Why were the COP21 negotiations in Paris so tough?

From Paris

The Paris Agreement (full text here), adopted on December 12, 2015, was negotiated with a fear of failure looming over the delegates throughout the two-week conference. It was a difficult process with many setbacks.

The conference went on extended time until Saturday evening. The final three days were carried out almost entirely in closed meetings. Negotiators, together with the French Presidency and the UNFCCC Secretariat, worked indefatigably round the clock.

As the details of what went on in closed sessions are transpiring, it becomes clear that aspects of the draft text were being disputed until the end. According to sources, some countries were stating that they still had problems with the text as late as ten minutes before all gave their consent.

Why was it so tough?

There were many difficult issues to be resolved at Le Bourget. One of them was the question of differentiation of responsibilities.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which came into force in 1994 after being adopted in 1992, embraces a principled differentiation of responsibilities between countries depending of level of development and economic circumstances. Since the new agreement was being negotiated “under the Convention,” it had to be consistent with this principle. For the Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the Paris Agreement, differentiation meant a binary model. It imposed targets on developed countries, on the basis that it is their responsibility to address climate change. But circumstances have changed since then. Some of the major developing economies are now major emitters, and the ambition required to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius would require their participation. Moreover, developing countries make up a highly heterogeneous group, making the binary approach to differentiation too inert to work effectively.

Moreover, whereas previously the international climate effort was focused exclusively on mitigation (reduction of greenhouse gas emissions), in Paris the negotiation process was concerned with much more than that. The issues that needed to be settled in a coordinated fashion, were (a) agreeing on ambitious mitigation efforts, (b) putting in place a basis for adaptation efforts to climate impacts, (c) developing an international climate finance mechanism.

In many respects, then, COP21 was a struggle to update the architecture of the global climate effort to new realities.

This struggle can be traced back to COP17 held in Durban in 2011. The negotiation process that started in 2011, called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, leading up to Paris in 2015, was launched with the goal of starting anew and updating the terms of the global climate effort. It was designed around the idea of reaching an agreement that is to be universal, where every country would make its contribution to the best of its abilities.

The Paris talks started on a rocky path, as there was little convergence on what to make of the principle of “differentiation” and how to understand equity, a core issue in the UNFCCC.

It was clear that differentiation of responsibilities could not go on with a simplistic binary model. It had to be much more nuanced. Developing countries form a heterogeneous group, with wildly varying development and emission levels. This implied that differentiation had to also apply among developing countries (rather than strictly between developed and developing countries).

Many found the broad idea of a more nuanced “differentiation” plausible, but they found it difficult to find common ground on what this might imply in practice. Disagreements persisted, as some developing countries were simply not persuaded. They argued that the draft text is “unbalanced” and does not reflect the spirit of the Convention, as late as the last day. Many developing countries did not appreciate any option other than a binary differentiation. This was in part because the binary differentiation made it possible to articulate “historical responsibilities.” To many, departure from this amounted to a watering down of the commitment to equity. A subgroup vehemently argued that the idea of a “more nuanced” differentiation of responsibilities is but a pretext for developed countries to do less and put pressure on developing countries to do more.

In the end the final text adopts differentiation. And with it, it is consistent with UNFCCC’s mandate. But it also adheres to the Durban Platform’s mandate, through carefully worded language. The text adopts “common but differentiated responsibilities, in light of different national circumstances.” With this, the global climate effort moves away from rigid differentiation. It converges on a long-term path of cooperation with a nuanced and malleable conception of differentiation where ambition is to be gradually raised. This is one of the successes of Paris.

The French Presidency’s role

It took a lot of courage and determination from the French Presidency to carry out the conference to its conclusion. A sense of uncertainty was felt until the last minute. In his address to the Parties, around midday on Saturday, Laurent Fabius, French Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of COP21, made a moving statement.  If we do not succeed, he stressed, it is the very credibility of multilateralism that would be in doubt.  Our children and grandchildren would not understand why we could not make it, and they certainly won’t forgive us.

The success of Paris can be summed up in several of its features. It sets the path to keep the global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius. Parties agreed to make an effort to keep it at 1.5 degrees. This is an ambitious aim. The period between now and 2020 is critical. Not just ambition, but high ambition is needed to put the world on track for a temperature limit well below 2 degrees, let alone 1.5. What Paris does is that it puts the world on an unprecented path to work cooperatively toward this goal.

The French Presidency’s rigour and elegance can hardly be exaggerated. The host country did everything to create the best conditions for working together on principles of transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability. Everyone’s voice was heard. Everything was done so that no party felt excluded.  And everyone worked extremely hard. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, said in her closing speech that COP21 was “the most tightly run COP ever in its history.”

What COP21 showed was that procedures are as important as substance. And the principles governing the structure of institutions play as much role for their success, as the soundness of the substantive decisions made therein. This is not new. What makes it new is its occurrence at an international level.

To read the daily updates I have been writing, please see my blog at York University (here). My Policy Options posts can be found here.

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