Collective Leadership and the Paris Climate Change Agreement

In our complex world, collective leadership can help forge durable, mutually beneficial agreements, according to diplomat Christiana Figueres, the recipient of the Program on Negotiation’s 2022 Great Negotiator Award. At the event, Figueres described how she helped steer 196 nations to unanimous agreement during the 2015 Paris climate change negotiations.

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Collective Leadership and the Paris Climate Change Agreement

On April 14, the Program on Negotiation presented its 2022 Great Negotiator Award to Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres for her success in spearheading the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. In a daylong series of events, including a public interview led by Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles and Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius, Figueres shared an array of insights on multiparty negotiation, including the benefits of unanimous decision making and the value of collective leadership.

From Consensus to Unanimity

After the high-profile collapse of the 2009 global climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, Figueres was appointed the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Nations (UN) entity tasked with facilitating and implementing international climate change negotiations.

Figueres, who had represented Costa Rica in Copenhagen and at other climate talks, recognized that in her new role, she would need to broaden out from her national perspective to “fully and sincerely embrace every position” of every participating country “without compromising the final outcome”—a binding global commitment to address climate change.

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Once on the job, Figueres identified a lack of inclusivity as a significant shortcoming of the Copenhagen negotiations. Near the end of those talks, she explained at the Program on Negotiation event, numerous heads of state from large countries arrived and negotiated a secret deal, which then–U.S. president Barack Obama announced at the airport as he was departing. “We all read that in the newspaper and went, ‘What agreement?’” Figueres said. “‘We haven’t seen any agreement.’” Nations that had been excluded protested, and the deal collapsed.

Traditionally, U.N. climate agreements required a consensus of most parties rather than complete unanimity. Nations that rejected the agreements tended to hold grudges or even retaliate with lawsuits, Figueres explained.

As head of the UNFCCC Secretariat, Figueres aimed to move toward the U.N. principle of “every country, one voice,” she said. Ultimately, she decided to require any agreement reached at the Paris talks to be approved unanimously by the 196 participating nations.

“We wanted a very high-ambition agreement that would be with us for decades to come,” she said. “You only have that if there is truly global support, unanimous support.” Unanimity would also help the U.N. meet its “moral obligation,” according to Figueres. Because we are all responsible for climate change, “we all collectively have to do something about it,” she said. “I couldn’t conceive of anything that could leave any country out.”

Upending Tradition

As the Paris talks approached, Laurent Fabius, then France’s minister of foreign affairs and chair of the conference, suggested inviting heads of state to attend at the beginning rather than at the end of the conference, a reversal of tradition. After all, he argued, the role of world leaders is not to “figure out the last technical details” but to “put out the vision for each of their teams, as well as globally, and then leave, and let everybody else do their job,” Figueres said.

“It turned out to be a brilliant decision,” according to Figueres, especially given that Paris suffered devastating terrorist attacks just weeks before the conference. A total of 150 heads of state descended on the French capital at the start of the negotiations to guide their teams and show solidarity with France.

Toward Collective Leadership

Because “the challenges that we face are so complex,” Figueres said during her Program on Negotiation interview, the world is moving in the direction of collective leadership, a phenomenon seen in Paris and other global climate talks. The decision about when to involve world leaders highlighted this changing notion of the role of leadership in negotiation.

While negotiating over two weeks in Paris, countries with common—and sometimes diverging—interests joined informal coalitions to support each other in negotiations with other groups. Ultimately, the “High Ambition Coalition” of about 100 countries delivered the main principles of what became the Paris Agreement, agreed to be all participating nations, on the last day.

“All of these groupings are actually about collective leadership,” Figueres said during her Program on Negotiation interview. “It is about understanding that, yes, in the United Nations, one country, one voice, but it is much better if you have many voices together. A chorus sings better than an individual.”

She was careful to note that collective leadership does not absolve individuals of their personal responsibility in negotiation: “Just because you need collective leadership doesn’t mean you can sit back and let others do it.” When it comes to halting climate change, she said, collective leadership must broaden beyond government obligations to include individuals, corporations, and other groups. “We all play different roles, and it is about mobilizing every single one of those roles . . . for one purpose,” she said, “which is the common well-being of humanity on this planet.”

What examples of collective leadership in negotiation have you observed in multiparty negotiation?

Nicole Bryant is the managing director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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