COP21: How 193 countries came to a “historical turning point” in the fight against climate change

“History will remember this day,” said Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, moments after a green, leaf-shaped gavel was dropped on the most ambitious, far-reaching deal on addressing climate change that the world has ever seen.  

Less than a month after Paris endured a collection of terror attacks that showed the deep divisions in our world, the city instead played host to a grand demonstration of global unity. The deal commits the 193 countries of the United Nations to limiting global temperature rises by cutting emissions and sharing funds to help poor countries transform their economies.

“The Paris Agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people,” Ki-moon said, praising the deal as “ambitious, credible, flexible and durable”. The French hosts of the conference described it as a “historical turning point” that could dramatically reshape global society.cop21_obama_addresses_delegates

Reaching that agreement was by no means a foregone conclusion. For 20 years, the countries of the world have struggled to come up with a political solution to the threats posed by climate change, while the scientific community has repeatedly clarified and re-clarified those threats. The last major attempt to put together an agreement — in Copenhagen in 2009 — was de-railed by leaks of proposed texts, bickering between developed and developing countries and an openly-obstructive China. It was widely regarded as a failure.

COP21: What a difference six years makes

This time around, participants were determined that things would be different. Negotiators have met every year since with the objective of identifying major points of agreement and disagreement to focus the 13 days due to be spent forming the treaty. That methodical groundwork was crucial to the final outcome. But it wasn’t the only aspect that marked the Paris conference apart from the disaster in Copenhagen six years beforehand.

Some countries came to the table this time with significantly different attitudes. China, in particular, has performed a dramatic U-turn since Xi Jinping took over from his predecessor as premier, Wen Jiabao. In 2009, Jiabao’s goal, according to observers, seemed to be to humiliate the newly-elected Barack Obama by refusing any kind of a deal. This time, however, China came into the room with a wholly different position – thanks in large part to Obama himself. The US has been working for several years to improve relations with China, culminating in a bilateral agreement in November 2014. Getting the world’s two largest emitters to agree to shoulder the burden together was a vital bit of groundwork leading to the success of the treaty.al_gore_cop21

But China wasn’t alone in arriving with a new perspective on climate change. Two major western nations also have had a change in leadership since 2009 that benefited the negotiations. Canada’s Steven Harper, who repeatedly refused to prioritise climate change while in power, has been replaced by Justin Trudeau – who called the Paris talks a historic opportunity to transition to a low-carbon economy. In Australia, it was looking like the country would send a representative of Tony Abbott – who in 2009 described climate science as “crap” – to the talks. But mere months ago he was booted out of office by Malcolm Turnbull, who despite being from the same political party has historically sounded a much more concerned tone on the impact of climate change.

This global attitude shift meant that when the leaders of 150 nations arrived at the conference on the first day of the talks, a real sense of optimism floated through the halls.

Things felt different this time, somehow. Naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, who was attending as an observer, told the Guardian: “I get the sensation that there is going to be some development.”

Every voice heard

The UN climate talks have always been structured so that the voices of the smallest countries are given equal weight to those of the largest. That’s unusual in modern diplomacy, which is normally carried out in invite-only organisations like the G7, G20, and OECD. For any agreement to last, it’s crucial that it’s accepted by every country in the world, no matter the size. That’s why the first day of the Paris talks was taken up with speeches from world leaders big and small.cop21_made_history_how_it_happened

“Climate change,” said Perry Christie, the prime minister of the Bahamas, “threatens the very existence of the Bahamas as we know it”. Sweden’s Stefan Löfven promised “substantial funds” for poorer countries, promising to enter into an “ambitious, durable and fair agreement”. The UK’s David Cameron asked: “What would we tell our grandchildren if we fail to agree on a deal?”, while Iran’s Masoumeh Ebtekar linked climate change to war and terrorism, quoting the Qu’ran: “Give just weight – do not skimp in the balance.”

India’s Narendara Modi announced a global alliance of 120 countries committed to the large-scale expansion of solar power, while Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, promised major investment in renewables despite the country contributing just 0.1% of global emissions. Russia’s Vladimir Putin called climate change “one of the gravest challenges that humanity is facing”, while Baron Waqa, from Nauru – the UN’s smallest nation state, said there was a choice ahead for delegates. “We can pay in human misery,” he said, “Or pay investing in a more equitable, resilient and sustainable future.”

The speeches went on and on, but on the sidelines the wheels had already begun to turn. Barack Obama met privately with China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi and a number of representatives of the least developed countries. French president François Hollande, who was hosting the talks, spent time chatting to developing world participants, while Germany’s Angela Merkel secured a pledge from Putin that Russia wouldn’t prevent a deal.cop21_as_it_happened_header

Diplomatic discourse

These discussions continued throughout the first week, with the French organising various types of meeting to resolve differences that came up. “Confessionals” were meetings with French diplomats where delegates could speak frankly with privacy assured. The oddly-named “informal informals” were sessions in which delegates would try and address specific areas of disagreement in the draft text, often conducted in corridors.

But the most successful meetings were modelled after a Zulu tradition called the “indaba“. This negotiation tactic is designed to allow every party to voice their opinion, but still quickly arrive at a consensus. Instead of repeating previously-stated positions, participants are encouraged to state “red lines” – thresholds that they don’t want to cross – as well as proposing solutions to find common ground. “It is a very effective way to streamline negotiations and bridge differences,” one West African diplomat told the Guardian. “It has the advantage of being participatory yet fair.”

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