Long UN Process Left Big Decisions for Paris Climate Talks

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By Eric J. Lyman

Nov. 27 — A six-year process to craft the world's first global climate agreement will come to a head when United Nations talks get under way Nov. 30 in Paris. But after years of work, almost all of the most crucial decisions have been left for two weeks of negotiations in the French capital.

The current process began in 2010, in the wake of the high-profile Copenhagen summit that collapsed without a significant agreement. Since then, the UN has hosted 24 formal multilateral negotiating sessions—Paris will be the sixth this year—alongside dozens of specialized meetings and countless bilateral talks and informal ministerial discussions.

The result so far is a 55-page negotiating text that still contains 1,500 sets of brackets that indicate contentious language. Each one will require delegates from nearly 200 countries to strike a compromise.

Nearly every hotly contested section of what advocates hope will become the Paris agreement remains undecided. Among the most prickly topics to be dealt with in Paris are:

  •  the legal form of the deal (whether the agreement or part of it will be legally binding);
  •  a mechanism to lower individual national emissions goals once the agreement enters into force in 2020, including a timetable;
  • whether the agreement will include specific monetary goals to help poorer countries adapt to climate change and pay for damages from climate change, and what those goals will be;
  • a long-term goal for emissions reductions or energy production in 2050, or even later;
  • how to fairly account for the historical responsibility for emissions from individual nations;
  • how to independently monitor and verify national claims related to emissions reductions and other actions to confront climate change;
  • an agreement on terms for the free or low-cost transfer of environmentally friendly technologies to poor and developing countries, and guidelines for increasing the resiliency of those countries;
  • guidelines for land-use issues, including the protection of carbon-absorbing forests and low-emissions agriculture;
  • the terms required, such as the number of countries that must ratify it, in order for the agreement to enter into force.
‘Major Turning Point.'

“The Paris summit has the potential to be a transformational moment,” said Jennifer Morgan from the World Resources Institute. “But success will require developed and developing countries to build on momentum [and] step out of their comfort zones to forge new alliances early on.”

Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate & Energy Solutions, agreed: “The kind of agreement we outline would be a major turning point in the global climate effort, and it's within reach,” he said.

The Paris talks will seek to succeed where countries failed in Copenhagen in 2009.

There are some similarities between the two summits in northern European capitals:

  • both are attracting worldwide attention, including at the head-of-state level (with 119 on hand, Copenhagen was the largest political gathering of heads of state outside UN headquarters in New York; Paris is expected to top that);
  • both will have started with a oversize negotiating text that must be dramatically reduced by the end of the summit;
  • and both will get under way during a period of slow economic growth that will make it difficult for countries to take on significant financial obligations.

But veterans of the negotiating process also point out some key differences: Even if it is three to four times its expected final length, the Paris negotiating text as it stands is still much shorter and better focused than the text in hand before the Copenhagen talks started.

The worldwide economic crisis in 2015 is less acute than it was in 2009.

And, most important, experts say, the relative failure of the negotiations in Copenhagen is still fresh in everyone's mind to act as an incentive.

Atmosphere ‘Vastly Different.'

“The current atmosphere is vastly different than it was six years ago in the run-up to Copenhagen,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 25-year veteran of the climate negotiating process.

“Public awareness and concern about climate change impacts is mounting,” Meyer said. “Energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions are increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, leaders from developed and developing nations are demanding action, and the world's two largest economies and carbon emitters—the U.S. and China—are working in cooperation on climate and energy policies. It's almost certain that a climate agreement will be reached in Paris, but how effective it will be has yet to be determined.”

The effectiveness of the agreement is the key issue, according to key observers.

“The chances that we come out of Paris with no agreement at all is very slim,” one senior UN official told Bloomberg BNA, asking not to be further identified. “The worst-case scenario is that the agreement delays agreement on certain difficult decisions until 2016 or 2017, or that in some areas the agreed-to text represents the lowest common denominator. Delegations must show a willingness to come up with strong compromises, and from a certain perspective that is very worrying because we have not seen that in any of the negotiating sessions leading up to Paris.”

‘No Backup Plan.'

Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister and president of the Paris talks, said he is confident that spirit of compromise will emerge.

Fabius pointed to the Nov. 8–10 ministerial consultations in Paris, which he said helped to identify some keys areas of consensus along with the fact that the heads of state and government who will attend the talks will come at the beginning rather than at the end of the summit, meaning they can make high-level decisions and give firsthand instructions to their delegations.

But the biggest factor, Fabius said, is that countries know there is no alternative.

“Countries know Paris is our only realistic chance,” Fabius said. “There is no backup plan.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric J. Lyman in Paris at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com