Into the last few laps for COP21 – Three battles within the climate agreement

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With less than 48 hours to go in the United Nations’ climate negotiations, you’d think we’d have some idea of what shape the global agreement on climate might look like, but the Pareto principle seems to apply to COP21: It takes 80% of the effort to complete the last 20%. They’ve whittled down the text considerably but the core messages remain unclear.

In simple terms, the three most contentious issues that have yet to be resolved in the Paris climate agreement are:


I was hopeful when I saw that the early draft text at COP21 had a new temperature goal of keeping the world’s warming 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial temperature. All previous UN conferences were aiming for 2⁰C, despite evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and calls from developing countries that they couldn’t survive a 2⁰ world.

The 1.5⁰C temperature goal may sound ambitious, but without a clear target on how to get there it’s just a number, and it’s a number that is practically impossible to achieve given our lack of action to date and based on the intended emissions reduction plans that nations put forward in advance of COP. Based on their proposed contributions, even staying below 2.7⁰C will be difficult, and the latest draft sets 1.5⁰C only as an aspirational goal.

For an agreement to be ambitious, it needs both a strong, safe temperature goal and clear path to get there. Some countries (e.g. Maldives) are calling for such a level of ambition, but others are content to keep the language vague and leave any method of achieving a temperature goal out of the text. The latest draft (Dec 10) calls for greenhouse gases to peak “as soon as possible”, which is simply not ambitious enough to stop us from reaching 2⁰C.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has always held that countries may have different responsibilities and capabilities to address climate change. That used to be determined by placing them in either the Annex 1 (developed countries) or Annex 2 (developing countries) lists and exempting Annex 2 countries from reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, but developing countries now account for around 55% of emissions so exempting them from emission reductions is no longer an option if we want to solve climate change. Nicholas Stern argues that we have to place developing countries on a spectrum of responsibility rather than a category, acknowledging that poorer countries can’t be expected to make the same level of changes that emerging powers do. It’s still unclear how negotiators will tackle the critical issue of differentiation.


Six words that are repeatedly mentioned around the halls of COP are: “It all comes down to finance”. Money rules the world, and the COP seems to be no different. Moving to a low-carbon or fossil free society costs money for initial investments in infrastructure, and dealing with the impacts of climate change costs even more! Either way, developing countries in particular need support to get off fossil fuels and support to deal with the damage caused by climate change. That damage is caused by developed countries who burned fossil fuels to become affluent. The climate agreement needs a mechanism to ensure developed countries finance developing countries to both cope with climate change and transition to successful low carbon economies.


The divide between developed and developing countries always becomes more pronounced as climate negotiations come to a close. The French Presidency has tried to reduce this conflict by structuring these negotiations differently from previous conferences. The next 24 hours will determine if their approach has been successful, but so far, language in the draft agreements seems to be getting more and more vague and “fluffy” as a means of keeping negotiators happy, but what of the rest of us?

For now, it’s a late good night from an apprehensive COP21 delegate…


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Climate Change