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Paris COP21: Amid Optimism, Key
Issues Remain on Negotiating Table

By Fred Pearce

08 Dec 2015

"How many years have we been discussing?" mused U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a press conference on Monday. "Talking, talking all the time." Maybe by the end of the week the talking will be over.

Ban is optimistic that climate diplomats will conjure an agreement. It won't be perfect, he said. The pledges on the table here in Paris may be enough to halt warming at three degrees Celsius, but not the

Delegates in Paris work on the draft text of the proposed climate agreement.
declared aim of two degrees, he agreed. "But we are not living in a world of perfection."

The centerpieces of a deal are the 180 national emissions pledges for the period up to 2030, which were submitted ahead of the conference. What is at issue now are the rules for their implementation, including funding of pledges from poor nations, and whether a procedure can be agreed upon for upgrading them later to give the world a chance of meeting its two-degree target.

To do all that, the ministers who took over from their officials as the conference entered its final week on Monday are considering a 48-page draft text that contains numerous square brackets, which denote alternative options and text yet to be agreed on.

The national emissions pledges are a mixed bag. They range from precise commitments to the terrifyingly vague, such as promises to reduce emissions below some undefined business-as-usual figure. Many also contain promises that depend on international financial support.

On Monday, Ban said he expected the final deal to include a review of emissions targets every five years to determine how they are playing out and to allow for increasingly ambitious goals that could secure the two-degree target. The first "stock-taking" should be before 2020, he said.

That is a bottom line for NGOs. "We believe the technology will advance and allow stronger targets. So a review will ratchet up ambition," said John Coaguyt, climate campaign director for the Sierra Club. "Don't measure the Paris agreement by its targets, but by its ability to leverage more with time," agreed Duncan Marsh of The Nature Conservancy.

But on Tuesday concern was growing that this vital review mechanism could be lost. India's environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, told a press briefing that his country had a 10-year review process, and it wasn't about to change track. There is "still a debate" about the review process, said Laurent Fabius, the conference chair and French foreign minister.

Another key expectation for environmental campaigners here is the declaration of a long-term goal beyond the formal expiry of the agreement in 2030. Some want language about decarbonizing the world economy. The European Union has proposed a target of a 50 percent cut in global emissions by 2050.

And there is growing support for the inclusion of a target of returning temperatures to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, even if that target were to be exceeded for a while. Once an outlier ambition of small island states at risk of sinking beneath the waves, it is now a mainstream demand. "The politics has changed very quickly on this," said Coaguyt.

How serious nations are about actually achieving 1.5 degrees is another matter, however. It would require an immediate end to all new coal projects, say analysts such as Bill Hare of Climate Analytics.

Environmental campaigners now accept that national pledges at the heart of the Paris agreement will not be legally binding. Alex Hanafi of the Environmental Defense Fund explained that "non-binding commitments can lead to wider participation and greater ambition." In the case of the United States, they also avoid the need for Congressional agreement.

But voluntary promises make it vital that progress can be measured. "A solid legal foundation for reporting and review is critical," said Hanafi. European Union climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete agreed: "Without clear rules we can't monitor progress. We need to make sure the numbers can be added up."

The current draft text contains glaring loopholes on reporting, said Hanafi. In particular it would allow double counting of emissions cuts. For instance, when rich nations engage in bilateral deals to fund emissions reductions in poor countries, both nations could claim the cuts towards their own emissions targets.

Money always counts as much as carbon at climate conferences. Here in Paris, rich nations have angered the developing world by appearing to backtrack on their previous promises to provide $100 billion before 2020 in "climate finance" to poor nations, and much more thereafter. The money is both for investing in low-carbon energy and adapting to climate change.

Both the U.S. and EU have begun demanding that richer countries still officially classified as "developing" – such as Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar – should contribute as well. "We are saying the world has changed a lot. Every country in a position to do so should support those who need it," said the EU’s Arias Canete.

That brought an angry reaction from China, India, Brazil and South Africa, who called a joint press conference on Tuesday to reject the plan. "Developed countries must implement their obligations for $100 billion up to 2020," said China's veteran negotiator Xie Zhenhau. Others, including China, could make voluntary contributions, but they would be additional. "They are the haves and we are the have nots," said India’s Javadekar.

Similarly, there is growing anger about how the "carbon finance" has so far been spent. A study by the OECD, widely quoted here, found that the great majority has gone to renewable energy projects, which attract private-sector finance. Only 16 per cent has gone on helping countries adapt to climate change, which is much less commercially attractive. Africa nations vulnerable to climate change are insisting on guaranteed adaptation cash before they accept a deal.

The negotiations are getting tough now. But even environmentalists here are caught up in the pervading optimism that advances in renewable energy technologies make their ultimate triumph over fossil fuels inevitable. "We are increasingly hopeful of an end to fossil fuels," said Greenpeace policy consultant Ruth Davis. A strong deal here will push that technology forward faster, she said. But if governments fall short, she added, then negotiators risk "playing catch-up with technological development."

Fred Pearce, a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K., is on assignment in Paris for Yale Environment 360 and will be reporting regularly throughout the climate conference.

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