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Negotiations on the Climate Change Treaty Go Past Deadline


"Earth to Paris--Le Hub," a live summit held during the UN climate change conference in Paris. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO
“Earth to Paris–Le Hub,” a live summit held during the UN climate change conference in Paris to raise awareness about global warming. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

What is the status of the negotiations among the nearly 200 country delegates attending the climate change conference in Paris right now, given that it was supposed to close Dec. 11 with a legally binding treaty to control global warming?

Some outstanding issues remain to be debated, though none of them, it appears, will interfere with a final agreement, said François Gave, the head of development at the French mission to the United Nations. He spoke about the conference, called COP21, at the UN in New York on Dec. 11.

“The closer we get to the deal, the harder the consultations get,” Gave said to the delegates, nongovernment organizations and others assembled in a UN conference room to hear the latest news on the Paris negotiations.

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Gave noted that “all delegations are working really, really hard and they sleep very little. But at the same time, we feel a very, very positive, constructive mind-set. That’s very heartening.”

The draft treaty to be put on the table on Dec. 12 at 9 a.m. Paris time will be the last one to be negotiated, Gave said, whose country is leading the effort to get a treaty delivered. It was drawn up under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

None of the outstanding issues in Paris are minimal, however; and progress toward a final agreement depends on fine-tuning the language in the latest version, which has been whittled down to 27 pages and dotted with only 15 open brackets, or fill-in-the-blanks, as opposed to 900 in earlier drafts. So “quantitative indications are going in the right direction,” Gave said.

As United States Secretary of State John Kerry, in charge of the American negotiations at the Paris conference, said on Dec. 11, “The responsibility is on a lot of us to provide language for the potential of compromise in areas where it’s possible.”

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Kerry refused to elaborate on sticking points, but China is holding out in its demand that rich countries should bear the biggest burden in reducing emissions and helping countries cope with global warming. This and other tough positions among the delegations linger. The question as to which nations will come up with the annual $100 billion financing to developing nations starting now through 2020 is what China’s holdout is about.

That money is meant to pay for the transfer of energy technologies and other monetary help that developing countries demand in return for promises to cut carbon emissions.

So far, the industrialized nations — Japan, the United States, Canada and those in Europe — have qualified as the main donors of the $100 billion fund, but whether China and other countries like Singapore should be included as “big, emerging countries,” Gave said, has kept the financing question hanging. Drawing the line precisely on who should be donating money to the fund and who should be recipients remains one of the most delicate discussions underway.

On the positive side, the pledges toward the $100 billion mark have been met more than halfway, Gave said, with $62 billion confirmed.

How much global carbon emissions should be reduced is also clogging the wheels toward treaty consensus.

Negotiators agree that reducing greenhouse gas emissions must happen soon, but the global target is undecided: should it be keeping the increase of the global average temperature to below 1.5 degrees Celsius; 2.5 degrees; or up to 5 degrees above pre-industrial levels?

Gave noted that a year earlier, at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, the possibility of using 1.5 degrees Celsius as a benchmark seemed unfathomable, so progress has been made even in the last year on this issue.

“The debate on 1.5 degrees,” he added, “comes from science” and ambitions to use that reference is being pushed from numerous delegations, not only from global North countries.

The debate on how soon and often the individual national action plans, known as INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions), should be reviewed and monitored are other important differences in Paris. The plans, devised by each country independently, have been surprisingly strong and specific in describing how nations will tackle climate change, Gave said.

“At this point, if you just take into account all INDCs, we are not on a 2 degree pathway but on a 3 degree pathway,” he said, adding that there is a need to make sure ambitions stay high or get upgraded as much as possible. “But the question is when we should start and how often we should put in a system to review commitments.”

Many delegations feel strongly about the monitoring and reviewing aspect of the draft treaty, while others say they need more time to develop long-term strategies. Different countries have different capacities, so no one solution fits all.

Indeed, the debate on forging a worldwide carbon-neutral path — drastically cutting the use of coal in industrialization activities — is also stalling the finishing touches on the draft treaty.

The key problem is how to get “incentives right,” Gave said. “If we are serious about really addressing global warming, we need a system of positive incentives” — like pricing carbon costs — and to avoid a system of disincentives.

Gave, whose optimism on COP21’s success reflects France’s own stalwart commitment to solving global warming, ended the UN gathering by saying, “We say there is a unique alignment of sorts.”

In other words, he said, “we can make it in Paris,” even as time runs out.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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