UN agrees new climate text for Paris deal, but hard work remains

Talks in Geneva conclude with huge set of proposals for Paris pact, observers say narrowing down options will be challenging

UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres address the media in Geneva (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres address the media in Geneva (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

By Ed King

This is the news from Geneva: there is no news.

That was the spin that UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, speaking to the media today, put on this week’s set of negotiations.

And she’s partially right. A deal to address the existential threat of our time, global warming, is no closer.

In terms of the draft agreement on the table, it’s the opposite.

A text that was 38 pages is now 88, and there is no sign of convergence on major issues of climate finance and the burden of carbon cuts rich and poor countries will have to shoulder.

Instead of piling into detailed discussions on what a climate pact – due to be signed off in Paris in December – could look like, the co-chairs managing the process chose a different tack.

They allowed nearly 200 countries to add any proposals they fancied into the cooking pot.

Valuable exercise

The result is a mammoth and complex set of concepts, some duplicating other ideas, many deeply contested within the negotiating chamber.

It seems like an insane way to develop a complex agreement, but there’s method to the madness of including every possible viewpoint, Figueres told reporters.

“If you have to have 194 people walking with you it is slower, but there’s nothing that’s important you can do in a fast manner,” she said. “Trust building is the most valuable resource in this process.”

Veteran observer Alden Meyer, from the US Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed.

“There’s value at different levels. They have checked the procedural box for a text, but more importantly – psychologically – it’s their [countries] text. They now share an obligation to streamline it.”

Describing the road to a deal as a “collective exercise in imagination”, Thomas Spencer, head of climate at the Paris-based IDDRI think-tank, said envoys now had the “security that their ideas are in the document.”

Meena Raman, from the Malaysia–based Third World Network, hailed the “transparent” process by which the current set of ideas was created.

“If they continue with this way of working we may avoid the controversies of last minute texts that haunt past UN summits,” she said.

Ghosts of 2009, when a few world leaders cobbled together a last minute deal containing a loose set of commitments to slow emissions, loom over these talks.

Like the dementors in Harry Potter, wafts of this meeting can cause anxiety, depression and despair among those who were in Copenhagen six years ago.

Figueres admitted that the need to avoid a repeat of that summit, where many developing countries felt their views had been ignored, had influenced the decision in Geneva to open the text.

“The importance attached by parties to full transparency and inclusiveness has developed over time,” she said.

“There is not one single country that is not touched and not one which wants to be left behind by an agreement that will have an impact on their future.”

New spirit

Outside the main meeting rooms, the atmosphere this week has been relaxed, negotiators have told RTCC.

One described the deluge of conversations he had with envoys from other countries as “the major positive” from Geneva, “far more than normal,” he added.

Elina Bardram, the EU Commission’s head of delegation in Geneva, said her discussions had been “positive and constructive”, with fellow delegates showing a “clear willingness to move forward.”

But there is also anxiety that time is running out – and that while this session laid some groundwork it did not offer clarity on how issues such as finance will be resolved.

“It’s not difficult to cut and paste ideas with no negotiations,” pointed out Meyer.

And Bardram said there could be “no place for complacency” despite the unusual goodwill pervading Geneva.

“In order for us to arrive at something meaningful in Paris a step change is required… We were hoping to see some streamlining, a more concise text,” she said.

Huge challenge

A central goal for the UN and negotiators is to decide what they can fix before Paris and what will have to be sorted by ministers and world leaders at the event itself.

“They want the leaders to be engaging in person and over the phone…but probably not to be in Paris unless they want to come and celebrate,” said Meyer.

Carbon cuts, climate adaption, finance, capacity building and technology look set to be the core elements of a Paris agreement – but none are settled.

“The big impasse remains on differentiation – who does what – and finding fair solutions for this for mitigation, adaptation and finance will be critical for unlocking many issues in the negotiations,” said Kat Watts, an observer with Greenpeace International.

In addition, calls from developing countries for climate related loss and damage (or compensation) to be reflected in a final deal are only likely to intensify.

“If loss and damage is not included, then the Paris agreement will render itself out of date the moment it is agreed,” Bangladeshi academic and veteran climate analyst Saleemul Huq wrote in an article for RTCC this week.

A series of informal consultations are scheduled over the coming months to try and break down some barriers – starting in Lima in April – ahead of a two-week meeting in Bonn in June, where formal negotiations on the agreement will commence.

“There will be a need for an increased level of political guidance,” said Figueres.

The UN climate chief said she also expected ministers to make progress at the US-hosted Major Economies Forum in April, a smaller Berlin summit in May as well as planned G7 and World Bank/IMF gatherings.

Long term goal

Where countries do appear to be converging is on the need for an endgame, or a long term climate goal, said Spencer, who described it as one of the five “crunch issues.”

“I would say there is conceptual convergence that the agreement needs to send a long term signal…on the credibility of the long term goal,” he said.

“It’s a core ask from business… They say the long term signal is vital for us. It’s one of the key tenets of national policy.”

Figueres said that she was encouraged by the number of additions to the text calling for the Paris agreement to be in line with science

“This is not a one-off but a construction of a set of efforts that would take us to climate neutrality by the second half of the century,” she said.

How that sits with the current draft text is less clear. The section on a long term goal has 11 options with a sub-section of 8 further proposals.

The EU backs a 50% global reduction on 1990 levels by 2050, but it’s unlikely this will gain the support of the US or China.

Another negotiator told RTCC that most countries would be comfortable sticking with the current UN goal, agreed in 2009, to avoid warming 2C above pre-industrial levels.

Beyond that, scientists say floods, droughts and other extreme weather events will intensify, possibly triggering tipping points such as the accelerated melting of land-based ice sheets.

That debate illustrates the challenge faced by the UN, French and Peruvian officials running the show for the next 10 months.

The destination seems clear, but there’s disagreement over the route. That will test the rebooted levels of trust and goodwill.

“The question is whether the Valentine’s day of love here in Geneva continues through to a summer of love,” said Meyer.

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