Framework for the future? Exploring the possibility of majority voting in the climate negotiations


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is struggling in its attempts to address the threat of anthropogenic climate change and create an effective international climate agreement. A substantial part of the problem is consensus decision-making within the Convention. Majority voting is a potential alternative which is already being discussed within the UNFCCC. A comparative analysis of consensus and majority voting suggests that majority voting is superior in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness by allowing for quicker decision-making and semi-global approaches to a climate agreement (termed here as “Critical Mass Governance”). This paper aims to investigate how majority voting could be implemented in the UNFCCC and to consider politically feasible and effective approaches to voting arrangements for the Convention. There is a legal opportunity to introduce voting through adoption of the draft Rules of Procedure, but this faces political opposition. A type of Layered Majority Voting with larger majorities for financial and substantial matters is considered to be the optimal approach in balancing political feasibility and effectiveness. For now, voting is not politically feasible for the UNFCCC, but could be introduced into future bodies or treaties under the Convention.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    An occurrence where consensus is declared, but is done so in manner which clearly breaks from the general legal definition and practice under international law.

  2. 2.

    Interview with a high-level secretariat member 12-06-2013.

  3. 3.

    It should be noted that this proposal, and most proposed voting arrangements, uses voting as a last resort when all efforts to reach consensus have failed.

  4. 4.

    Carbon markets and financing serve as two possible examples here, although both are relatively contentious issues.

  5. 5.

    Interview with a developed country academic 07-12-2012.

  6. 6.

    Across all economic sectors, not just carbon-intensive industries.

  7. 7.

    It should be noted that the legality of these measures under the WTO is still a topic of debate amongst legal scholars.

  8. 8.

    Interaction with a Pacific Island Delegate 14-06-2013.

  9. 9.

    Personal observation of contact group on voting agenda item under COP at COP19 18-11-2013.

  10. 10.

    Interaction with a Western European Delegate 03-13-2012, interview with an Eastern European Delegate 012-06-2013 and an interview with a high-level secretariat member 12-06-2013.

  11. 11.

    Interview with an Eastern European Delegate 012-06-2013.

  12. 12.

    The UN Security Council employs a unique combination of majority voting and consensus with affirmative votes from 9 out of 15 Security Council members, and no application of a veto from one of the Permanent five members required to pass a decision. Interestingly, the main points of criticism and suggestions for reform have been targeted at permanent member veto rights. For an overview of UN Security Council reform literature please see Bourantonis, 2004, The history and politics of UN Security Council reform, or, more recently Lulseged, 2013, Vetoing the veto: voting reform and the United Nations Security Council.

  13. 13.

    Interview with a high-level secretariat member 12-06-2013.

  14. 14.

    Interview with a senior UNFCCC secretariat advisor 12-06-2013.

  15. 15.

    Interview with a former high-level secretariat member 14-05-2013.

  16. 16.

    Interview with a senior UNFCCC secretariat advisor 12-06-2013.

  17. 17.

    Interview with a senior UNFCCC secretariat advisor 12-06-2013.

  18. 18.


  19. 19.

    Interview with a former high-level secretariat member who attended this session 14-05-2013.

  20. 20.

    Interview with a high-level secretariat member 12-06-2013.

  21. 21.

    Interview with a former secretariat member and academic 09-07-2013.

  22. 22.

    Interview with a former high-level secretariat member who attended this session 14-05-2013.

  23. 23.

    Interview with a legal expert and civil society member 14-06-2013.

  24. 24.

    Personal observation at the final SBI plenary 14-06-2013.

  25. 25.

    Interview with a senior UNFCCC secretariat member 12-06-2013.

  26. 26.

    Interview with a US academic 05-12-2012.

  27. 27.

    Interaction with a developing country delegate 05-12-2012.

  28. 28.

    Passing of decisions by vote under the GEF requires an affirmative vote of both a 60 % majority of total members and a 60 % majority of financial contributions, which is expressed as a distribution of voting entitlements to members based on their financial contributions. This can be seen as a kind of hybrid between the one country–one vote model and the weighed voting model of the IMF and World Bank.

