my previous blog.

All of this is not to say that the principle of equality among states should be given up. Toying with the principle opens not just one can of worms but several.

However, I think Aldo points in an important direction. If climate change does not “respect” national boundaries, why should negotiations be organised along those boundaries? In addition, if we see these boundaries between states as largely arbitrary, why should they matter so much as to determine the shape and hence the outcome of negotiations? I can imagine a global stakeholder approach based on democratic principles, cutting across national boundaries, and organised according to the principle of affectedness. This is close to ideas of cosmopolitan democracy, but getting into those is the topic for another blog.

 “Radical,” I hear you say? But maybe also necessary and logical. “In between the years” is the ideal time to reflect on those kinds of ideas.

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