Reflections from New Zealand’s outgoing Climate Change Ambassador, Jo Tyndall

I’ve had the privilege of working on climate change over a critical period for the multilateral system of international rules. The WTO Doha negotiating round hit stormy waters, from which it has not yet recovered.

For its part, the United Nation’s overarching climate treaty (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC) was dealt a near-mortal blow in Copenhagen (2009) when world leaders failed to get a new global climate change treaty across the line. The international rules-based system was therefore looking a little shaky when I was appointed New Zealand’s Climate Change Ambassador six months later. 

Jo Tyndall

Jo Tyndall


For those who (not unreasonably) think multilateral negotiations move at a glacial pace and achieve little, it’s salutary to think back to the lead-up  to the Cancun climate meeting in 2010. At that time, the UNFCCC process was characterised by:

  • A stark North-South divide, with the pressure to take action on climate change exerted solely on developed countries
  • This was encapsulated in a near-exclusive developing country focus on securing commitments from the developed world via a second Kyoto Protocol commitment period, CP2 (which was ultimately achieved, but with Japan, Russia and New Zealand deciding not to join CP2 and Canada withdrawing entirely from the KP)
  • A near total breakdown in trust within the UNFCCC process
  • A severely weakened secretariat with little room for manoeuvre
  • Minimal political will to advance a new agreement, with world leaders still smarting from their Copenhagen experience.

By the time my tour of duty ended after the Ministerial conference (the 24th conference of the parties, or COP 24) in Katowice, the UNFCCC had secured the Paris Agreement, and landed the essential “rulebook” (transparency and accountability) to enable the Agreement to function. This sets a clear but flexible basis for all member countries to take climate action and gives the globe a fighting chance of avoiding dangerous temperature rise (albeit with a narrow window within which to do so).

How did all that happen?

It’s self-evident that, if the US is not engaged, then securing a global agreement is pushing the proverbial uphill. Conversely, it’s absolutely the case that the biggest single reason we have the Paris Agreement is because post-Copenhagen the US made a sustained, determined effort to work with China as the first critical step. The companion announcements by Presidents Xi and Obama after the 2014 G20 meeting set the scene for success in Paris and were a powerful invitation for the rest of the world to follow.

When the US did a 180 degree shift 18 months after COP 21, announcing its intention to withdraw from Paris, there was thus a palpable risk the Agreement could collapse like a fallen soufflé.

So far, this hasn’t happened. The Paris Agreement broke records for the speed with which it entered into force (just shy of a year after its adoption), and to date, more than 180 of the 196 UNFCCC member countries have ratified. Global political will remains firm – and in many ways is most strongly evident within the developing world – ensuring it was possible to land the rulebook in Katowice last December.

New Zealand is a bit-player on the global stage – a member of the chorus in terms of economic power. But, in the world of climate change we’ve had a significant voice, playing a strong and effective supporting actor role. We’re perceived as an “ideas engine”, and have taken on chairing roles and hosted informal meetings as keen upholders of the multilateral world order.

The task of developing a new global agreement gave negotiators a blank canvas on which to work. It was a chance to do some blue skies thinking, to “dare to dream” – at least for a bit, before political realities intruded.

But, the dreaming was well worth it. New Zealand’s philosophy was to design an agreement that would – first and foremost – get everyone on board, but would nevertheless be robust. A global problem like climate change needed universal participation. Once a rules framework buttressed by the development of domestic policies is in place then the pace of action can be picked up. And, by contrast, writing the perfect agreement counts for nothing if only a handful of Parties sign onto it. Stringent penalties are pointless if governments choose to leave rather than face their imposition.

Our “thought leadership” focused on finding a sweet spot between bottom-up national determination of action on the basis of individual country circumstances, and the application of top-down” rules to track action on climate change and the fulfilment of undertakings. Flexibility could then be provided via different forms of opting in or out of the rules. In my view, a global treaty needed rules in order for it to pass the laugh test.

That was critical for lots of “c” words: clarity, confidence, consistency and credibility, to list a few. As part of this balance between rules and flexibility, we also proposed a way of enabling the big players to sign on by not creating legally binding targets. The binding obligations would be in the nature of performance, not outcomes.

The UNFCCC is (as its members insistently, and properly, assert) a “Party-driven process”, with the result that 196 countries want the right to be present at every single meeting. It is, however, impossible to negotiate that way (unless you have the luxury of decades in which to do so). I’m a firm believer that deals can only be done by people who know each other. One of the best things we did was to initiate a series of “blue skies” meetings in the years leading to Paris, convening a group of around 20 lead negotiators from a representative range of countries for annual two-day retreats in semi-rural settings around Auckland. The approach – sticking people together in the back-blocks and addressing the climate change treaty as a creative exercise proved invaluable, with a fair chunk of the ideas we discussed ultimately finding their way into the Paris Agreement.

The Paris conference (COP 21) gave us the high-level provisions (the “what”) of a ground-breaking global treaty in a slim, 11 page document. The COP also took a series of decisions setting up a work programme to develop the more detailed rule book (the “how”) essential to making the Agreement functional.

I was asked to co-Chair the APA (the ad hoc body tasked with developing the bulk of the “modalities, procedures and guidelines” set out in the Paris Agreement work programme), a position I held along with my Saudi Arabian colleague, Sarah Baashan, for the APA’s entire three-year life. This was no easy task – the same cracks and differences of interpretation that had made it a huge challenge to get the Paris Agreement across the line in the first place unsurprisingly bubbled up again in the aftermath. Parties were jockeying for position, looking for leverage, and indeed held genuinely different views about what the words on paper adopted at COP 21 in fact meant. Despite having been given a very tight deadline, we did it using a slow build technique: looking for frequent input from Parties, using our meetings as milestones to push to the next phase. Once trust had been well-established (something we knew never to take for granted), we felt ready to make some key judgment calls and release draft text on our own responsibility. I genuinely believe this helped the Polish Presidency of COP 24 to pull the threads together by the (inevitably late) close of the conference.  

The Katowice COP succeeded beyond expectations. I talked earlier about political will as being essential to any treaty. It’s not something that can just be conjured up, but how is it built? On the face of it, climate change is an unlikely candidate. There doesn’t appear to be any upside, and it’s been characterised by a narrative based on burden, economic cost and obligation. Around the world that’s changing, though, thanks to a virtuous circle involving (national and local) government and the private sector, with the science giving an ever starker picture of what’s happening. The new political and business buzz-words are opportunity, innovation and a just transition. There’s better understanding of the bleeding obvious: from a political perspective, climate change is an environmental issue only on its surface. At its heart, it’s about economic transformation on a global scale. There’s increasing evidence the cost of climate action (in terms of slowed economic growth) is a tiny increment, and is far outweighed by the economic costs of inaction. Internationally, the private sector is increasingly making long-term investments on the assumption of a low carbon future and calling for policy stability to help them make those critical decisions – this is consequently mutually reinforcing with political positioning to take climate action.

From Cancun to Katowice has been a remarkable journey, and one that restores faith in humanity, and in multilateralism. The test now for governments and for the UNFCCC will be making a successful transition from negotiation to implementation and action.