Months of quiet diplomacy came to fruition midway through the UN summit, as a diverse set of nations agreed to work as one to force through an ambitious climate pact
By Ed King
An alliance of over 100 countries credited with ensuring the Paris climate talks ended on a high was realised in a Michelin starred restaurant famous for its fine wines, foie gras and oysters.
Lead envoys and ministers from the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Norway, Angola, St Lucia, Grenada, Mexico, Colombia, the EU and the US were among those who gathered at the Droaunt restaurant on Sunday 6 December.
Over dinner there was general agreement that the Paris climate talks were not going as many had hoped. Sure, there had been few blow outs, but there were growing fears they were heading towards a weak deal.
It’s not clear whose idea the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ really was. EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said on Monday it was a “masterplan” from Brussels.
Others Climate Home spoke to credit Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum for convening the meeting, and building alliances with a wide range of rich, poor and emerging economies over the past 12 months.
No matter. From a plush restaurant a short walk from the Louvre and the Champs Elysees was born a coalition that rapidly gathered pace – and new members.
De Brum had started putting out feelers to countries on a new type of alliance back in July at a ministerial meeting in Paris, according to Marshall Islands negotiator Dean Bialek.
“The focus at the beginning was to concentrate on elements we thought were critical to maintaining ambition – not only in the agreement but over time,” he said.
For the Marshalls a key aspect of this was a temperature goal of 1.5C, lower than a commonly accepted 2C threshold agreed at the 2009 Copenhagen talks, but one deemed safer for small islands.
“The coalition was instrumental in opening some developed countries up to the idea of 1.5C,” he said.
Other areas they wanted to focus on included five year cycles, a tough long term goal for net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the century, and strong legally binding language on implementing a deal.
Canete’s version is slightly different. “Today I would like to tell a story” he explained to reporters at a morning briefing on Monday, pointing to a May 17 gathering with the Marshalls and others that set the foundations for the coalition.
— Miguel Arias Cañete (@MAC_europa) December 14, 2015
If their timelines are mixed, the strategy at least was more cohesive. Both Brussels and Majuro agreed that to make Paris a success, traditional developed versus developing country rivalries needed to be handled carefully.
When the UN climate convention was signed in 1992, the world was split in two: rich and poor.
The former were supposed to lead on climate change, but over two decades nations classed as developing like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Qatar grew rapidly, eclipsing per-capita GDP rates of many classed as developed.
At the same time top emerging economies of Brazil, India and in particular China started to rumble into life, spewing out ever-increasing levels of carbon pollution as they manufactured goods and extracted commodities for the world.
For the Marshalls the binary rich-poor split at UN talks was a death sentence. If Delhi and Beijing did nothing to slash emissions, the future of most Pacific Island states was bleak.
Canete and de Brum traversed the globe in 2015, both searching for allies ahead of Paris. For one the future of his country was at stake, the other the reputation of a continent.
Long seen as a leader at the climate talks, Europe’s star waned after the 2011 Durban summit, when a similar alliance had seen countries agree to target a global pact in 2015.
The Euro crisis, migration fears and a prolonged economic slump left Brussels looking impotent to many observers. At the 2014 Lima summit the US and China ignored it completely, agreeing on a final text between them.
Emblems of EU unity are a rare beast. Aside from the Euro, a bland flag and a Irish-heavy golf team that gets together every two years, the idea of team Brussels barely exists.
So it’s little surprise Canete used his moment in the sun on Monday to boast “we should all be proud of Europe… together we helped to save this outcome.”
New members had to approach de Brum in person, said Bialek. “We made it very clear to all those who wanted to be part of us – this was personal. No emails, you had to come to our delegation office, shake hands and look at us in the eye.”
In truth what really caught the headlines was Brazil’s decision to join the coalition, a day after the US said it would play ball.
With India and China holding out against tougher transparency measures and five-yearly climate plan reviews, progress there had looked impossible.
Canete and de Brum had frequently met Sao Paulo’s experienced environment minister Izabella Teixeira throughout the year, and were both impressed that it – along among developing countries – had targeted an economy-wide absolute emissions reduction target.
“We shared a long of common objectives,” said Bialek. “Among BASIC [a negotiating coalition of Brazil, South Africa, India and China] they were head and shoulders above with their climate plan. They were a natural partner.”
“It was a game changer,” admitted Canete, “as they were part of BASIC, seen as hardline.”
Teixeira’s decision to break with her traditional allies offered the French breathing space to keep pushing for a tough deal, said Bialek.
Behind the scenes Laurence Tubiana, France’s chief climate diplomat, and Laurence Fabius, COP president, received constant informal briefings on the strength of the ‘coalition’.
So long as it stayed united, a system of regular reviews, tough transparency measures and a long term goal to hit net zero emissions in the second half of the century remained possible.
“There was a real concern on Friday night when we had a number of developing countries wanting to strip out aspects of the agreement particularly on the ambition side,” Bialek said.
“There was strong resistance to the language on a long term goal in particular.”
In the end the loose and much derided alliance won over – even attracting Canada and Australia – until recently major blockers at UN talks, as late and slightly odd members.
It culminated in a classic piece of diplomatic theatre, as member countries walked to the final plenary session in Paris, all sporting a small piece of coconut husk on their lapels – the craftwork of two women on the Marshallese delegation.
“When we walked together I knew we would get a good deal,” said Canete.
For Michael Jacobs, former advisor to UK PM Gordon Brown and a long-time observer of these talks, the alliance was a stroke of genius that gave France enough gas to get a decent deal across the line.
“It was a calculated political move to ensure ambition in draft was agreed… in the end it was agreed by all countries and at a high ambition level. That is extraordinary,” he said.
“Every country in the end decided they would act in a much more decisive way than they were willing to do so before.”
Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist who works with the 48-strong Least Developed Country bloc, said the alliance proved the power of vulnerable countries.
“When we came here most of the big powers did not agree with 1.5C, but the vulnerable countries came out – got organised and united, and got other to join them,” he said. “In the end they got everyone.”
It’s unclear if the group is here to stay. To avoid 1.5C countries need to radically decarbonise their energy sectors, but Canete insisted the EU would not consider changing its climate goals till 2020.
And already some splits have emerged. Tuvalu envoy Ian Fry, who was at the Sunday dinner and supposedly a member, did not sound keen late on Saturday.
“It’s a self proclaimed group – we’re not part of it – they can do what they like,” he told Climate Home.
Still, perhaps the brief alliance served its purpose. “The critical development is that we have put science back at the heart of the talks. 1.5C did’t come from nowhere,” said Bialek.
“If we are able to find ways to ramp up ambition and technology, then perhaps we can give it a go.”