Toward an International Climate Change Convention: An Advocate's Perspective

David McRobert

Policy Coordinator, Waste Reduction Office,
Ministry of the Environment.
101 Bloor St., Suite 201, Toronto, Ont.

*  The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and not those of the Waste Reduction Office of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.  Most of the research for this paper was conducted while the author was Global Warming Program Coordinator at Pollution Probe in Toronto from February 1990 to July 1991.

Paper presented to Environmental Law Conference. York University, Oct. 26, 1991

Table of Contents



The Challenge of Growing Global Interdependence

Global Warming: A Short History

   a) The Toronto Conference

   b) The IPCC Reports

   c) The Second World Climate Conference

Negotiating a Climate Convention

Positions of the Key Players

Where the Process Will Go in 1992



Note on the Author



The successful negotiation and implementation of an International Climate Change Convention (ICCC) is one of the most important international challenges facing policy-makers and politicians all over the planet.  Growing scientific evidence shows that if nothing is done to reduce current levels of greenhouse gases, the ecological and social impacts will be severe.  Negotiations are scheduled to begin on a convention in Washington in February 1991.

Drawing on insights gained by the author while participating in the Second World Climate Conference (SWCC) between October 29, 1990 and November 7, 1990 in Geneva and the first meeting of the International Negotiating Committee working on an International Climate Change Convention (ICCC) in early February 1991, this paper examines the rationale for an ICCC.  The challenges facing negotiators working on the development of such a treaty also will be described.

The paper considers the scope and objectives of a possible convention, and examines the interests of different nations in the issues.  Emphasis will be placed on the positions of delegations from the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, the European Community, developing nations, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the small island nations.  The role that these delegations have played in the work of International Negotiating Committee (INC) and at various international meetings such as the SWCC will be critically discussed.


In June 1992, delegations from nations all around the world will meet in Brazil at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).  This conference, which will be the held on the twentieth anniversary of the Stockholm conference, should be a major turning point in the evolution of the relationship between human beings and the ecosystems and species that now inhabit the planet but are facing growing environmental pressures every day.

One of the most important items to be considered at UNCED will be a framework convention on climate change.  In this paper, the rationale for an international climate change convention (ICCC) and the challenges facing negotiators working on the development of such a treaty will be described.  In this analysis, I will draw extensively on my experiences at two international meetings on climate change in Geneva, Switzerland in November 1990 and in Chantilly, Virginia, a town just outside Washington, D.C, in February 1991.  What I saw at those meetings both frightened me and made me aware of how difficult it will be achieve a consensus on action related to global warming.

I will begin by commenting on the reality of growing global interdependence, which is a backdrop to discussion of the issue of climate change.  I will then proceed to briefly outline a short history of the global warming issue and the scope and objectives of a possible climate change convention.  I will conclude with a brief description of the position of various nations in the negotiation process and an indication of the significant role that eastern Europeans might play.

The Challenge of Growing Global Interdependence

Prior to this century, ecological and natural resource problems were often seen only in local context.  Deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution were ecological problems that tended to arise in particular areas of the world and societies developed several mechanisms to cope with them.

With the emergence of mass global trade over the past two centuries, global interdependence has become the crucial feature of many environmental problems.   Research over the past decade has demonstrated that if we are to take meaningful action on problems like the international trade in hazardous waste, global warming, ozone layer depletion and the destruction of the planet's oceans, then we must engage in an unprecedented level of cooperative endeavour.

At the same time, I think that the glamour of international conferences distracts us from action on a local level.

While leadership must come from international and national actors,  most of the problems must be resolved in their bioregional context.[1]  To give one example, I would point to a Pollution Probe study released on Wednesday called "The Costs of the Car" which shows that a huge potion of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are related to our use and abuse of the car.

In response to concern about the growing impacts of human activities on the ecological integrity of the planet, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was established in late 1983.  This commission, which was made up of 22 political leaders from many nations and chaired by Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway,  produced important recommendations on numerous areas including institutional reform related to international environmental treaty-making.

