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The final countdown: Paris talks overrun but a climate deal is within reach

Pulling an all-nighter as the climate talks enter their final frenetic hours.

The UN climate summit is due to reach an agreement on Saturday afternoon, Paris time. By this stage of the ill-fated Copenhagen summit six years ago, the wheels were already coming off. People had started to panic. The grand dream - laughably ambitious in retrospect - was evaporating.

Paris is different. The mood is fairly upbeat, and someone (French foreign minister Laurent Fabius) is in charge. A solid deal which will help avoid dangerous global warming is within reach. The earnest, tired negotiators can almost taste it. They are working through the night – in fact several nights, because the summit will now run over – to land it.

A disaster of Copenhagen proportions is unlikely now. But nor is it possible that the summit can clinch a deal to cap global warming at 2°C, or 1.5°C (both targets are featured in the latest draft text, released late on Thursday evening). There’s one thing all 196 countries at these talks do agree on, and that’s that they’re not yet ready to commit themselves to the deep national cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are required. Climate change always has been someone else’s problem.

At this point I could talk about UN processes, about texts and brackets and articles, but I’ll spare you the full horrors of the UN bureaucracy.

The two most likely options are: first, a fairly strong deal which charts a course towards avoiding dangerous levels of global warming. The idea is that deal would be ratcheted up over time. It would cement quite strong ambition on addressing climate change, with more hard work to come.

Option B is a weaker deal which settles for more modest ambition. It would let countries off the hook on their emissions, and it would not feasibly map out a course to keep global warming to 2°C or 1.5°C. Option B would not be without value; it would help lay out some of the global architecture to reduce emissions and it would be more ambitious than what came before. But it would confirm what many already suspect – that the UN cannot solve climate change. Under the UN system, 196 countries have to agree on every word of this deal. And those countries include oil producers, coal exporters, countries with parliaments loaded with climate sceptics, and desperately poor countries with more immediate problems to fix. Is it any wonder that 23 years of these summits have produced so little?

At this stage the issues that will determine whether the Paris deal ends up being option A or option B are how ambitious the deal is on cutting emissions and the language used on that; how the deal strikes a balance between developed and developing countries; and whether richer countries put enough money on the table to help poorer countries.

Plenty of people at the utilitarian Le Bourget conference centre in outer Paris will tell you which way the deal is heading, but the truth is at this stage no one knows - not even the leaders of the United States, China and India, who may make a decision over a phone call on Friday night or Saturday morning.

Wherever the Paris deal falls, however, it will only be part of the story on planet earth’s future climate. Sure, the media loves a big summit with celebrities (of whom there have been plenty here). But what’s becoming increasingly clear is that what matters is what’s done by federal, state and local governments, by businesses, by board members, by entrepreneurs, and by ordinary people from Beijing to Bhopal to Broome.

This post was originally published on the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute’s COP21 blog.

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