"No-one wants a repeat of Copenhagen… perhaps the planets were not aligned, but now they are," Laurent Fabius said, as he opened the not-quite final plenary at noon Saturday.
"To conclude, one of us the other day reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s sentence: 'It always seems impossible until it’s done.' I wish to add some other words to that, words spoken by the same hero: 'None of us acting alone can be successful. Success is built collectively.' In this room you are going to be deciding upon a historic agreement. The world is holding its breath. It’s counting on all of us."
No one does superlatives better than the French, the blogger for New Scientist opined. Hollande: "You are on the last step and you must hoist yourself one step higher still."
There are two major competing narratives and a number of minor ones as COP-21 winds down towards its conclusion. Most narratives have it that too much is at stake for the conference to fail and everyone to go home empty-handed — again. And yet that is precisely where the COP was headed as of now, Saturday, awaiting the release of the so-called "final" draft.
Henry Kissinger once famously opined that nations do not behave as individuals do and so one should never negotiate as if they did. Nations are not guided by morality the way people are, but by a calculation of the imperatives of power. Interests of nations are best served not by striving to dominate or game the system but by recognition of rules and limits among a sophisticated international community that may include actors other than states, such as corporations, activists and labor unions.
The Clinton-Obama Copenhagen gambit was an effort to break the 15-year logjam over the climate issue by radically restructuring the game being played at the United Nations, from one of sanction-backed mandates (Kyoto) in which bad actors are punished by economic penalties, to one of voluntary pledges in which bad actors are shamed. Under this theory, nations behave as individuals would, seeking praise and avoiding blame. It hasn't worked. India and Saudi Arabia are shameless. Nonetheless, both have hired high-end PR firms to keep their images up.
Independent analyses of the national pledges, or INDCs, suggest they could put the world on track to warming of between 2.7 and 3.5 °C by 2100, depending on what assumptions are made about emissions after 2030 and ignoring the full system equilibrium calculation which would at least double that temperature range.
“I think it is clear that the INDCs will fall well short of what is required for any reasonable probability of avoiding 2°C,” says Alice Bows-Larkin of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester, UK. And what happens after 2030 is crucial, too. “We can’t assume that emissions will immediately decline.”
At a meeting in London on 28 October, New Scientist asked the UNFCCC Chief, Christiana Figueres, if it was now time for the world to accept that limiting warming to 2°C is unrealistic and to start preparing for even greater warming. Figueres vehemently rejected this idea.
“Would you want that for your children,” she responded. “This is about the quality of life on this planet.” The Paris treaty would “build a pathway” to 2 °C, she said, by paving the way for further cuts.
Listening for a moment to Henry Kissinger, what is needed is not a praise and blame game but an agreed set of rules. The tough part is reaching agreement on what those rules need to be.
John Schellnhuber of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who advises Germany and the Vatican on climate change, says there is a scientific rationale for 1.5C being in the current Paris draft text:
I have been involved from the very beginning in the 2C target. It was sort of a surprise that the 1.5C came out here so strong in the text. Let’s face it we are still a night away from the final treaty. But we can be pretty sure the 1.5C will be referred to clearly, like we are going to land planet Earth somewhere between 1.5C and 2C, hopefully very close to 1.5C.
There is a scientific rationale for that. When I have looked into tipping points of the climate system, you discover the real dangers start around 1.5C, 2C. We cannot provide you with that precision. We cannot say Greenland melts at 1.7C and then its irreversible but we can say we are entering the risk zone at 1.5C. That is same for the coral reefs [they are at risk after 1.5C].
In order to be on the safe side it is very wise to consider 1.5C as the right guardrail, given all the uncertainties from risk analyses.
The question of feasibility is a completely different thing.
What I feel is insufficient in the current treaty is that if you say 1.5C then you need [to be] phasing out CO2 by the middle of this century. You need zero carbon emissions by 2050. If that would also appears in the text than I would be more than happy, and entitled to open a bottle of champagne at Champs Elysee.
There are those who would keep the stopper in Professor Schellnhuber's bottle.
As we reported previously, John Kerry at his Thursday press conference revealed the existence of a shadow "High Ambition Coalition" that had been meeting in secret for 6 months to set high goals for the Paris Agreement. After that revelation, several key players who were not part of the Coalition caucused among their delegations and joined, including Canada, Australia, Brazil, the EU and Philippines. The Coalition is chaired by the Marshall Islands, which represents the Island nations, AOSIS, the most vulnerable of all to sea level rise.
Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum revealed to Andrew Freeman of Associated Press that "Last night we sat in a negotiating room listening to a coordinated campaign to gut the text of ambition."
"These included interventions requesting the deletion of long-term emissions pathways, concrete language to land the 5-year revisiting of targets, and a refusal to recognize the science.”
According to others in the room, the nations deBrum was referring to were Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia, plus China, India and Malaysia. These countries sought to remove any references to a global warming target of 1.5 degrees, as well as provisions calling for a mandatory review of countries' emissions reduction plans and full transparency.
He did not name them. That would be shaming. Instead, he merely held out for a firm regulatory context.
"We’re not here to accept a minimalist Paris agreement, this is our red line,” de Brum said.
Thursday evening's draft agreement aimed for "carbon neutrality" toward the latter half of the century, without defining what that term means. Saturday's draft is expected to instead say "greenhouse gas emissions neutrality," which is more precise and would necessitate a near-complete decarbonization of the world economy by 2100. The High Ambition Coalition was seeking neutrality by 2050. We await the "final" text to clarify this point.
Is that so difficult? Earlier this year Hawaii passed legislation requiring that, by 2045, the entire island will be powered by renewable energy sources. Sweden is on track to be all renewable by 2050. It is more than 60% of the way there.
Ironically one of the things that could speed up decarbonization is the low price of oil. Anything below $75 per barrel makes extracting from unconventional sources uneconomic. That prevents production, which prevents consumption. To keep the price down what is needed is not more production — that would be impossible at lower prices — but lower demand, something that is virtually assured in the era of steep contraction that lies ahead, for reasons that have nothing to do with climate change and a lot to do with the karma of financial debt overreach.
The meeting adjourns until 3:45 pm to allow text to be first translated, then distributed, then read. Time for all to go for a long French déjeuner. Back later, after we are joined by our West Coast affiliates….