Global Warming: A Short Story

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to sketch out a short history of major events on the global warming problem.

a) The Toronto Conference

As a Canadian, I take pride in the fact that a conference held in June 1988 in Toronto, Ontario is usually thought to be the turning point in discussions of global warming.  Since the importance of the Toronto conference has been discussed in several other sources (see, e.g., Bankes 1989; Bankes 1990; Leggett 1990; Schneider 1989), it is not necessary to discuss its conclusions at length here.

One of the most important outcomes of the Toronto conference from an institutional viewpoint was the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  Another important outcome was the establishment of what is usually called the "Toronto target".[2]

In brief, this target says that industrialized or developed countries should reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 20% based on 1988 levels by the year 2005.  This target is now the benchmark for the assessment of the standards developed nations are setting on global warming reductions.

b) The IPCC Reports

In November 1988, the IPCC began its work.  Over the course of 18 months, it generated three working group reports on science, impacts and policy responses.  Though these documents all have flaws, they are regarded as the essential information base on which most nations are now basing their plans for action on global warming.

c) The Second World Climate Conference

The Second World Climate Conference was convened by the WMO and UNEP in Geneva beginning in late October 1990.  The conference provided the first formal opportunity for international negotiators to review the work of the IPCC.

Numerous important scientific and policy papers were presented at the SWCC.  Two statements were released from the conference, one prepared by ministerial representatives from 137 nations and the other prepared by over 700 scientists.  Neither document included many large surprises.  However, it was important to see that the ministerial declaration was signed by a large number of delegations, and it shows there is wide agreement among many nations on several points related to global warming including the fact that nations must proceed on the basis of the best information available to them and that developed nations must show leadership on greenhouse gas reductions.  Unfortunately, the ministerial declaration issued at SWCC is not legally binding, though it is politically significant.

The scientific statement included two important conclusions: first, that technologically feasible and cost-effective opportunities for developed nations to reach the Toronto target exist and, second, that atmospheric stabilization of CO2 by 2050 would require a continous worldwide annual reduction of one percent, if begun immediately.  On this basis, some scientists have called for a 60 percent cut in CO2 emissions by developed nations as soon as possible, on the assumption that emissions from the developing world must continue to grow to allow the standard of living in developing nations to improve.

Negotiating a Climate Convention

Despite the growing scientific evidence about the need for action on global warming, there is no consensus on the need for an international climate change convention (ICCC).

The key arguments for a comprehensive international convention are the following:

1)  Any effective strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will necessitate an unprecedented degree of international cooperation since every nation produces some emissions.

2)  Few nations will be willing, or able, to absorb the short-term political costs of making cuts in emissions without some kind of assurance that similar efforts are being made by other nations.  The political costs will be associated with the major changes that will be required in technology, law and policy, infrastructure, corporate actions, and human behavior.

3)  A number of countries, including the United States, have expressed the view that they are unwilling to act if they will be put at a competitive disadvantage.  Some argue that the only way to convince these nations to act is to provide them with a degree of assurance that 1) what they are being asked to do is equitable and 2) they will not be put at a competitive disadvantage because all nations will be party to a binding international agreement (Based on Nitze 1991).

There are numerous other tangential arguments that can be made.  However, the essential conclusion is that resolution of the global warming problem must take place through the development of a set of international rules governing greenhouse gases.  To be effective, these rules must limit emissions by regulating permissible emissions of greenhouse gases internationally and providing some kind of liability (such as a tax) upon those countries which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

With these factors in mind, the United Nations passed a resolution in late December 1990 entitled "Protection of Global Climate for Present and Future Generations of Mankind".[3]  The resolution established the International Negotiating Committee (INC) and charged the INC with responsibility for preparing a framewoprk convention on climate change.  According to the text of the resolution, the INC is to provide the sole forum in which an intergovernmental negotiating process on climate change will proceed.

