A huge piece of street art with the words “Fluctuat nec mergitur” – Paris’ official motto since 1853 – has just appeared on a building near the city’s Canal Saint Martin. It refers to a ship at sea and translates as “tossed but not sunk”. The slogan is cropping up around the city as a sign of resistance to the recent terror attacks. But it is perhaps also a comment on the Paris climate negotiations.
The Paris Conference of the Parties (COP) aims to land a deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2020. Progress during this first week has been grindingly slow. Nevertheless, the initial 54-page document has been whittled down to a slightly more focused 48-page text, now handed to the COP president Laurent Fabius.
The new draft, released on Saturday, is still dense with contested phrases and bracketed options and landmines of coded language, both substantive and tactical. These will be the focus of this week’s high-level negotiations as ministers arrive for the second half of the summit.
Mind the gaps
The cluster of issues being considered include collective ambition on climate mitigation and adaptation, the level and nature of climate finance, technology transfer and capacity building, and processes for measuring and reviewing progress.
It is hard to predict where the final deal might land, but at this stage negotiators are struggling to bridge two critical gaps – a mitigation gap and a climate finance gap.
Deeply entrenched positions over which countries should do what, how much, and when, have dominated these negotiations. Longstanding disputes between developed and developing countries over the equitable sharing of responsibility and effort for mitigation, and who should bear the costs of mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, stand in the way of bridging either gap.
The mitigation gap lies between the current level of global fossil fuel use and the much lesser amount required to keep global warming below 1.5℃ or 2℃ – the two goals being considered here in Paris.
Before the conference began, 184 states declared their voluntary climate pledges (called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs), which represent their mitigation (and in many cases also adaptation) targets for 2030.
Those arriving in Paris knew that these voluntary pledges would lead to warming of at least 2.7℃. Yet this COP has no forum or process to address this failure, and to pressure states to increase their efforts immediately.
Three elements are the focus of mitigation effort at this COP. The first is the goal of the agreement. The draft text includes both “below 1.5℃” and “well below 2℃” among its options. But there is strong opposition by some major developed and developing states to the tougher and safer 1.5℃ goal.
This week China and India used this target as a bargaining chip for additional financial support, arguing that without adequate resourcing from the developed world, a 1.5℃ goal places an unreasonable economic burden on them and other poor countries.
Ultimately, the position is self-defeating: the greater the warming, the greater the costs of adaptation and loss and damage in these countries and everywhere else.
By contrast, some 120 “climate vulnerable” parties – poor, low-lying countries and island states whose very existence is threatened by global warming – have hinted at their opposition to any agreement which fails to contain a tough temperature target.
Aiming for zero
The second element relates to the long-term goal, variously expressed as “zero net emissions”, “climate neutrality”, or “decarbonisation”, and with various suggested deadlines for peaking emissions, such as 2050, 2060-80, or “as soon as possible after mid-century”. Notably, “zero net emissions” and “climate neutrality” permit a range of climate engineering solutions rather than requiring an absolute reduction in emissions. They are therefore favoured by fossil fuel-dependent developed countries and Saudia Arabia.
Last, there is the question of reviewing targets and actions – which raises questions about when these reviews should happen, and how vigorous, rigorous and transparent they will be.
Then there’s the finance gap. Finance for mitigation and adaptation is a make-or-break issue at these negotiations, which goes to the heart of concerns about equitable effort and differentiation between rich and poor parties.
As the heavily bracketed text of Article 6 in the draft text shows, it is also the one on which the least progress has been made and over which tensions and lack of trust are highest.
The G77 nations – a wide alliance currently led by South Africa – are demanding developed countries convert their aggregate pledge of US$100 billion per year by 2020 into a minimum offer. They also want commitments of post-2020 funding for the Green Climate Fund. There are signs of movement here but without significant further support from developed countries next week, an agreement may fail to materialise.
COP has witnessed notable new and positive developments in this space. Just before the conference began, China pledged some US$3 billion in finance for other nations in the “global South” - for which it was warmly thanked by many developing states in the opening plenary session.
Fluctuat nec mergitur?
Failures of trust between parties have undone previous COPs. Transparency is critical but ensuring that while maintaining momentum is a challenge when 20,000 delegates representing 195 states are hunting for solutions in a forest of concerns.
More than 150 formal and informal negotiating groups met during the first week, often simultaneously. Logistical complexity taxed the capacities of even the largest negotiating teams and slowed the consideration of cross-cutting issues. It made tracking developments determined in rooms closed to all but official delegates even harder for civil society observers.
Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC’s dynamic executive secretary, has promised that next week’s talks will proceed in a single unified forum. This cumbersome format will have its own challenges, as is evident whenever the mass of states come together in a plenary.
At the same time, it is hard to discern where leadership is coming from at this COP. Neither the United States and China, nor the European Union nor any of the other major developing states – India, Brazil and South Africa - has been prominent so far. One senses that a weak deal suits the United States and China - they have already announced what they intend to do.
The good news is that, apart from some curmudgeonly outbursts and filibustering on Friday, a surprisingly cooperative tone prevails – a marked contrast to the ebbing of enthusiasm and the rise of dark energies that rose to cripple other COPs by this stage of proceedings.
What will come of all this tossing on the waves? Global emissions must peak by no later than 2030 if we are to have any chance of holding warming below 2℃, let alone closer to 1.5℃.
At its halfway point, this conference is not heading towards a strong agreement that will deliver that sort of mitigation effort now or in the next five or even ten years. If this is where it ends, many will question the value of continuing with these negotiations and others will sink below the waves.