COP21: Getting what we came for

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Nations gather to discuss a 1.5°C target at COP21 (Photo: Mark Dixon)

(Paris) We’re one week into the two-week COP21 climate negotiations summit and I can report that COP21 seems very similar to previous COPs, only bigger and more stylish. And more heavily guarded.

Furthermore, I suspect that everybody who came here with a preexisting expectation of what they would get out of it is probably getting exactly that out of it. In other words, while we certainly have have a city-wide, globally impacting, “World Cup of Climate”-scale convergence right now in Paris, I’m not seeing much in the way of breakthroughs, sea changes, or particularly unexpected circumstances. If you expected to see nations defend their self interest at the expense of the common good, you are seeing that. If you planned to see nations coming together in unprecedented ways for the common good, you’re seeing that. If you expected the agreement under consideration to be sufficient or insufficient, you’ll probably get that. If you feel that capitalism and/or technology are or are not up to the task of solving the problem, nothing here will change your mind. I’ve never attended anything so simultaneously over and underwhelming all at the same time! Let’s dig into some of the under/overwhelming highlights of the last few days…

Early Procedural Drama

I arrived in Paris with some cautious optimism that this time, THIS time, when it really really mattered, at the very last possible second, nations would set aside a little bit of self-interest for the sake of the common good. There aren’t clear signals to me about whether or not that is happening. (I wish I could get inside the negotiating back rooms!) One of the first points of “drama” at the conference was when Saudi Arabia blocked the inclusion (in the draft agreement) of a reference to a U.N. study on the impacts of choosing a 1.5°C warming limit vs. a 2°C limit (above pre-industrial levels)(more about that here). Despite the existence of a major cohort of nations (including the United States) seeking language referencing 1.5°C in the agreement (not as a goal, I believe, but just as a “reference”–possibly for more serious consideration in future COPs), the consensus nature of the proceedings makes it difficult to put it in if one country–like Saudi Arabia–doesn’t want it in. That said, the latest version (Dec. 5) of the draft COP21 agreement offers the following clause:

To hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 1.5 °C] [or] [well below 2 °C] above preindustrial levels by ensuring deep reductions in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions;

That means that nations are only considering options of “below 1.5°C” and “well below 2°C,” which I read as very good news (though I have no idea how nations will accomplish it). I’m not sure how Saudi Arabia feels about these options, but it is a bit of a mystery to my why the blockage of a reference was such a drama point if 1.5°C is still explicitly referenced as a potential goal. I’m still learning the nuance of this COP dance…

Long-Term Goals

This is another section that caught my attention in the latest draft agreement. Nations are apparently considering language referencing a long-term goal decarbonization goal in a variety of different ways, including an annual percent reduction per year, zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060-2080, or more generalized language pointing to the same. Which will it be? I have no idea, but I like that they’re even considering a %/year goal. Here’s the language in the official draft agreement:

[Parties [collectively][cooperatively] aim to reach the global temperature goal referred to in Article 2 through: (a) [A peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible[, recognizing that peaking requires deeper cuts of emissions of developed countries and will be longer for developing countries]] (b) [Rapid reductions thereafter [in accordance with best available science] to at least a X [-Y] per cent reduction in global [greenhouse gas emissions][CO2[e]] compared to 20XX levels by 2050]]; (c) [Achieving zero global GHG emissions by 2060-2080] (d) [A long-term low emissions transformation] [toward [climate neutrality][decarbonization] [over the course of this century] [as soon as possible after mid-century]; (e) [Equitable distribution of a global carbon budget based on historical responsibilities and [climate] justice]

Ratchet Mechanism

One interesting feature that appears to be making its way into this COP21 agreement is a ratchet mechanism that requires nations to only improve their commitments at each review point (likely to be every 5 years). While 5 years is a bit slow for my preference, if a ratchet mechanism can make it into the agreement AND be legally binding, that will be a significant signal to businesses around the world that this is really happening. Indeed, the “ratchet” could be one of the most important features of this agreement. Note the language in the latest draft:

Each Party’s successive ### [shall][should][will] represent a progression beyond the Party’s previous efforts and reflect its highest possible ambition

That said, a ratchet mechanism without sufficient transparency is difficult to enforce. Here’s a snippet that is trying to address that:

…all Parties shall provide the information necessary for the clarity, transparency and understanding…

That same language is also referenced in another section a bit differently:

In tracking progress towards achievement of their ###, Parties shall apply the principles of transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability, consistency, avoidance of double counting, and environmental integrity, as further elaborated in…

From what I’ve heard around here, people are particularly concerned about transparency with respect to China’s reporting. Accuracy with China’s reporting is quite possibly more important than any other nation on earth, and China hasn’t exactly had the best track record in this regard.

Human Rights

The draft agreement also references quite an array of human rights and progressive-sounding ideas that I’m surprised to see make it this far into a consensus-based agreement involving so many nations. Take a look:

Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration [human rights,][the rights of people under occupation,] vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional, indigenous peoples knowledge and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate.

You’d think that people who knew to use this kind of language in any document would also understand the how closely they’re flirting with disaster embodied by the other terms of the agreement–particularly the non-binding 2°C limit on warming. We shall see…

Those are my reflections for now, on this relatively quiet Monday in Paris. There underwhelmingly remains an overwhelming number (basically infinite) of opportunities for linguistic loopholes to get into the final agreement. I suspect that many will stay, a few will go, and we’ll get some kind of well-ground climate agreement sausage at the end of it all.

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Even the Eiffel Tower is dressed up for COP21! (Photo: Mark Dixon)

(By the way, this past weekend I discovered a bakery around the corner from my apartment that is apparently very highly regarded even by French standards, so I celebrated by having an eclair. It was so good that I had another one today. Tomorrow I’ll brave the croissant. I know. I’m having such a tough time out here. I expect tomorrow to also be relatively quiet, and then things should heat up again between Wednesday and Friday when world leaders supposedly return to finalize the COP21 agreement and release it to the world. Stay tuned, and send questions as you have them!)


Still getting information about this, but it appears that Canada has just endorsed a 1.5°C goal for COP21. That’s pretty big news, and fits into the rare category of a “surprise” at COP21. The U.S. has simply endorsed the inclusion of a verbal reference to 1.5°C, while Canada actually wants it to be the goal. We’ll see if other nations follow suit… Here’s the link.





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