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The power of presidency in UN climate change negotiations: comparison between Denmark and Mexico


In December 2010, the 16th Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ended with adopting Cancun Agreements as official decisions under the UN process. The international community determined the meeting a success. This was a substantial change compared to the previous year’s Copenhagen climate conference, which failed to reach consensus at the official level and thus having come under severe criticism as “diplomatic failure.” This article aims to explain the stark contrast between the two consecutive COP meetings and argues that the leadership style of the president of the conference is one important factor propelling negotiations forward. While the current literature scarcely addresses the role of the president, this article explores multiple variables that condition the president’s effectiveness in moving negotiations forward. This article concludes that the Mexican government successfully chaired the negotiations with excellent agenda management and process management capability, which the Danish government lacked. In particular, its transparent and embracing manner in handling subgroup meetings and the production of a single negotiation text facilitated trust among negotiators, which in turn made the parties tend to cooperate better. More importantly, the case study reveals that the Mexican government had a significant influence on given conditions of the negotiation process, such as the international environment surrounding the negotiation and the decision-making rules.

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  1. In the article, I use both terms, COP President and COP Presidency. COP President refers a person, while Presidency refers the preparatory and supportive team of government officials of the hosting country, including the President.

  2. For the UN environmental conferences, Tallberg accounts for the chair’s experience involving the law of sea negotiations, the ozone negotiations and the climate change negotiations. Within the climate negotiations, Tallberg exemplifies two veteran diplomats and influential (appointed) chairs of the negotiation groups—Jean Ripert, the chair of Negotiation Committee up to the UNFCCC, and Raul Estrada, the chair of Ad hoc Group on Berlin Mandate (AGBM) up to the Kyoto Protocol (Tallberg 2010). This article’s focus is the leadership of the COP president, the rotating host government chair, and thus slightly different.

  3. Legitimacy can be defined by many ways. In general, there are two main views of legitimacy—normative or formal legitimacy and social or empirical legitimacy. For detailed discussion on legitimacy, see Karlsson et al. at 47 (2012). Karlsson et al. consider “being recognized as a leader” an important indicator of legitimacy. In this article, the author generally agrees with Blavoukos et al.’s description of legitimacy, which is “a constant record of support to UN activities and commitment to UN principles.” These support and commitment would be reflected in domestic and foreign policies, which constitute directional leadership.

  4. For example, the Argentinian president of COP4 expressed support for a highly controversial Argentinian proposal in the opening statement, which stirred an immediate opposition from the most developing countries, and the perception of her bias toward this item raised concern among the participants throughout the Argentinian presidency (Depledge 2005, 48).

  5. For the summary background of the bureau of the Conference of the Parties, see the UNFCCC Web site at

  6. Parties have yet to agree on Rule 42 (Voting) of the Draft Rules of Procedures which have been applied, with the exception of Rule 42, since 1996. In the absence of agreement, decisions are taken by consensus (Rajamani 2010). See Draft Rules of Procedure of the Conference of the Parties and its Subsidiary Bodies in FCCC/CP/1996/2 (22 May 1996).

  7. The UNFCCC negotiations had two distinct negotiation tracks. One was to discuss further commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol, i.e., developed countries (KP track). The other was to discuss long-term cooperative action by all parties under the Convention, which included participation from the developing countries and the USA.

  8. The composition of ‘friends of the chair’ group, while left to the discretion of the Chair, takes account of context and purpose, and derives legitimacy from its representative character. Rajamani indicated that the COP presidency decided not to include the emerging groups such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) presumably because ALBA nations are so far left of center in the negotiations and their presence would not help to produce a political deal. Rajamani concluded that in excluding ALBA, the Danish presidency took the calculated but misjudged risk that they would reject the deal when it was eventually presented to the COP. (Rajamani 2010).

  9. See “Danish PM blasted by International Media for Climate Summit Failure” Icelandic Post (1 January 2010).

  10. Traditionally, the Secretariat closely works with the COP presidency as it is often that the COP presidency lacks experience, know-how and expertise in conducting international negotiation meetings (Depledge 2005).


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Correspondence to Siwon Park.

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Park, S. The power of presidency in UN climate change negotiations: comparison between Denmark and Mexico. Int Environ Agreements 16, 781–795 (2016).

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  • Climate change negotiation
  • Power of chair
  • Chairmanship in multilateral negotiations
  • Effectiveness of chair
  • Leadership of president of COP