COP21 Week 1: Managing to Agree On What It Is We Don’t Agree Upon

COP21 rolls into its second week, and with this transition there comes a rollover of personnel as well. The first week of the process is traditionally a week for the party negotiators to debate, discuss, (fight), and iron out the fundamental discrepancies in the initial draft agreement—the proposed changes and amendments for a new draft text were submitted at the weekend for review. We now start the second week where the negotiators are largely replaced by party/nation ministers to fine-tune the remaining disagreements in the text, and try to come to some finalisation on the overall agreement. The plan is for the final text to be signed and ratified by Saturday. It might seem a bit like the classic case of the negotiators doing all the nitty-gritty legwork and the ministers sneaking in at the last minute to claim the glory of getting us there. That, however, would be a great underestimation of the work still to do in the second week of this process.

Just how much needs to be discussed, agreed and finalised over the coming few days if we’re to reach an effective deal by the end of the week? Rather than making you dig around in agreement proposals and legal documents, I’ve tried to put a rough figure on it through some [very dodgy] legwork. In the drafting process, the UN use a bracketing system—where a decision, wording or argument is contested (and therefore undecided), it’s placed in square brackets “[]”. The goal for the two-week process is therefore to reach agreement on each of these disputes and rather quickly remove these brackets from the text. At the end of the two weeks, the hope is that we’re left with a clean, bracket-free agreement.

At the end of week one, the resubmitted and reworked draft agreement was 20 pages long (the full draft text totalled up to 48 pages). At this stage in Copenhagen in 2009, the text was 300 pages long—is it really so surprising that we left that process will little to show for it? So, I decided to do a rough word count estimation of just how much of this text remains bracketed and needs to be negotiated in this “finalising week”. The word count for the full draft agreement came out at almost 12,000 words. When I sifted through and removed all the non-bracketed text (i.e. all the wording we’ve agreed on), the amount of bracketed text left was roughly 6,300. In other words, more than 50% of the agreement is still in dispute despite only a matter of days left to reach a deal. That sounds like a bit more than “finalising” to me.

Of course my coarse estimation based on word count is rather flawed—the number of words is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the scale and time needed to address each of these issues. Some matters will be more contentious than others and takes days to reach consensus (if at all), while others should be a much quicker discussion. Large topics of disagreement, for example, include those surrounding the role of developing nations in climate finance, the inclusion of loss and damage compensations, and the re-evaluation of the 2C target. Some of the more trivial disputes are ones you would only surely see in the fineprint of a legal or political agreement—who knew that debate over the word choice of “should/shall/will” could create such division?

Nonetheless it does bring attention to the fact that, despite the public optimism from the UNFCCC that we’re making significant headway (which we are, but rather slowly), it’s clear that this week remains a race against the clock to have anything settled by the end of the conference.

What happens now to try to accelerate this process? From Monday to Wednesday, the ministers and remaining delegates breakout into discussion groups; each is focused on a different section of the text (e.g. “loss and damage”, “climate finance”, “adaptation”). The hope is that with more focused discussion and role delegation, each section can be renegotiated and another version of the draft text submitted by Wednesday. Each party will then review this “final draft”, kick up some last minute brawls, and try to iron out any remaining contentions. If all goes to plan, by Friday we should have a final agreement for parties to sign and ratify on Saturday.

In today’s plenary session, a number of parties raised the concern that submission of a final draft text on Wednesday was too late if remaining issues are to be agreed by Friday. It remains to be seen whether the French and UNFCCC hosts will decided to bring this date forward.

With more than half of the text still bracketed at the start of the week, it seems unlikely that a robust resubmission will be ready prior to Wednesday. To make matters worse, I just skimmed the fine-print: “Proposals which oppose the inclusion of certain provisions in the Agreement or the Decision do not figure in this text. This is on the understanding that the inclusion of a provision is without prejudice to the views of Parties that may not support the elaboration of any such provision at all. Language that is not bracketed is not necessarily agreed.”

At least the hosts were wise enough to fill the conference centre with cafes and coffee counters; I suspect many will have a week of sleep-deprived nights ahead.

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