Too Many Parties at the Table? Try a Side Deal

By — on / Conflict Resolution

When a large number of parties is involved in jointly hammering out a deal or dispute, agreement can be elusive, as illustrated by the failure of recent global climate change negotiations. The difficulty of coordinating a wide range of perspectives and interests often results in delays, disagreement, and impasse.

In the article, “Too Big to Succeed? The Copenhagen Climate Talks” in our March 2010 issue of Negotiation, we explained how an attempted negotiation among the 192 member states of the United Nations fell apart due to a clash between two factions – developing and developed nations – on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The large number of parties involved led to chaos, confusion, and very little progress.

A new initiative is attempting to bypass this global inaction and confront climate change head-on, as reported by The New York Times on February 15. A small group of nations has banded around a program aimed at reducing emissions of pollutants that contribute to climate change and health problems. Participants in the U.S.-led plan include Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden, and the U.N. Environment Program, which will run the project.

The project will provide funds for developing countries to reduce pollutants and will attempt to raise public and private funds fur new mitigation projects. By targeting emissions that have an outsize impact on global warming, including soot and methane, policymakers hope to reduce global temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 and prevent millions of cases of lung and heart disease by 2030. The United States will spend $12 million and Canada $3 million to launch the program and recruit other nations to participate.

Todd D. Stern, the State Department’s special envoy for climate change, said the program is “very much in the win-win category” because it should provide benefits for climate change, health, food production, and energy. “It’s not a negotiation over who takes what targets,” Stern told the Times, “but a voluntary partnership aimed at producing tangible results in a relatively short period of time.”

As U.N. climate change negotiations drag on year after year with little environmental impact, this new, smaller initiative may begin to achieve what much larger negotiations have not. For business negotiators, the program suggests that when multi-party negotiations become too complex, side negotiations among a subset of like-minded parties may be best equipped to chip away at some larger group’s goals.

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