Last week brought agreement at the Geneva climate talks on the draft of a comprehensive world treaty for ratification at the end of this year. Held just two months after adoption of the Lima Call for Climate Action, and three weeks after the US Senate’s final resolution that climate change is not a hoax, this beginning round of the 2015 United Nations talks among 194 nations produced the first-ever universally agreed negotiating text on how to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial temperatures. The new agreement will come into force after the end of the Kyoto Protocol.
As we have been learning from climate assessments by world authorities since the 1980s and 1990s—two of them just last year from the foremost international panel on climate change and the US government—the evidence of climate change increasing is “unequivocal.” Drought, severe heat waves, flooding, and unusually strong storms are occurring all over the world with greater frequency since the last ice age, 12,000 years ago. Records show 2014 to have been the hottest year in recorded history. Without action, extreme changes in the post-2000 climate are expected to multiply exponentially.
Overall, nations have achieved some progress in areas like reforestation and renewable energy over the past 15 years, but if we continue at our current rate to burn fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the world may literally be “cooked.” Some reports have even forecast that unpreventable levels of warming could be locked in before 2050, with catastrophic temperature rise inevitable across the planet if mitigating and adaptive actions are not taken. Small island states and equatorial nations feel that even the two-degree threshold will cause disturbances impossible for them to survive. Others fear that passing the 400 parts per million CO2 threshold last winter has condemned us.
In this context, the announcement from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, founded 1992) that the Geneva climate negotiations achieved a key milestone last week comes as a blessing. It was good to see Peruvian Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, hero of the Lima talks and this year’s president of the UN Conference of Parties, open the meeting. Pulgar-Vidal’s orderly presentation of issues and remaining work (see video here) did not disappoint. The minister said he saw “many good signals” from governments, people, and businesses of willingness to act and reminded delegates that “this is not a competition among us. This is one team for one planet.”
Another good sign at the outset was the fact that most of the interest blocs voluntarily cut short their initial remarks to yield time to the coming discussion. No more studied monologues: nations were eager to get on with business and willing to pass on the individual spotlight. They seemed to approach Geneva with fresher eyes and with a desire focused by Lima’s painstaking step-by-step debate, inclusiveness, acceptance of common but differentiated responsibilities, and ultimately more positive, trusting, and potentially conciliatory mood.
Although the delegates worked toward “a more streamlined, concise, manageable and negotiable text,” in the end they were unable to streamline it. It’s not easy to parse out national commitments among nations as diverse in economics, politics, and stages of development as China, the United States, India, the European Union, OPEC countries, island states, and sub-Saharan African nations.
Instead, the draft document grew (“ballooned,” some have chided) to 86 pages, more than twice the size it had been by the end of Lima. Some of the additions included positions described incompletely in December; additional negotiating chips were added; one nation even demanded an International Climate Justice Tribunal for countries that fail to keep their promises; and other sections of the text likely contain “duplications that can be streamlined relatively easily,” as Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN climate change secretariat, pointed out.
The final negotiating text from the Geneva climate talks covers the main elements of a complete agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol of 1997: mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, and capacity-building. Said Ms. Figueres:
This fulfills the internationally-accepted timetable for reaching a possible treaty because it alerts capitals to the fact that a legal instrument could be adopted in Paris. It does not, however, set this possibility in stone–it merely opens the door for this possibility. As for the legal nature of the agreement, this will only be clarified later in the year.
The Geneva discussions stayed calm and productive, giving countries a chance to flesh out their December options and to attain a fuller awareness of each other’s perspectives than they had in the two-day overtime conclusion of the Lima meeting. Elina Bardram, head of the European Commission for Climate Action and Energy delegation, stood out as critical, upbraiding negotiators for not starting to streamline the text. However, it appears that most delegates were pleased to reach a quick consensus on a body of options instead of in the sleep-deprived overtime of earlier meetings, and to stamp it with their approval. As Julie-Anne Richards of the Climate Justice Programme put it, the Geneva climate sessions did not in any way “feel like pulling teeth… painful and hard to get things done.”
The Economic Times of India seems to have summed up the general response to the Geneva climate talks by reporting “encouraging progress” and “a framework pact that scientists said at least identified enough common ground to foster hopes for success in Paris.”
Ahmed Sareer, representing the Alliance of Small Island States, told the AFP news bureau that the 40-some pages of additions were “a necessary part of ensuring that all parties feel ownership” of the eventual deal.
No doubt we’ll have our work cut out for us in the coming months, but I am confident we will meet our mandate for Geneva and stay on track toward an ambitious outcome in Paris.
Others, like Jean-Pascal Van Ypersal, the Belgian deputy vice president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that “few real negotiations ha[d] taken place.” Tasneem Essop, the head of WWF’s observer organization delegation to the UNFCCC, said that “tackling the difficult issues is yet to begin…. Negotiators face a tremendous task to reach agreement on the contentious issues and come up with an ambitious, fair, science-based deal in the two or three negotiating sessions left before meeting in Paris.” Regardless of the difficulties, both Van Ypersal and Essop felt optimistic about reaching a useful Paris accord.
Several reports have quoted Executive Secretary Figueres:
It’s not a showstopper—what it means [is] that every single view is on the table…. I am extremely encouraged by the constructive spirit and the speed at which negotiators have worked during the past week. The Lima Draft has now been transformed into the negotiating text and enjoys the full ownership of all countries.
In the next steps, to be carried out before the Paris meeting at year’s end, negotiators will narrow down options and carve out a consensus on the content. The alternate “options” covered in the text still reveal conflicting national priorities, mostly longstanding issues between developed and developing countries about sharing carbon cuts, climate finance flows, carbon pricing, technology transfer, and the ambition of governments to accept tough carbon cuts, both before and after 2020. In working these out, nations will have to tread a very careful line between “don’t like” and “can’t accept.”