US Republicans, terrorism and even unruly activists risk derailing the delicate UN negotiations starting next week
By Megan Darby
There are many reasons to be optimistic world leaders will secure a deal in Paris next month that limits the damage wreaked by climate change.
The French hosts have gone all-out on diplomacy, 179 countries have submitted climate pledges and the biggest emitters are on board.
Those pledges don’t put the world on track to meet a 2C limit on warming, but they bend the curve. And there is growing consensus on the ratchet mechanism and finance needed to close the gap.
All the same, getting agreement between 195 countries to transform the global economy is a delicate process. Here are the top five outside threats to a robust deal.
1. US Republicans
In the highly polarised sphere of US politics, president Barack Obama has relied on his executive powers to push through climate policies.
There is no doubt Obama, a Democrat serving his last term as president, sees a Paris deal as critical to his legacy. The US is negotiating for an agreement legally structured so he doesn’t have to run it past a hostile Congress.
That has made it a prime target for Republicans, frustrated at being shut out. They argue emissions cuts will hit American jobs and reject developing country claims on climate finance.
It is on the second front they could cause most disruption. The US is due to approve a spending bill by 11 December – coincidentally the same date Paris talks finish.
Republicans are threatening to block the bill, including US$500 million for the Green Climate Fund, unless Congress gets a say on a Paris agreement. It’s a double bind, as with no finance, poor countries will reject a deal and given the chance, Republicans will refuse to ratify it.
When bombers and gunmen killed 130 people in Paris on Friday 13 November, it brought conflict to the doorstep of UN talks.
While there is no indication COP21 is a target for terrorists, accomplices of the Paris attackers are still at large. France is on high alert.
The shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkey this week only heightened geopolitical tensions in the Middle East.
It hasn’t deterred world leaders from attending the summit, in fact perhaps the opposite. A total of 147 will come for the climate talks, squeezing in some security-related bilaterals on the side.
Diplomats have stressed the need for solidarity on a climate deal to promote peace.
The risk is that responding to such immediate threats overshadows the long-term climate discussion and strains relations within the negotiating chamber just when trust is most needed.
3. Wild cards
As international processes go, the level of participation in the run-up to Paris has been staggering. To date, 177 countries from tiny Niue to China have published policies to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. Even oil-rich Gulf states, which stand to lose out from tough action, belatedly submitted plans to diversify their economies.
The ones to watch are those not playing along. Venezuela is a notable hold-out with a reputation for belligerent last-minute interventions.
In crisis as tumbling oil prices hit its export economy hard, Venezuela may see little to lose from disrupting talks. It is headed for an election on 6 December, adding to the unpredictability.
Malaysia, which got a late pledge in on Friday, is known for taking a hard line on fairness, insisting on a firewall between the responsibilities of rich and poor countries. It could play “bad cop” to China’s “good cop”, as the latter accepts the need to curb its rising share of global emissions.
Russia is also difficult to read and unafraid to cause a stir. Moscow is not seen as hostile to a deal – indeed, its gas sales could benefit from a crackdown on coal – but might use the forum as a bargaining chip for other foreign policy goals.
4. EU divisions
The EU’s 28 member states have been through a laborious process to agree a long-term climate strategy, which ought to be bulletproof.
But Poland, always a reluctant passenger, has gone hard-line since a change of government last month. The new administration is threatening to veto a Paris deal in order to protect the country’s ailing coal industry.
It is the most vocal Eurosceptic element, but not the only one. Heavy industries across the bloc have been complaining strict carbon cuts will put them at a disadvantage against overseas competitors.
The UK has trashed many of its climate policies. Denmark is scaling back its overseas climate finance from DKK 500 million (US$71m) last year to DKK300m in 2016.
In practice, none of this is expected to shift the EU position. Nonetheless, it could cause some embarrassment in Paris. Brussels envoys are under pressure to show they can get other big emitters to act.
Thousands of people will descend on Paris to show their support for a climate deal. Their role is to put pressure on leaders to make meaningful progress.
Yet with the French authorities banning two planned marches on security grounds, many are left with no outlet for their concerns.
Major NGOs like Oxfam and WWF have accepted the decision. But a coalition of 40 groups and individuals including writer Naomi Klein is calling for the demonstration to be allowed.
Frustrated activists could take matters into their own hands. The 1999 “battle of Seattle”, when anti-globalisation protesters derailed World Trade Organisation talks, is a cautionary tale here.