Despite the dysfunctional international process and the imperfect national promises and the arguments over detail, the Paris agreement setting solid expectations for the world to limit temperature rise gives even a cynic cause for optimism
No superlative was left unused as the French president FranÃ§ois Hollande, the foreign minister Laurent Fabius and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon lined up on Saturday to maximise pressure on negotiators in Paris to accept the final draft of the climate agreement.
They would be making history, it was a moment of truth, it would go down as a major date in the history of mankind, there would never be another chance, the future of the world, quite literally, depended upon the decision they were about to make that moment. And then they broke for lunch. The meeting was in France, after all.
Well-fed, and aware that the deal was already being hailed around the world, despite not yet being actually done, the negotiators did reconvene later in the day.
But then even as everyone had started celebrating the agreement almost fell apart.
Somehow, the word should had been replaced with shall in a crucial part of the text, which created the possibility of a legal obligation and a very big problem for the Americans, who may then have had to take the agreement to Congress, where it would be defeated.
The French proposed that the text simply be corrected, but some other delegates saw an opportunity first African countries sought some compensatory last-minute changes but were persuaded by a number of countries, including China to desist. Then Nicaraguan negotiator Paul Oquist tried to get some concessions as well, and persisted. An hour ticked by.
Eventually as things became desperate and ministers had been waiting in the room for 90 minutes not knowing the reason for the delay both Cuban president Raul Castro and US secretary of state John Kerry were enlisted to call Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega to ask him to get his climate negotiator to stand down, according to a senior source.
And then finally it was done, with whooping and jubilation and hugs all round.
It was the final step in a delicate diplomatic dance the French had played for a week to ease the negotiating blocs towards agreement and break down divisions that had atrophied over years a second draft that built political capital in the developing world by leaning options their way, a third that tweaked some clauses back towards what the rich nations wanted and then after several all-night negotiations the moment, when the text was presented and adopted.
But was it really so historic? What did it really achieve? Two weeks at the climate summit were a wild ride between cynicism and the final realisation that there were reasons to be optimistic, despite the dysfunctionality of it all. And not just because of good lunches.
It is stuffy in the small packed room at the Paris climate summit where former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is delivering a speech about the green economy. Hes now the chair of the Global Green Growth Institute. He mentions planting four billion trees in the past four years. He doesnt mention his country still has one of the highest rates of rainforest deforestation in the world or the recent peatland fires that produced greenhouse emissions equivalent to the entire United States.
Australias foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, is speaking now. She talks about the profound economic changes as the world moves away from fossil fuels, then slips in the apparently obligatory Australian-politics rider about fossil fuels also being around for a long time and helping alleviate poverty. She also mentions yet again that Australia will meet and beat its climate targets. She does not mention that Australias total emissions are rising.
As she draws to a close, music starts up nearby. The Paris summit is actually 11km from the centre of Paris, an 18 hectare temporary tent city built around a former airport. The room is in a hangar, its thin plywood walls doing little to filter the strains of Songs of Freedom. The minister raises her voice to compete with Bob Marley.
Its moments like these that the blah blah of these climate summits becomes almost overwhelming. Endless scripted statements about doing the right thing by our children and saving the planet and the need for ambitious action blend into a wall of meaningless noise.
Delegates trudge past youth protesters doing street theatre or interpretive dance with barely a glance. A giant polar bear roars periodically. Sean Paul sings a toe-curlingly bad song called Love Song to the Earth. Ban Ki-moon walks past. Every morning cheerful people give everyone entering apples and chocolate. Days slide by.
At the same time, in the backrooms and the conference halls the actual negotiators reprise the same arguments theyve been having for the past 23 years that are all about maximising their domestic political interests and doing little.
The disconnect seems cavernous.
Island states and low-lying climate vulnerable countries like the Marshall Islands, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Vietnam run an unexpectedly effective campaign to change the goal of the agreement from limiting global warming at 2C to bringing it back to less than 1.5C. They assemble powerful supporters, including the United States, the European Union, Germany, France, Brazil and eventually Australia. President Obama spent some of his two days in Paris meeting with island state leaders and calls himself an island boy. The young activists paint 1.5C on their faces and sing songs about it in the streets.
