Final John Sweeney report from Paris: Historic Agreement Reached on 12/12/2015

Final report from John Sweeney…

The last session of each COP is usually marked by a prolonged exchange of hugs and kisses on the platform, irrespective of how successful the two week negotiation has been. Often this is for local domestic political consumption to show the world what a good job the host country has done, and how high the esteem of the presiding Minister or senior politician is with his peers. On Saturday night, however, things were very different. As news of the agreement was confirmed, the few thousand delegates in both the main Plenary Hall (La Seine) and the overflow hall (La Loire)began to exhibit the kind of euphoria usually seen at a world championship sports event. Seasoned politicians, and even some hard bitten journalists, became quite emotional. The sight of the chief US negotiator (Secretary of State John Kerry) hugging his Chinese counterpart (XieZhenhua) is not something one sees normally, and replicated several such interactions around the hall. In truth, some of the individuals had been trying for such a historic deal for the previous 20 years and had witnessed the rocky road to Paris via many setbacks and arguments along the way. The failure at Copenhagen when similar optimism had prevailed prior to the meeting, weighed heavily on their minds. Many also realised that the agreement they were making was not delivering much of what they wanted, but did represent a giant step forward in the fight to bequeath their children a sustainable future.

The last few days were a test of stamina for the negotiators, with some 65 hours of continuous talks, translation and legal proofing. Both round table and bilateral meetings were hastily arranged and negotiators called their bosses at home and Presidents called other Presidents to achieve the final compromises necessary. But it was not all high level power plays by the big countries and some tiny countries, most notably the Marshall Islands, showed leadership and ambition which was absent from some of their bigger colleagues.

The Agreement signifies the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age, with each of the 195 countries committing to limit their greenhouse gas emissions progressively over coming decades with the aim of keeping global warming below 2oC above pre industrial levels, ideally below 1.5oC. Scientifically the latter lacks credibility, and is more a symbolic gesture to the small island developing states and least developed countries who are most vulnerable to any further temperature/sea level rise. No sanctions are envisaged for countries not complying with a requirement to renew their pledges every five years on a progressively more demanding basis. However the ‘no backsliding’ requirement is seen as a way of progressively tightening the noose around profligate polluters and working towards a decarbonised world after mid century. For the developing countries a guaranteed fund of $100B is to be created by contributions from developed countries to help foster a sustainable development trajectory and encourage them to not replicate the fossil fuel based economies of the developed world which has produced the problem in the first place. Historic but differentiated responsibility was a catch phrase widely used to differentiate the actions required from different groupings of countries.

The omissions from the agreement are many. Aviation and shipping escaped mention. For such emissions in international waters and air, the national jurisdictions found it difficult to agree on. This is a serious omission since together these sources currently account for emissions on a scale of Germany and South Korea combined. Human rights received much less attention than it should have(some countries objected strongly to its inclusion) and ‘climate justice’ was also not incorporated at the request of some countries. Attempts by the developing countries to insert a ‘Loss and Damage’ section were successful but only at the cost of a negating sentence which expressly forbade compensation or liability issues to arise as a consequence. Timetables and emission reduction figures were vague and generally the EU would have welcomed greater ambition in several areas.

The Paris Agreement now goes for a signing ceremony in April and countries have a further year to ratify it before it becomes operative in 2020. 55 countries comprising 55% of global emissions are required for it to become functional. Not all of the agreement is legally binding and it is conceivable that the main parts would not have to go for example before the US Congress for approval.

A great deal of credit for the agreement must go to the diplomatic skills of the President of COP21, French Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius. While some of us had doubts that a developed world chairperson would retain the confidence of the developing countries, M. Fabius was exemplary in his transparency of operation and gained the praise of all delegates. It was remarkable that a unanimous decision involving 195 countries could be achieved and as the green gavel was brought down with a thud on Saturday night, and delegates began to filter out home, the world gained breathing space and an improved prospect for the sustainability of what Pope Francis referred to as ‘Our Common Home’.

John Sweeney


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