  29. 29.

    Measures adopted by the Enforcement Branch of the Kyoto Compliance Committee requires both a three-quarters majority vote of Parties present and voting and a simple majority of both Annex I and non-Annex countries.

  30. 30.

    Interview with an academic and former UNFCCC secretariat member 21-04-2013.

  31. 31.

    While some procedural matters are defined in the draft Rules of Procedure, there are ambiguities. Where ambiguity exists, the distinction between procedural and substantial issues is left to the discretion of the Chair, as per rule 42.3 of the draft Rules of Procedure.

  32. 32.

    Conditions for entry into force for any protocol would still need to be specified under that particular instrument as per Article 17(3) of the Convention.

  33. 33.

    Interview with a senior UNFCCC secretariat member 12-06-2013.


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I would particularly like to thank Helge Jörgens for hosting me at the Free University of Berlin Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU) during the course of this research and, along with Karen Hussey, Robert Dyball, Janette Lindesay, Olivia Liang and Tse Yang Lim, for providing helpful comments on the initial draft of this paper. I would also like to express my gratitude to the UNFCCC secretariat for their cooperation in providing me with access to officials past and present. Any mistakes are entirely my own. This research was gratefully funded by a research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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Correspondence to Luke Kemp.

Appendix: Supplementary Materials

Appendix: Supplementary Materials

Layered Voting in the Draft Paris Agreement

Co- Chairs' Tool: A Non-Paper Illustrating Possible Elements of the Paris Package: Draft Agreement, Section L (

  1. [54.2.

    Parties shall make every effort to reach agreement by consensus. If all efforts to reach consensus have been exhausted and no agreement has been reached, the decision shall, as a last resort, be taken by a two-thirds majority vote of the Parties present and voting, except:

    1. (a)

      For decisions on financial issues, in which case decisions shall be taken by consensus;

    2. (b)

      For decisions on procedure, which shall be taken by a majority vote of the Parties present and voting.]

DraftRule 42

  1. [1.

    Alternative A

    The Parties shall make every effort to reach agreement on all matters of substance by consensus. If all efforts to reach consensus have been exhausted and no agreement has been reached, the decision shall, as a last resort, be taken by a two-thirds majority vote of the Parties present and voting, except:

    1. (a)

      as otherwise provided by the Convention, the financial rules referred to in Article 7, paragraph 2 (k) of the Convention or the present rules of procedure[.] [;]

    2. [(b)

      for a decision to adopt a proposed protocol, which shall be taken by [consensus] [a three-fourths majority of the Parties present and voting][.] [;]

    3. [(c)

      for decisions under paragraph 3 of Article 4 and paragraphs 1, 3 or 4 of Article 11 of the Convention, which shall be taken by consensus.]

  2. 1.

    Alternative B

    Decisions on matters of substance shall be taken by consensus, except that decisions on financial matters shall be taken by a two-thirds majority vote.

  3. 2.

    Decisions of the Conference of the Parties on matters of procedure shall be taken by a majority vote of the Parties present and voting [, except that adoption of a motion or proposal to close or limit debate or the list of speakers shall require a two-thirds majority vote of the Parties present and voting].

  4. 3.

    If the question arises as to whether a matter is one of a procedural or substantive nature, the President shall rule on the question. An appeal against this ruling shall be put to the vote immediately, and the President’s ruling shall stand unless overruled by a majority of the Parties present and voting.

  5. 4.

    If, on matters other than elections, a vote is equally divided, a second vote shall be taken. If this vote is also equally divided, the proposal shall be regarded as rejected.

  6. 5.

    For the purposes of this rule, the phrase “Parties present and voting” means Parties present at the meeting at which voting takes place and casting an affirmative or negative vote. Parties abstaining from voting shall be considered as not voting.]

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Kemp, L. Framework for the future? Exploring the possibility of majority voting in the climate negotiations. Int Environ Agreements 16, 757–779 (2016).

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  • Climate policy
  • Majority voting
  • Consensus
  • International governance
  • Climate regime
  • MEA