Mid-way report: #COP21 moves to historic Paris accord

A COP update is tricky at mid-point. It reminds me of days gone by when my British ex-partner and I visited his dad in Derby. When they returned from a day at the village cricket match, I asked, “Who won?”

“Oh,” said father in law in thick midlands accent, “it’s not over yet.”

A tad nonplussed, I asked, “Who’s winning?”

“It’s too soon to tell…”

The opening day was a departure from UN process. Rather than have world leaders come at the end to sign a deal, 150 presidents and prime ministers spoke one after the other at the beginning of this 2-week session, speaking in bold terms of the need for action. Obama, Putin, Xi Jiping, Merkel, Trudeau resonated to the same clarion call to make climate history in Paris.

The idea that having world leaders kick us off with a bout of high-minded rhetoric would actually change negotiating positions…. well, nice idea, but no cigar.

I have been for several years sticking with the negotiations on one part of text for a new agreement. It is in UN-lingo an “open-ended contact group,” the Ad HoC Working Group on the Durban Platform for ‎Enhanced Action.. It’s just known as ADP and it is the guts of the treaty.

We started on Tuesday with a 54 page draft treaty – itself the product of four years of negotiation ever since the Durban meeting, COP17. By Friday morning, after three days of mind-numbing line by line review, we had a new draft of 34 pages. However, not one word of it is agreed. Square brackets – indicating no agreement – bracket the entire document, while hundreds more are found around individual paragraphs, sentences and subclauses. Even a single letter was bracketed — the “S” at the end of “indigenous peoples.”

Well-meaning folks from all over send me ideas – “make sure you point out that we should not eat meat” ” “make sure nuclear energy is not in the text.” etc.

But this is not that kind of conference. The agreement has no context about how we reduce emissions. It is an agreement to set up a global, shared approach to advance details about the pace at which we reduce emissions and the relative role of every nation. ‎ If we achieve a good result, the text will create a system within which the level of commitment to cut GHG will be ramped up over time. Ideally, it will be a treaty that sets the right long-term goal by 2050 with 5 year review points.

So what is the appropriate long-term goal? Is it to be essentially off fossil fuels by 2050 – expressed as “decarbonization of our energy systems”? Is it a goal expressed as temperature – expressed as staying below 2 degrees C global average temperature increase above temperatures before the Industrial Revolution? Or a safer level, staying at or below 1.5 degrees?

The context for this is found in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change‎ (UNFCCC) – the over-arching treaty within which these talks are organized. Under the UNFCCC, Canada (and all countries on earth) committed to avoid allowing the levels of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere from becoming “dangerous.” Arguably we have crossed that line already – dangerous droughts, dangerous extreme storms, dangerous sea level rise and so on. Scientists have warned politicians for years that emissions need to come down. But is there a “red line”? A threshold that must not be crossed? A point of no return before we trigger massive, catastrophic levels of climate crisis?

For years, the danger point has been pegged at 1.5 to 2 degrees global average temperature increase. Since 2009 in Copenhagen, the goal has been to avoid 2 degrees, and maybe 1.5 danger line.

As of this moment, the accumulated pledges from 150 countries, even if all promises are met, are woefully short of what is required. That is not in dispute. It is accepted by all. The current promises do not avoid 2 degrees. At the high end of the range of estimates, they are nearly twice that, at 3.7 degrees.

So what can the Paris conference achieve?  If we were to assume that the treaty puts in concrete the weak pledges the UN has received to date, it would be a disaster.  It would be an agreement to commit the world to levels of climate change that would put the survival of human civilization in doubt.

What the negotiations are trying to accomplish is the opposite.  Recognizing that the approach of large promises that must be achieved after decades is a recipe for catastrophe, the agreement is an attempt to set up a system for frequent reviews to press each time for deeper emission reductions, more help with adaptation, more financing for the developing world and great sharing of new technologies to move the whole world off fossil fuels.  This is referred to as the “architecture” of the agreement.  Ratcheting up the pledges every five years in a legally binding agreement.

And it matters that we choose the right long-term goal – holding levels of warming to below or to no more than 1.5 degrees C.

Week one has wrapped up – amazingly – on schedule.  The new draft text (even with all its square brackets) forms the basis for negotiations at the political level – between ministers of governments.  There is a lot of hope in the room, but the developing world rightly insists that industrialized countries, the wealthy, not transfer this problem to the poor.  The dividing line now is equity. The solution is climate justice.  We must arrive at an agreement that fully recognizes human rights, indigenous peoples, and that ensures climate action be grounded in solidarity.

This treaty must be about more than climate. It must set all nations on a path to a fairer world.

Originally published in NOW Magazine.