Paris climate talks: pressure mounts on countries to produce working text

Fiona Harvey in Paris The Guardian 4 Dec 15;

Delegates from 195 countries at climate change talks in Paris are under pressure to produce a working text of a deal by Friday, exposing sticking points and fault lines nearly halfway through the UN negotiations.

Developed countries, along with the French hosts and the UN, were mostly optimistic about signing a deal in advance of the landmark summit.

World leaders met on the first day, an unprecedented gathering of the heads of state and government of 150 countries, pledging their commitment to a legal outcome that would reaffirm the world’s collective action on greenhouse gas emissions.

Developed countries – or most of them – came to the Paris climate change conference with a few clear priorities. They wanted to validate the emissions targets made by nearly all of the world’s governments; prove to developing countries that the flows of finance, mostly from the private sector, would be sufficient for the assistance they need; and ensure that the mechanisms for review, transparency, and accountability in meeting the emissions targets are sound.

On the emissions targets, the omens were good. Nearly every country, developed and developing, produced a national plan – known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) – on curbing their emissions beyond 2020, when current commitments, agreed at Copenhagen in 2009, run out.

Although rich countries have been criticised for not doing enough to keep global emissions below the levels likely to lead to dangerous climate change, they were fortified by analyses of the INDCs that the “emissions gap” could be met, with additional contributions from “non-state actors” such as cities, regional governments and businesses.

In addition, they were proposing a mechanism of five-yearly reviews at which commitments could be ratcheted up, which would enable the target of limiting temperature rises to 2C to be met in future years.

However, while the principle of five-yearly reviews was widely regarded as a useful and workable innovation, some countries have raised concerns. These include China, India, Middle Eastern countries and some of Latin America.

For these countries, a five-year “stock take”, at which progress on targets could be discussed, is the preferred option. They argue that, as most have 2030 targets, these should be allowed to stand. But for countries such as the US, which has offered a 2025 target, a five-year review would be appropriate.

Developed countries are resistant, still asking for a full review process rather than a mere stock take. “It’s about having a level playing field,” one delegate told the Guardian. “That’s an important principle.”

Another said: “We don’t want to lock in modest ambition [by dropping five-year reviews].”

This issue, along with the mechanisms for reporting and verifying that emissions reductions have truly been made, could yet provoke more controversy in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the talks.

On finance, reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Resources Institute have suggested that climate finance is flowing to the poor at levels needed to meet the Copenhagen pledge of $100bn a year by 2020. Most of this is likely to come from the private sector, but rich country governments and international development banks, such as the World Bank, have fortified the prospects with raised pledges on finance, such as the UK’s promise of £5.8bn over this parliament.

Critics say some of this money is being taken from other development aid budgets. The finance issue is likely to continue to be wrangled over into the closing days of the talks, as developing countries seek further assurances.

Developed countries are holding firm on another controversial matter: loss and damage. This, according to the rich nations, is the principle that poor countries struck by disasters of climate-related extreme weather should receive special assistance, and they will commit to that.

However, for some poor nations and NGOs, loss and damage is interpreted as being compensation owed to the developing world from the industrialised countries that have historically been most responsible for emissions.

“We are not signing up to anything on compensation or liability,” one EU official said. The US is understood to take the same stance.

Finally, a key risk as the talks grind on is that yet again, as at Copenhagen, they become bogged down in wrangles over details in the text. The draft text contains thickets of square brackets, denoting issues where wording has not yet been resolved, or where several options still remain to be decided upon.

If these cannot be resolved in time, a text may not be ready for agreement, and the talks could fail. The French hosts, and the UN, have tried to avoid this by demanding the text be ready at an early stage – this weekend – before being passed to ministers for the political discussions that still need to be had among countries.

To this end, they have introduced novel forums for discussion among delegates, such as a system of “informal informals” by which small groups of officials take passages of the text – often just a paragraph – and try to beat it into a shape acceptable to all.

“France is acutely aware of the risks of process failure,” the EU official said. Getting a text into a workable format is now the top priority.

Whether the compromises that are still possible will be enough to satisfy developing countries cannot yet be discerned. Some countries, including some Latin American, African and Middle Eastern delegations, have been privately indicating they are not happy with the way the talks have gone in their first week and may step up their rhetoric in the second week.

India, which was late to produce its INDC and whose president, Narendra Modi, has been outspokenly critical of western countries, has been the subject of a charm offensive, including meetings with President Obama, David Cameron, and other high-ranking developed country officials, and from NGOs.

At Durban, in 2011, the UN climate talks carried on until dawn on the final Sunday, some 36 hours after they were supposed to end, after a mammoth non-stop negotiating session. What was at stake was in fact whether the Paris conference would take place, and indeed the entire future of the UN process. Taking place in the shadow of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, which produced a deal but no legal agreement and ended in scenes of chaos, the Durban conference was unusually fraught, even by the standards of these long-running annual negotiations.

The EU had assembled a “coalition of ambition” at Durban, made up of most of the poorest countries on the planet, as well as the richest, to push for a new round of talks that would culminate in 2015, aimed at forging a legal agreement to come into force from 2020.

Late into Saturday night, only two countries were holding out against that proposed timetable: China and India. In the end, they agreed to it. In the intervening years, China has re-gauged its stance, most notably in forming an unprecedented alliance last year with the US to announce joint commitments on emissions. But the interests of Delhi and Beijing are far from identical.

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