The INC is being administered under the direct auspices of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), with the assistance of the WMO and UNEP.  The resolution also states that the Secretary General of the UN, with the assistance of the WMO and UNEP is to establish an ad hoc secretariat in Geneva to manage activities of the INC and that a Bureau for the INC would be elected at the first meeting of the INC, consisting of a Chairperson, three vice-chairs and a rapporteur.

The UNGA has requested that the INC complete preparation of a framework convention on climate change, including appropriate commitments and any related legal instruments, prior to UNCED, where the convention will be open for signature by nations during the UNCED conference.  The first INC meeting took place in early February of this year in Chantilly, Virginia, and three more INC meetings are scheduled for 1991.

As an ad hoc UN body, the INC is to serve as a negotiating forum for member states of the UN and each member is free to decide

which government agency should represent its interests in the INC process.  To date, most developed nations have sent senior officials from ministries responsible for environmental, legal, energy and international policy matters.  For example, Canada sent bureaucrats from External Affairs, Environment Canada and the Energy Mines and Resources to the SWCC and the first INC meeting.

Most developed nations also send what are often called "spin doctors".  These are communications experts and lawyers whose sole purpose at these events is to monitor developments and control the information flow so that Canadians back home get the right story about the important leadership role that delegations from Canada and the US are playing.  I would estimate that between one quarter and a third of the representatives from Canada at the SWCC were spin doctors, paid for of course, by the Canadian taxpayers.  Thus, delegations from developed nations can number between 20 to 60 while developing nations often only have two people at the sessions.  This makes it absolutely essential that they work together to conserve resources.

A crucial issue related to representation is the creation of an adequate fund to assist developing countries send delegations to these meetings.  Lengthy discussions were held at the SWCC and first INC meeting on how to establish this trust fund.  It is estimated that more than $2.1 million will be required to ensure that at least two delegates from each of 63 smallest and least developed member states can participate in 1991.  By the end of the first INC meeting, despite much rhetoric, developed nations had still only committed approximately 55 percent of the total.

Positions of the Key Players

The following are the positions of the key players in the negotiation process.  This analysis is a composite of my impressions of positions taken at the SWCC and at the first International Negotiation Committee in Chantilly in early February.

a) Canada  -- Although Canada is not a key player, I will deal with Canada's position in the negotiations first.  Canada has made a commitment at the recent INC meeting to do whatever the rest of the world agrees to do, but they have indicated in private meetings with representatives of the oil and gas industry that they do not expect to go beyond their stabilization target for CO2 by 1992.  In the meantime, we have one of the most appalling records on energy consumption on the planet.

For this reason, Canada does not seem eager to take a leadership role in the negotiating process for the ICCC.  Indeed, the Canadian delegation has probably been given very clear instructions to help the U.S. slow process the down whenever possible.  Nevertheless, the Canadians still fancy themselves to be important brokers.  This led me to write an opinion article on behalf of Pollution Probe in the Globe and Mail last February which was titled, "On Global Warming, Canada is full of Hot Air".

b) United States --  The U.S. is clearly the biggest obstacle to achievement of an ICCC which contains commitments to control CO2. They made it abundantly clear at the SWCC and the first INC meeting that they do not want targets or timetables in the 1992 UNCED agreement.  Instead, they advocate what they call "a comprehensive approach" to the ICCC.  In practical terms, this means that they want to deal with all greenhouse gases instead of having a separate CO2 protocol.  Since the U.S. has very high levels of CFC releases on a per capita basis, and they have agreed to phase out use of CFCs by 2000 under revisions to the Montreal protocol agreed to in London, England this past summer, this means that they would be able to increase their CO2 emissions over the next decade.

A good indication of the nature of the U.S. policy was provided by a memo leaked in May 1990 before a climate change conference in Bergen, Norway.  The memo was from John Sunnunu in the White House to negotiators at the meeting and it gave the following instructions to the US delegation on talking points:

- it is not beneficial to discuss whether there is or is not warming, or how much or how little warming.  In the eyes of the public, we will lose this debate.  A better approach is to raise the many uncertainties that need to be better understood on this issue;

- don't get into an advocacy position of the merits of various policy proposals;

- don't let reporters position this conference as an attempt to delay serious decisions on this issue; and

- don't use specific numbers on degrees, dollars, rates, etc.