In the end it all boils down to an agreed purpose in the Paris deal to hold global temperature increases to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit (them) to 1.5C, recognising that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change.
The need for a new goal is obvious, especially from the low-lying states point of view. Two degrees, according to Michiel Schaeffer of Climate Analytics, would deliver destructive sea level rises, threaten the existence of many islands and cause enormous dislocation in the low-lying states. (It would also devastate the Great Barrier Reef.)
But the greenhouse gas reduction promises made by 187 countries in Paris even if they are kept (and thats a very big if) would result in warming of between 2.7 and 3.5C. Almost 1C of warming is already locked in. To get to 1.5C most scientists think the world would have to suck back greenhouse emissions already in the atmosphere, using processes that remain uncertain.
And while negotiators and campaigners plead for a goal that appears unattainable, it is not until very late in the process the second all-night meeting (called an indaba, using a zulu word apparently because a previous meeting was held in Durban) that the fight gets down to the rules under which countries account for, report and review what they actually will do to achieve the emission reductions they have promised.
This seems surprising, since these rules are the only real teeth this agreement has, because the targets themselves have to sit outside the legally binding part of the document (so the deal doesnt have to go to the US Congress where it would inevitably be scuppered) and the implementing rules contain no sanctions. The whole idea of this thing is that peer pressure holds countries to account and builds the trust that means they agree to deeper cuts over time.
Its doubly surprising since some of the individual country promises are what campaigners politely described as patchy. Saudi Arabia, for example, has promised to reduce emissions by a specific amount each year, so long as the Paris agreement doesnt hurt its capacity to export oil. If it does and that is surely part of the point of the exercise the Saudis say they will have to contribute less. (They spend most of the week trying to block pretty much everything anyway). Other promises are conditional on countries getting money.
Many developing countries are determined to cling to a principle called differentiation enshrined in the 1992 climate convention agreed in Rio de Janeiro. It was conceived to recognise the fact that the industrialisation of rich countries was then responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and it wasnt reasonable to suggest poor countries forgo industrialisation to deal with the problem. But China is now the worlds largest greenhouse emitter. India is the fourth largest.
A new agreement can promise financial help to poor countries to cope with locked-in climate change, it can put different expectations of the extent of emission reductions different countries can deliver, and it can recognise that many of them just arent able to do comprehensive emission calculations. But in the view of countries like the United States and Australia, it must set the expectation that China and India and big developing emitters will properly account for their greenhouse gases. This is what they call a red line, a dealbreaker.
The issue is discussed for hours. International negotiators appear to require superhuman levels of patience, as well as the ability to withstand a process designed to wear them down through the sustained deprivation of sleep. In the end they find an acceptable compromise.
The agreement also established a system to review each countrys emissions every five years and conduct regular global stocktakes of the targets and also the finance being provided. Those, like Australia and India, which have promised reductions by 2030, will be requested to do a 2020 review.
India has made it very clear it is likely to decline the request. Its formal pledge says things like our ancient text says; Keep pure! For the Earth is our mother! And we are her children! and that the ancient Indian practice of yoga, for example, is a system that is aimed at balancing contentment and worldly desires, that helps pursue a path of moderation and a sustainable lifestyle.
It includes actual plans, according to an assessment by Carbon Tracker, to lock in another generation of coal-fired power stations and emissions growing to five thousand million tonnes of CO2 by 2030, even though India also has plans for its renewable sector which is set to grow almost twice as fast as its coal-fired electricity generation.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, the gap between fully implementing all the Paris promises and actually keeping global warming even to 2C is between 12 and 14 thousand million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Comparing that reality with the political support for limiting warming to 1.5C makes the whole singing, dancing, roaring, sleepless circus seem pointless.
But then a series of coffee shop conversations challenge my cynics take on the conference.
Im talking to Howard Bamsey, who Ive encountered at many of these events he was Australias lead negotiator in Kyoto in 1997 when the protocol was agreed as well as the special envoy on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009. He says hes been to 18 or 19 of these conferences of the parties or COPs hes lost count. Hes an academic now and has always been a details man, not someone to get carried away by the speeches and the singing.
And despite everything, hes optimistic.
