The Final Countdown at COP21

Yesterday I alluded to the notion that we’d need a Usain Bolt class of performance to reach an effective deal by Friday. We’ve almost made it. A strong push out of the blocks, and a day of sustained running has pushed us further towards sealing an agreeable outcome. The atmosphere here reminds me of Bolt’s 100m world record race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics: 30m from the finishing line and some have already started celebrating. Things are still progressing (because issues remain), but there’s a definite sense that the inertia and build-up is going to push us over the line.

The mood at COP21 had a feel of tension and restlessness today. In a desperate attempt to iron out differences, the day was filled with bilateral and multilateral meetings behind-the-scenes. With delays and cancellations to planned plenaries and the release of the final draft outcome, most were very much left in the dark as to how these meetings were going. Pretty well was the answer, when at 9pm, the President Fabius Laurent finally released the final Paris draft outcome (I’m sure I’ve used the phrase “final draft” on several occasions already—this is the last time, I promise).

This draft outcome has been cut again, now down to 27 pages; the number of bracketed (disagreed) aspects has been slashed to around 50 (down from 900 or so at the beginning of the week). Compromises are obviously being reached as middle-grounds begin to feature in the text.

One of the most significant decisions is the re-adjustment of the previous target to limit warming to 2C. Calls for increasing this level of ambition to 1.5C warming have been a persistent, core element of the Paris talks; led by the small-island states and least-developed countries who fear the consequences of a warming beyond this limit, more than 100 countries have joined the push for increasing ambition. Not everyone was on board, however, with some emerging economies fearing this could impinge on their future development and mobility. Thankfully this divide has not led to a collapse in the deal with both compromising to reach a middle ground. The latest version mandates that temperature rise must be kept “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”. This wording is sufficiently ambiguous that I’d say we’re still aiming for what we were before: keeping temperature rise below 2C, with 1.5C as an added bonus if we can manage. But let’s not reignite a discussion which has finally been closed, and put the stone back over that one.

Everyone has different sections of the text they’re most heavily invested in, whether that be finance, loss and damage, adaptation, mitigation—each tracks the minute changes and amendments in their area of interest, ultimately missing the details in others. I’ve been closely following the section titled “entry into force” which prescribes how many countries need to sign on to the deal for it to come into force. The developments have been interesting: earlier drafts prescribed not only the number of countries that had to be involved, but also the percentage of global emissions they had to cover. This latter requirement was strangely removed in the prior draft version with the only requirement being “50 to 60 countries”. This was absurd. It would be very easy to form a deal with 50-60 developing nations, covering only a few percent of global emissions. What purpose would that serve? Thankfully a mandate for a sufficient percentage of emissions has been reinstated. It’s now required that [55] countries sign, covering [55][70] percent of global emissions [note the square brackets meaning this is not yet agreed]. It surely has to be the higher of these two options—55% of global emissions is far too low.

It’s amusing to step back occasionally and observe how the conference would appear to someone not so heavily involved in the process; building excitement every time it’s announced that a new draft is to be released; mad schoolchildren-esque stampedes to get a copy. Maybe analogous to the negotiation process, compromise is a tall order when it comes to getting your hands on one. Absurd, of course, to anyone from the outside—they are, after all, just words on paper. Important words, nonetheless, but still just drafted agreements. The COP21 experience is very much a carbon bubble (and in this case, I’m not referring to unburnable carbon or stranded assets).

The side events have been a welcome semi-transition back into the outside world. The side events feature programmes of sessions, panels, discussions primarily focused on related aspects beyond the Paris agreement. Covering topics such as agriculture, technology, finance, mobility, development (and many more), the discussion moves away from the deal itself towards how we’re going to put it into practice. The deal is the overarching guiding principle, but what ultimately matters is how we make it happen, and what happens on the ground. These sessions have been an interesting insight for me, and I’ll probably cover some of their discussions in post-Paris blog posts.

But as we move into the final day of negotiations, eyes are diverted from the academics, engineers, NGOs, business leaders back towards the ministers and delegates. To their credit, these negotiators have been working tirelessly through the nights over the last few days to make this deal happen. We’re getting there, but there’s still some issues to be resolved. We’re at that crucial moment when Usain Bolt dropped his arms to his sides and punched his chest in celebration 10-20m from the finish line; most still believed that he was going to win, but there was always a sliver of chance that he’d rejoiced too soon. Let’s not let complacency get in the way of this unique and crucial opportunity.


One thought on “The Final Countdown at COP21

  1. Pingback: What Do You Mean “We Don’t Have a Paris Agreement”? | convergence

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