COP21: the half-way mark
7 Dec 2015|


The half-way mark in a marathon is always a testy time. So too is the mid-way point of the Paris climate negotiations.

The speeches by 150 heads of state on the opening day of the conference were intended to inject some early momentum into the negotiations. Yet as soon as the formal negotiations began, the parties climbed back into their well-worn trenches and progress became painfully slow.

The plan, and hope, was that the negotiators would whittle down the hefty draft text of the ‘Paris Agreement’ into a shorter and relatively cleaner text for the ministers to finalise by the end of the second week.

By Saturday—the handover date—the text was only a little shorter and not much cleaner. Many sections were a jumble of bracketed text and alternative options that reflect deep disagreement among many parties and negotiating blocs.

It’s also been a struggle for everyone to follow the negotiations in the first week. There are around 20,000 official delegates and 10,000 accredited observers secured inside the Le Bourget conference site. All but the plenary sessions have been closed to observers. Even parties with large delegations have found it difficult to stay abreast, with up to 150 sets of negotiations (including spin off groups and bilateral and informal negotiations) taking place at any one time.

Nonetheless, the hot button issues are plain to see. Those include the temperature target and the long-term goal of the agreement, the review mechanism, transparency and accountability, and above all, the crucial cross-cutting issues of differentiation and climate finance.

The most vulnerable parties are desperately fighting for a temperature target of no more than 1.5 degrees. That’s resisted by many major economies and especially Saudi Arabia.

There’s no consensus yet on whether the long-term goal should be decarbonisation (rejected by fossil fuel states), zero global emissions, net zero global emissions, carbon neutrality or a long-term low emissions transformation—to name only some of the bracketed options.

Nor is it clear whether a specific date or time period for achieving this long-term goal can be agreed. Options include 2050, 2060–80, end of the century, or as soon as possible after mid-century.

The review mechanism debate revolves around whether and how the 188 ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) that have been submitted by the parties for the post-2020 period should be reviewed, and whether subsequent contributions in the ongoing cycles of commitment must represent forward progression or simply just not go backwards. The latter would fail to generate the dynamism to drive a rapid ratcheting-up of ambition to hold warming to below two degrees (let alone 1.5 degrees).

The key division in the debate over transparency in mitigation action and support turns on how much flexibility should be accorded to developing and least developed countries. The US and EU want the transparency and accountability rules to apply to all parties while many developing countries reject a one-size-fits-all approach.

Cutting across and infusing all of these debates are the crucial issues of differentiation and climate finance.

Developing countries have continued to point out that developed countries haven’t fulfilled their obligation to lead in mitigation under the 1992 Convention or to provide adequate finance and other support to developing countries, which was promised in the Copenhagen Accord in 2009.

In response, many developed countries point out that the world has change since 1992 and the old binary between developed and developing countries, as reflected in the annexes to the 1992 Convention, are now well and truly outdated.

As a consequence, the draft language on finance is a sea of brackets and the multiple references to differentiation throughout the text are heavily bracketed.

The US and China have made it clear that they are strongly committed to reaching a deal. However, there are 194 other parties that must also consent to this agreement.

The problem is that the hyper-flexible approach favoured by the G2 doesn’t provide the more climate vulnerable parties with the assurances they need to ensure their continuing existence. Saudi Arabia has also been playing its usual blocking game by rejecting proposals designed to strengthen climate protection.

Sorting out these and many other differences will require major compromises. A commitment to scale up climate finance and other support (technology transfer and capacity building) by developed countries (and possibly some major developing countries) will certainly help to unlock many, if not all, of these differences.

Without this support, many developed countries won’t have the means to pursue a clean energy pathway and adapt to the warming that’s already locked in. They also argue that they are entitled to this support given their pressing development needs and the fact that many in this large and diverse bloc are the least responsible for emissions and the least capable of adapting to a dangerously warmer world.

The irony is that the lower the ambition and dynamism of the Paris agreement, the greater pressure major donor countries will face to scale up climate finance and other support to vulnerable countries for mitigation, adaptation and, increasingly, unavoidable loss and damage. If they don’t pay now, they’ll be called upon to pay a great deal more as time goes by.

The French President of the conference, Laurent Fabius, has made it clear that he is committed to an orderly process of negotiations that respects the rules of procedure to avoid any derailments of the kind that plagued the Copenhagen negotiations.

The negotiations in the second week of COP21 will be conducted in a single setting to ensure transparency for parties and observers, with smaller group negotiations over contentious issues reporting back on a regular basis.

The conference President and his diplomatic team will have to draw on all of their skills and political capital, along with a little bit of wizardry, to orchestrate an acceptable text at the end of the week if an agreement is to be adopted by all 196 parties in the closing plenary.