The experience at COP21 has taught me a lot—there are some aspects where classroom and textbook learning are no substitute for practical experience—not least how to behave as a politician (should I ever need to call on it). A few years ago, I probably would have despaired at the whole drawn-out negotiating process. Back then I was almost exclusively from a science background; the climate change issue was a purely technical one, we knew it was happening, so why were we not doing our utmost to address it? The last few years through my Master’s progamme, and various avenues of sustainability consultancy and writing work, I’ve added a reasonable grounding in business, economic and political perspectives to this science base. In fact, I’ve come to accept that climate change is hardly a technical challenge at all—the economic and political hurdles are the real determinants. Thankfully the despair I would have previously felt has subsided to amusement and curiosity.
Still, even this progression didn’t quite prepare me for just how slow the negotiating process would be. Today (Wednesday), after much deliberation, the French hosts released the revised final draft agreement text. There has been significant progress since the previous version—the draft agreement was cut from 21 pages down to 14 (the full text was cut from 43 down to 29 pages), and the number of bracketed, disputed aspects has been reduced by 75% from the first draft. The issue is that those sections still to be agreed (primarily differentiation, finance, loss and damage, and level of ambition) are central and core to the whole agreement. They represent not merely a difference in wording or phrasing, but a strict divide in underlying principles. Bridging these differences will require severe compromise from some parties.
Following the release of the final draft text, the UNFCCC President announced a five hour recess for parties to study the text, carry out further consultations and bring their reflections back to the evening plenary session. Now this is where I really learned how to be a politician at one of these events. You see, it appears to be almost compulsory to structure your speech in the following way:
- spend several minutes thanking the French Presidency for their arrangement of the meeting, their great facilitation, the way the process has been structured, the other parties for their consultation so far;
- remark that this text is a “good starting point” (it’s reassuring we’ve managed to reach the starting line on the penultimate day);
- state the other groups of nations whose opinions they align with;
- highlight the various remaining issues they have with the text [this occurs with variation in levels of composure and rage depending on the personnel];
- close the speech by reassuring the Presidency that they have the nation’s utmost support in reaching an agreement.
Shrouding the core disputes in a cloak of politeness makes it hard to fully discern how far we are from reaching a compromise. It makes me ponder whether this is part of the reason we’ve reached such a late stage with so much still unresolved. Is there such a thing—sorry Mum—as being too polite? When dealing with complex issues requiring compromise, does it inevitably lead to the situation where the core differences bubble over at the last hurdle?
It’s also interesting to note the dynamics of these plenary meetings. There are no requirements for any nation to speak; speakers are given the floor upon request. It’s notable that the richest developed countries have been eerily absent from speaking up. Typically a representative from the EU and Umbrella group (non-EU developed countries) will speak on their behalf, but contributions from individual developed nations have been virtually non-existent. Are ministers from nations such as the US, Canada, UK even there? In contrast, representatives from developing nations are becoming increasingly desperate to push for some adequate form of climate justice for their populations by Friday. As strongly stated from the Barbados minister: “We will not sign off any agreement that represents a certain extinction of our people.” Perhaps this hard-hitting reality is the reason for such hush from rich nations. We’ve been shamed into silence.
It’s rather hard to see how the magnitude of the issues still under debate can be resolved (in a way that still leaves a sufficiently ambitious and fair deal) in the time we have left before Friday. Many nations called out the text on its lack of balance. However, the Malaysian minister summed it up well in one of the rare moments of humour: “Mr President, I have to disagree—it seems your text is very well balanced; everyone seems unhappy with it”.
Compromise, nonetheless, has to be reached somewhere. Ministers and delegates have pledged to work through the night to get us there. If we have only just reached the “starting point”, then this past 20-year marathon process has quickly evolved into a last-dash sprint. We’ll most certainly need a Usain Bolt performance to get us over the line in time.