The following observations on the official US position was prepared by the environmental publication, ECO.  The ECO article suggests that the reason why the US shouldn't make commitments on global warming is that the right to have a big car is contained in the US constitution, no on needs glaciers anyway, and most of the countries that will be drowned aren't worth invading anyway.

More recently, the Canadian Southam News journalist, Anne McIlroy, (1991) wrote an article titled "U.S. plays the bad guy in global warming drama".  In it, she reports on recent progress towards an ICCC and reducing greenhouse emissions produced by the wealthy industrial nations.  She quotes the head of the U.S. negotiating team as saying "There is no question.  We are the bad guy.  Some people may have a problem with it, but we call it prudent policy".

c) Soviet Union and Japan

Both the Soviet Union and Japan indicated in the meetings of the first INC that they are prepared to go along with the U.S. line.  Of the two, the Soviets seem less willing to consider strong targets and deadlines for CO2.  In contrast, Japan has made a commitment to a per capita stabilization of emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, which means that they would still be able to increase emissions based on population growth.  Japan is probably more vulnerable to pressure for action, particularly if momentum builds in other places.

d) Eastern Europe

Most of the delegations from Eastern European countries indicated in their opening statements at the first INC meeting that they are willing to make reductions in CO2 emissions if they are provided with financial assistance.  In other words, they are seeking special treatment and may get it because, in the eyes of many people, they do not fit into the category of developed or developing country.  At the same time, their presence in the sessions makes some of the representatives of the developing world very nervous.  The fear is that resources and technology will be directed more quickly to Eastern Europe instead of the South, and some delegations say that this pattern is already established.

e) European Community, Australia and New Zealand

The European Community (EC) countries are by far the most progressive force in the discussions to date on an ICCC.  The EC has stated they want a commitment by developed nations to stabilize CO2 emissions in the 1992 agreement.  Certain nations, like Germany, have said they want a commitment to reductions.  The influence of the EC in the ICCC negotiations will be substantial because the Chair of the INC is French and has already demonstrated an EC bias in the first INC meeting.

Australia and New Zealand have tended to support the EC in calling for strong CO2 reduction targets.  Unfortunately, both these countries do not have a great deal of clout.

f) Scandinavian Nations

The Scandinavian nations played a crucial role in the negotiations of the Montreal protocol and the further improvements to the agreement in London last summer.  However, these countries took a low profile at the first INC meeting.  It is thought that Sweden's experience in the past two years has influenced this situation.  In summary, Sweden has made a commitment to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions and simultaneously phase out nuclear power, which is seen by many as a difficult challenge.

g) China and India

Both China and India have said they would like to see developed countries make a strong commitment to control CO2 emissions.   They are also eager to create a large fund of money for technology transfer of new energy efficient technology being developed in the West.   Both nations are opposed to any requirement for CO2 reductions from developing countries.  The Chinese and Indian delegations argue that their nations are not responsible for the problem and will not sacrifice their economic development to get the developed countries out of this mess.  

h) Group of 77

This group of developing countries blocked action in most of the sessions of the first INC meeting.  In general, they support the views expressed by China and India.  However, they are a very fragile coalition when it comes to specifics about technology transfer, funding and other crucial issues.  This fragility can be attributed to two factors: 1) the impact of action will vary considerably in different nations; and 2) contributions to global warming vary enormously.  What this means is that consensus positions are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve and it is apparent that maintenance of unity throughout the INC negotiations will be unlikely.   Unfortunately, this could mean that achievement of an ICCC acceptable to the Group of 77 nations would also be unlikely.

i) AOSIS (The Alliance of Small Island States)