Ive had this impression growing on me all week. When this process started governments were all important, whether they moved or not was the whole story. Here governments are only part of the picture. When we went to side events by business or environment groups 15 or 20 years ago it was all about the good ideas they might be able to do if they had the right policies. Now its about what they have already done, he says.
I think back to the start of the conference. There was this thing called the Lima Paris Action Agenda where hundreds of businesses and thousands of regions and cities made promises to cut emissions that streamed into my email inbox in a torrent.
Mondelz International promised US$400mn to support the production of sustainable cocoa with zero net deforestation in Africa; Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom announced theyd provide $5bn by 2020 if forest countries demonstrated measured, reported and verified emission reductions; 20 investor groups, representing US$3.2tr, committing to decarbonisation of US$600bn in assets, 114 big companies promised to reduce emissions including Ikea, Coca-Cola, Dell, General Mills, Kelloggs, NRG Energy, Procter & Gamble, Sony and Walmart.
Clive Hamilton is the former head of the Australia Institute. He was also in Kyoto, in fact he was the one who did the quick calculations there to show Australia had pulled a swifty with the so-called Australia Clause which meant it knew it had already met its Kyoto target even before it was made because it could count land clearing that had already stopped in the state of Queensland.
He wrote on the Conversation website that for him the most surprising revelation here at the Paris climate conference has been the astonishing shift in the world of investors over the past 12 months. There is now unprecedented momentum towards participating in the transition to a low-carbon economy, and the view at the big end of the conference is that a strong agreement will provide an extra shove. Its unstoppable now.
Its not that investors and chief executives have had an ethical epiphany about climate change; its just that they can see where the world is headed, and it makes sense to be part of it rather than being stuck in the economy of the 20th century.
Even the reporting issue the need to shine a light on what governments are doing might be to an extent taken out of the hands of governments and the detailed requirements of this agreement, because private groups like Climate Tracker and the World Resources Institute are doing their own calculations and increasingly governments have nowhere to hide.
John Niles teaches greenhouse gas accounting at the not-for-profit Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. In Paris he launched an international partnership with similar trainers around the world called the Carbon Institute. Theyll educate a generation of greenhouse gas accountants who can do the work in every country the Paris agreement demands. And if countries cant or dont report properly, or try to hide what they are really doing, Niles says the same accounting skills can reveal the truth anyway.
Of course we can check on governments, he says. Satellites can check CO2 in the atmosphere … they can measure the size of a forest and take multidimensional pictures … they can create a pretty good picture of what a country is doing, he says.
When you look at Paris as an expression of global will, a final piece of evidence for business about where the world is heading, a turbo-charge for investment decisions that are already starting, then the whole kerfuffle about the 1.5C target also makes sense.
It sends a signal, it creates a clear sense of direction, or urgency, says one veteran negotiator, who asks not to be named. Without it the take-out message might have been about the ins and outs of exactly what each country was doing and when they would do it. This points to where the world needs to be going and where it intends to go and that signal is unambiguous.
Bamsey concedes the national promises are very, very patchy. But he also says concentrating just on the detail of the reporting and the reviews misses the point.
Some developed countries still think of reporting as a way of checking up because you dont want people getting away with anything, but that is really a reflection of the old thinking of climate change as a burden. Most governments understand it is in their national interest to do more … what used to be seen as free riding, getting away with not acting, now is seen as economic suicide.
Im finding it impossible not to be optimistic because it feels like we have reached a tipping point, like this shift has become unstoppable, he says looking back on a lifetime of COPs like a parent assessing a wayward child whos somehow turned out OK despite everything.
And when the agreement is final reached, that is exactly what business is saying.
Nigel Topping, from a coalition called We Mean Business, calls it an historic economic catalyst.
Michael Jacobs, senior adviser for the New Climate Economy project, says the long-term goals in the agreement send investors the clearest sign that the world was on an irreversible and irrevocable downward trend in emissions.
So I leave thinking the Paris agreement for the first time setting expectations for all nations and for the world might just be a strong enough signal to give real momentum towards slowing global warming despite the dysfunctional international process and the imperfect national promises and the arguments over detail that will continue interminably at such conferences.
Thats a cynical optimists view of this extraordinary Paris summit.
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