COP21: How 193 countries came to a “historical turning point” in the fight against climate change
With so many meetings taking place, often simultaneously, the smallest countries struggled to attend them all. To fix that, a group of small island states led by Tony de Brum from the Marshall Islands formed a “high ambition coalition” with the EU, which could then negotiate together with an agreed common interest. By the end of the conference, the coalition had been joined by the United States, Australia and Canada, and Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete claimed it as a key factor in the final agreement.
916 areas of disagreement
With these tools, a draft agreement began to take shape. By the end of the first week, analytics tracker ParisAgreement.org reported that the document was 25,325 words with 916 sets of square brackets that denoted areas of disagreement.
One revolved around the target – nations of the world had previously committed to limiting the average temperature increase across the planet to 2C, but many smaller island nations wanted a more audacious goal – limiting warming to 1.5C. With the world already having experienced 1C of temperature rise, that was always going to be a tough ask – particularly for China and India. So the final text included an ambitious pledge to “pursue efforts” to limit the rise to 1.5C while guaranteeing it would stay “well below” 2C.
Another issue was over climate finance – funds provided by richer nations to poorer countries to help decarbonise their economies. Rich nations ended up promising $100 billion a year from 2020, but there was widespread disagreement over how much should be grants as opposed to loans, and what the money should be spent on. In the end, the deal fudged the issue somewhat, saying that countries “intend to continue their existing collective goal” until 2025, at which time a new goal will be set. Expect to see this one crop up at future climate talks.
In past climate agreements a line was drawn between richer and poorer nations, but that line has faded over time with the growth of China and India, who insist they should still fall within the “developing” category, responsible for less action. This was addressed, according to the BBC, with a wonderful acronym – CBDRRCILDNC, which stands for Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, In the Light of Different National Circumstances. Translated, it means that the line is still intact for now but will fade rapidly with time. Over the coming decades, more countries will take on greater emissions cuts.
The issue of holding countries to those cuts, however, was trickier. Emissions reductions promised at the conference will still mean 2.7C of warming – far above the agreed target. To fix this, pledges will be reviewed in 2019 and countries will have to endure a “global stocktake” of all emissions in 2023 and every five years thereafter. Two years after each stocktake, new pledges will be made.
All countries promised to peak their emissions “as soon as possible”, with total decarbonisation at some point between 2050 and 2100. Scientists say this must happen by 2070 at the latest. Unfortunately, none of the pledges made at the conference are legally binding – a necessity so that the United States could avoid putting the treaty to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. The UN is hoping that peer pressure will instead keep countries on track, despite a lack of penalties for missing targets.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock surrounded the words “loss and damage”. Smaller nations saw this as a question of whether they should get special aid when hit by climate-related disasters, but richer nations saw it a question of compensation for historical emissions. This was another red line for the United States – it refused to be made liable for past actions. In the end, the US compromised by accepting relatively strong language on “loss and damage” while including a statement that none of that language would provide a basis for any liability or compensation.
The home stretch
As you might imagine, resolving all of that was no easy task. UN chief Ban Ki-moon called the talks the “most complicated and difficult” that he had ever been involved in. On the Saturday, in the hours between the final meetings closing and the draft treaty being announced, many negotiators took advantage of a 20-bed dormitory that the French had set up in a room nearby to catch up on days of missed sleep. Journalists started to use phrases like “home stretch”.
Eventually, at 5.30pm, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius – who had led the talks and played a pivotal role in building the consensus – asked the delegates to assemble in the hall. They filed in, took their seats, and waited. And waited. And waited. A few small technical problems in the final draft agreement were being ironed out – including a legal issue over the difference between “should” and “shall”. Just as they were resolved, disaster struck.
According tothe Financial Times, the delegation from the Central American state of Nicaragua suddenly decided the text wasn’t ambitious enough and wanted to address the conference. Fearing derailment, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban President Raúl Castro (an unlikely combination of allies just six months beforehand) teamed up to delay the Nicaraguan speech while Fabius clambered up to the stage. Wielding his green, leaf-shaped gavel he spoke as quickly as he could. “I am looking at the room, I see the reaction is positive, the Paris climate accord is accepted!” he said. The hall erupted in cheers, which rippled out in waves across the city – starting at the huge screens outside the venue and quickly reaching a huge crowd below the Eiffel Tower. History had been made.
COP21: Historic deal or empty words?
Or had it? Critics say that a sleep-deprived group of negotiators coming to agreement doesn’t mean promises will be fulfilled and emissions curtailed. That the grandstanding of world leaders who didn’t want to be left out of a good party may mean little when it comes to changes in domestic policy. And they might have a point. In Britain, despite Cameron’s stirring words on the opening days of the conference, the government is axing subsidies for renewable energy, energetically pursuing fossil-fuel extraction and ditching investment in carbon-capture-and-storage technology. Leading scientists say that the UK no longer has a role in global climate leadership.
Yet, even if the Paris Agreement is just ‘gesture politics’, gestures are important. The talks were the last chance for the UN process on resolving climate change, and their success means that it will continue. Plus, the mandate provided by a consensus of almost every nation in the world will make it very hard for opponents of climate action to get their arguments heard.
What’s more, the deal represents – for the first time in many years – the entire world speaking with one voice. The Paris agreement is a victory – not just for the environment, but for global cooperation, peace and goodwill. Long may it stand.
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Images: UNClimateChange, used under Creative Commons