These nations, who are scattered all over the planet but mainly in the Pacific Ocean, became the moral conscience of the SWCC meeting in Geneva and continued to play an important role at the first INC meeting.  They are well organized and have some top-notch legal advisors from England.  Their contribution to the global warming problem is very small, but because of their low elevations they could be devastated by tremendous flooding if sea levels rise even one or two metres.  For this reason, the Alliance are the strongest supporters of decisive action to reduce CO2 emissions in developed countries, and, as you might expect, allies of environmental groups who attend international meetings on climate change.

j)  Brazil

The final player I will mention is Brazil.  Brazil is determined to get a strong ICCC in place before the 1992 UNCED conference in June 1992.  The Brazilians say that they want a strong commitment from the developed nations on CO2 cuts and that they are willing to make a commitment to protect their own forests.  Of course, the continued destruction of Brazilian rainforests is a major issue because burning trees releases greenhouse gases.  Brazil is one of the few countries to take a strong position on forests and should be praised for its progressive approach.

Where the Process Will Go in 1992

There were very great expectations as to what the outcome of future INC meetings would be last November.  In retrospect, the meetings of the INC in June and in September of this year appear to have been beset by the kinds of obstacles encountered at the other meetings to date.  Moreover, certain technical problems have also slowed the process.[4]

In my view, the developed nations must take a leadership role, particularly in their positioning on the transfer of energy-efficient technology to the developing nations and allocations of resources.  Otherwise, the process is doomed to failure.  Unfortunately, this appears to be what is happening.

There are other actors who also will play an important role in the final outcome.  For example, it is safe to conclude that the positions of the developing nations and of the Eastern Europe countries and the Soviet Union could have a major impact on the outcome of discussions related to the ICCC.  If the Eastern European nations push for a big chunk of the resources available in a potential technology transfer fund, then the developing nations will probably balk at signing any agreement.

On the other hand, if the Eastern European countries and the Soviets fail to take a leadership role in the process then I predict that the international community will achieve no more than an agreement to stabilize emissions of developed nations by 1992. 

In summary, the future role of the Soviet and Eastern European delegations in the INC process will be crucial to global warming problem.


The challenge of global warming demands an unprecedented level of collaboration between nations all over the world.  Collective action on a scale never envisioned before is required, and this kind of endeavour transcends the experience of most politicians and citizens now alive on the planet.  As Myers (1990) notes in his new book, The Gaia Atlas of Future Worlds, we can take heart from collective endeavours of the past including the building of Gothic cathedrals in Europe.  He goes on to point out that only a few decades ago the Marshall Plan inspired Americans to devote 4 percent of their GNP to rebuild post-war Europe.  In contrast, the U.S. spares a mere 0.2 percent of its GNP today, even though the US GNP has grown by three times in the past 45 years.  This suggests that we do not lack the means to face the problem of global warming, but that we are desperately short of vision.


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Note on the Author

David McRobert co-ordinates several projects related to 3Rs activities in northern Ontario for the Waste Reduction Office of the Ministry of the Environment.  He holds a B.Sc. in Biology from Trent University, a Masters in Environmental Studies from York University, and LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School.  Before joining the Waste Reduction Office, David coordinated research on waste management and global warming at Pollution Probe.  He also worked at the Ministry of Attorney General where he was involved in policy development on consumer protection law reform and energy and environmental issues.  He is currently completing work on his LLM thesis which examines the interface between labour relations, technological change and sustainable development.

David has been involved in research and advocacy on the environment for more than twelve years and has written a number of articles and reports on various environmental issues.  In the early 1980s, he worked with aboriginal groups to develop strategies to promote appropriate economic development in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.

    [1]  On this theme, see D. McRobert and P. Muldoon (1991).

    [2]  For a critical assessment of Canada's progress towards meeting the target, see Imada (1991).

    [3]  U.N. Document A/C.@/45/L.93, 45th session.  The resolution was cosponsored by 58 nations and spearheaded by Malta's Ambassador to the U.N., Alexander Borg Olivier.  For this reason, it is often referred to now as the "Malta Resolution."

    [4]  For example, until the June meeting, most of the working groups did not have chairs.  Since there were no chairs, the negotiation process was delayed.